That’s the word Jesse Bartley used to describe Dennis Dull’s condition last April when she and her Robert E. Lee girls’ basketball teammates visited their coach.
Two months prior, Dull had taken a leave of absence from the team after an infection developed in his artificial hip.
After being in and out of the hospital several times and enduring three surgeries — with more to come — Dull was at home when his team paid him a visit.
Secret Bryant, the then Lee sophomore guard, wasn’t prepared for what she saw. Since Dull had left the team in February, Bryant had assumed he would get healthy and return to coach the team the following season.
What she saw — Dull’s skin tone had changed, he had lost 65 pounds, his jaws were sunken, he was bedridden — changed her mind.
“Oh, I had a major doubt,” Bryant said. “When I saw him, I was, like, ‘There’s no way he could come back. There’s no way.’ ”
Spoiler alert — Dull did return, although that’s not the end of the story. We’ll get to why soon enough, but for now let’s go back 10 years.
At 49 years old, Dull was a physical education teacher at Buffalo Gap High School, having long since given up coaching the Bison girls’ basketball team, one he led to three state championship appearances.
Now, he was married, teaching, working out on a regular basis and, basically, enjoying life.
One day while tying his shoes, he had trouble crossing his legs. Dull thought it was a simple muscle strain, but it kept getting worse.
Then Dull took a fall when he got tangled in his dog’s leash, landing on his right hip. The next morning he had trouble walking.
“The pain was pretty excruciating,” Dull said. “And I’ve got a huge threshold for pain, but I just couldn’t walk.”
Eventually doctors said Dull had severe arthritis in both hips — he had the hips of an 80-year-old is what he was told — and, in 2008, he had hip replacement surgery on his right side. A year later, doctors replaced his left hip.
Almost a year later, on Sept. 29, 2010, he developed a fever and had trouble walking. He had developed an infection in his left hip requiring surgery.
Then, last February, Dull developed an infection in the right hip.
“I had two different types of staph infection and then I got a fungus infection, and I don’t know where I got that, but they found that later,” he said.
He likely picked up the infection in a locker room, where he spent a lot of time at both Gap and Lee.
Then, following a game last season, Dull tried moving a metal platform at the Paul Hatcher Gym with his foot and heard something pop. Whatever he did to himself — he’s still not sure — it limited his ability to walk and, after going to the doctor, he found out the infection had gotten worse.
The morning of Feb. 17, Dull had surgery at University of Virginia Medical Center. Doctors didn’t give him a choice about going into the hospital. If they had, Dull probably wouldn’t have left his team right before they began postseason play.
But, the same day Dull had surgery, Lee opened play in the Conference 36 tournament with the Lee jayvee coach and varsity assistant, Tampa Stuart, taking over the team.
Stuart said she was almost overwhelmed by the task, but the players and parents rallied around the interim head coach. That eased her tension.
Clay Chandler, Lee’s athletic director at the time, said he wasn’t worried about the team because Stuart was perfectly capable of coaching them in the postseason. His worries centered on Dull.
“My biggest concern was Dennis and just making sure he was OK,” Chandler said. “What he had was so serious and I just wanted things to work in his benefit for himself. That’s the most important thing.”
Lee would go on to win the tournament, upsetting Wilson Memorial and East Rockingham along the way, and advancing to the Group 2A East regional tournament before finally losing in the first round at home to Page County at the buzzer.
“It was kind of like an inspiration thing,” Bartley said. “We wanted to win for him because he put in a lot of work for us. We wanted to kind of return it for him.”
That surgery in February was the first of five Dull would have in a seven-month span. Parts of his artificial hip were replaced then removed again in an effort to fight the infection. In between those surgeries he was traveling back and forth to U.Va. for tests.
By late May, Dull was fed up. He called in his doctors and used some of the same intensity he usually reserves for his players. He said he wasn’t going anywhere until they figured out what was wrong with him.
“Just luckily, I kind of lost my temper,” he said. “I didn’t like what was going on. I wasn’t getting any concrete answers and I threw the ball right back at them.”
He remained in the hospital for three weeks while the doctors determined what was wrong and came up with a plan to attack those problems.
What doctors found wasn’t good, and went beyond just his hips. The antibiotics were damaging his kidneys and he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that, according to the Mayo Clinic, forms in the plasma cells and causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow.
“All we heard is, ‘We think you have cancer,’ ” Dull said. “I said, ‘Oh great. I’m going to be the only guy who comes in for a hip replacement and dies.’ ”
Stuart told him his faith would help him overcome the problems. Plus, she reminded him that nothing could happen because, when he interviewed her for the job at Lee, Dull said he planned on being there for at least five years.
“We’re not finished yet,” she told him.
That got a smile out of Dull.
Tests showed that the cancer levels were pretty low, so doctors decided to not treat it for the time being. They would also monitor the kidney problems and deal with them later. The main concern at the time was getting rid of the infection and replacing his hip.
His fifth surgery was in mid-August, one that finally made him decide to retire from teaching at Buffalo Gap. After 37 years in Augusta County, he notified then interim superintendent Eric Bond that he was calling it quits.
Basketball, though, that was a different thing. He wasn’t ready to give up on that passion just yet. He told Chandler he would be back at Lee. Chandler believed that he would return if possible, but health issues sometimes can force a change in plans.
So when Dull was on the sidelines for the season opener, the Lee AD was among those thrilled to see it.
“He just looked so much better,” Chandler said. “He looked a lot healthier, but he was really sick there for a while. He just had so much that he was dealing with.”
The latest news is good. Doctors finally say the infection is to the point where Dull can get his surgery. It’s scheduled for March 5, which means, unless Lee makes a run to the state tournament, he won’t miss any games this season.
As for this season, there have been some changes.
Since he is still waiting to get his hip replaced, Dull has spent the season either on crutches, or, during practice, on a motorized scooter.
During one practice this season, he actually took a turn too tight and turned over the scooter.
Bryant was in the gym when it happened.
“When he took that turn and fell, I was like, ‘Oh, my god, he’s not getting back up,’ ” she said. “It was kind of scary because he landed on his hip. I thought we were going to have to call 911.”
But no emergency crews were needed. Dull got help in getting both himself and his scooter upright and was right back on the vehicle running practice.
Stuart has seen a different Dull this year when it comes to his coaching style. She says he’s not as headstrong as last season. He’s more humble.
Part of the reason for that, according to Dull, is not because of his health issues, but his adjustment to today’s players.
After almost two decades between his head coaching jobs, Dull has realized he can’t be the same guy he was in the early 1990s. He said he came into the Lee job with, in his words, “guns blazing,” and admits the transition wasn’t a good one, calling it a learning year for both coach and players.
“My bark is not as much as it was at Gap because parents, players cannot handle that,” he said. “I still have a little bit [of a bark] when I need to.”
Health issues or not, it’s not likely that little bit of bark will ever disappear.
“He’s never going to lose it,” Bartley said. “No matter what.”