Biting Back: Life's curveballs don't bug Tom Dott
Tom Dott, senior vice president of commercial banking at Associated Bank, was once a college baseball pitcher with his eye on the major leagues. Armed with a signature fastball, his complete-game performance in 1989 helped Ripon College to a Midwest Athletic Conference Championship win against Monmouth College.
But the following season, he broke his right elbow – mid-pitch – shattering that dream. Tendon damage, it was thought, led to the freakish break.
The youngest of five children, Dott was raised in Rio, Wis., where he developed an early passion for dairy farming while working on a relative’s farm during summer and holiday breaks. In fact, his first “paycheck” for a summer of work was a steer calf that he learned to groom, halter-train, and show. He pocketed about $425 after selling it. “It seemed like a lot at the time,” he laughed.
When he started at UW-Madison, he intended to pursue dairy science, but baseball beckoned at Ripon College, where he could immediately play as a freshman, so he transferred after a semester. There, on the same campus that had nurtured the minds of Spencer Tracy, Richard Threlkeld, Al Jarreau, and Harrison Ford, Dott graduated with a business degree in 1990.
A job in consumer credit collections for Bank One lured him back to Madison, and his banking career took off. He moved on to Chase Bank before joining Associated in 2004. Three years later, he was hit with another curveball.
In June of 2007, Dott developed a very high fever, which subsided with antibiotics. In July, hospital tests for excruciating pain in his back revealed nothing, and he was sent home.
Two days later, the entire left side of his face became paralyzed, and 12 hours after that, the right side followed suit.
Everything pointed to Lyme disease.
He recalled clearing brush at a family cabin in early spring but never displayed the telltale “bull’s-eye” rash that usually accompanies the deer tick bite, and to this day he isn’t certain where or when he was bitten. Except for the rash, he exhibited every clinical symptom of the disease, yet some lab tests still came back negative.
“Apparently, it is a very difficult diagnosis,” he said. And it had entered his central nervous system.
Even after Dott was treated with high doses of antibiotics, the paralysis got worse. “I couldn’t shut my eyes. At night, they’d put a gel in my eyes and then Band-Aid my lids shut so I could sleep. I was feeling better, but my face was just hanging on my bones.
“The worst part was, when I would try to talk, I had no control and would stutter uncontrollably. I knew exactly what I was trying to say, but couldn’t pronounce the words. And nobody could tell me with 100% certainty that the palsy would ever go away.” But it did.
He lost 38 pounds and was out of work for nearly a month. Six months later, some evidence of paralysis still remained. Dott credits his wife, Kira, for getting him through the ordeal.
It was a life-changing experience. Always healthy, and always a bike enthusiast, he says his passion for cycling has become “all-consuming.” He bikes between 120 and 150 miles a week – on the road or in his basement – and hopes this year to surpass the 3,500 miles he rode last year. He competes in races whenever he can, and rides regularly with members of Madison’s business community. His lifelong interest in animals has led to charity rides that have raised nearly $50,000 for the Henry Vilas Zoo. (Dott is in his final year as president of the zoo’s board.)
He also re-evaluated his career. “I recognized that I loved my job in business development and I loved the client management, but I didn’t like to be in management.” He was able to tweak his position at Associated to align more with his core interests, and couldn’t be happier now. “Everybody wins,” he said.
While Dott, 45, considers the last two years to be the best of his career, he’ll always remain humbled at the ability of a tiny deer tick to take down a healthy, then-200-pound man (he’s lighter now).
Does he slather himself in extra bug spray now when he’s outside? “Not at all,” he insists. “I have not changed what I do outside one single bit.”
Like on any other day, he’s moving forward.
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