Joel Polakoff: A Champion with a Heavy Heart

By Steve LaMontia, Director of Communications

72-year-old Joel Polakoff is a member of the World Series champion 70-over Chicago Fire, who just won a ring at the 2022 edition of the MSBL World Series in Arizona.  However, he lost his beloved daughter Jamie Polakoff Lasko to a nine-year battle with cancer in June of 2022.

The team, led by Dan Gooris, previously voted to dedicate their tournament quest to Jamie’s memory.  I need to mention that I was on the team that the Fire defeated on that Championship Saturday and they were indeed focused and driven to win that very special game for Jamie.  It was obvious to me across the field that they were on a mission.  Now I am aware of that mission.

“Baseball last year gave me a diversion from this horrible tragedy,” said Joel.  “The support from all my teammates both on the field and off gave me the strength to persevere. We won the Championship last year with her initials on our caps, thanks to Dan’s efforts.  I knew she was looking down from above and I know we made her proud.

She is now memorialized forever with her initials on our 2022 rings, as the team voted to have her initials engraved on the rings.  It was very moving, as they decided to do that on the spot as we were lined up at the stadium to see the Jostens rep.”

To briefly recap Joel’s MSBL baseball resume, his Arizona journey to the World Series began in 2000 when he played for Jim Capsa in the 45+ division and then for the Grays in the 55’s, led by MSBL Hall of Famer Steve Faigin.  The third baseman has been a Chicago Fire member since 2006.  He has spent the past 22 years playing in the Chicago North MSBL while also attending the World Series.

As our conversation switched back to Jamie, I asked Joel to explain her nine-year battle after her original diagnosis in 2013.

Jamie was diagnosed with cancer in April of 2013 and was getting married in July of 2013 but during her planning period for the wedding, they took a biopsy and it was confirmed that she had breast cancer.  She then had a double mastectomy in May 2013 with breast reconstruction surgery.  The Oncologist said they would hold off the chemo until after the wedding so Jamie got a port installed four days after the wedding and started her chemo treatment.  

On July 23rd Jamie started eight rounds of chemo over 16 weeks, then 28 rounds of radiation.  After that, the doctor said they would place her on chemo pills.  Prior to the chemo sessions, they harvested her eggs and fertilized them so they had embryos in June 2013.”

Jamie always wanted a family but this treatment made that impossible,” Joel further explained.  “The doctor said they should take out her ovaries so they did but she and her husband had the foresight to harvest her eggs and put the completed embryos on ice.  They did all of this before they started chemo.  They found a surrogate but the first attempt didn’t take, nor did the second.  However, the embryo took on the third time so in July of 2015, I became a grandfather to Ryder!”

As previously mentioned, this was a nine-year journey, so the roadmap was dotted with twists and turns, and ups and downs.  In 2017 things became concerning once again.

“Everything seemed to be going fine,” explained Grandpa.  “However, after a while the pill wasn’t working as well as they wanted so they tried something else.  They tested and needed a transfusion to get her platelet level up.  In 2017 she was complaining that her leg was hurting.  It turned out to be a clot in her leg and they were afraid it would travel to her heart.

In 2018 she fell and hit her head in the shower and got a brain bleed that impacted her optic nerve so she could see clearly through only one eye and had to wear a patch over the other eye to achieve focusing.  She just couldn’t catch a break.”

Some good news did follow, however, as she came to them in 2018 and said she and Joe were going to have another baby.  They used a teaching friend of hers as a surrogate, who offered to do it for free, and Mia was born in 2019.

“As on top of the world as everyone was, in 2020 Jamie was complaining about her side hurting.  They found spots on her lungs and liver but a new chemo drug was handling that and all was OK for about four months.  But after a scan of her brain, they found a tumor, too.  Her breast cancer had moved to her brain.  So, by 2021 she was confined to her bed 90% of the time.  She was weak from all the chemo and brain surgeries.  She was just surviving.”

Joel explained to me that in the beginning of 2022, the doctor said the new medication works for a while but the cancer always works its way around.  They were advised to try yet another drug which was an oral dose.  This caused a ten-hour nosebleed because her immune system couldn’t handle it so, they tried a lower dose to control the nosebleed.  It was becoming obvious that they were running out of options.

“We were in the mode of keeping her comfortable and trying to make her happy.  Because of the quick turnaround of chemo right after their wedding, Joe wanted to give her a honeymoon.  Though Jamie at this time was confined to a wheelchair and needed to be watched closely, the doctor OK’d the trip so Jamie and Joe flew off to St. Lucia and returned in April of 2022, only to be greeted by more chemo treatments.”

I will mention here that Joel was kind enough to convey the months that followed, including the journey to the end and the final moments.  I feel it is too much of a burden to you for me to include every detail.  Her final moments were shared with the entire family at her side but more damage to the brain and the spread of this horrible disease became too much on that June day in 2022.

“Near the end, Jamie was able to see Mia’s dance recital from her wheelchair in the front row.  Hopefully, that will be one of her special memories of her mom.

Jamie was a warrior for nine years.  She withstood brain surgeries, organ removal, seizures, and all the treatments.  She did it all so that she could live as long as she could for her two children, Ryder and Mia.  She had a life well lived, albeit a short 38 years, and had an impact on so many people.”

Jamie’s husband Joe continues to live in the house that he and Jamie shared with the kids, but he has to continue to work so what about the kids?

“We share days with the in-laws,” said Joel.  “On Wednesday and Thursday, my wife goes over at 7:00 am and drives Ryder to the bus stop and then back home to take Mia to pre-school.  We then pick up Ryder at the bus stop and then go to get Mia.  We give them both dinner and then Joe comes home from work to be daddy and spend the evening with them.  We alternate days of the week and then Joe is home all weekend with them.”

Jamie’s initials will remain a part of the Chicago Fire team going forward as well as a league tribute.

“My Chicago Cubs 60’s team during the summer is also going to embroider her initials on caps.  That is very special.”

Are there any final words to convey?

“Jamie always wanted to be a mom so the subject of harvesting eggs and working with surrogate moms was very special to her.  Please convey my email address to everyone if they are going through something similar.  They can contact me any time.”

Here is Joel’s email address:

“Jamie was a dance teacher as well and we learned her dance studio has now created an annual Jamie Polakoff Lasko Dance Scholarship and her school where she taught school is dedicating the school library to her as well.  Her friends also dedicated a bench for her at her camp where she taught in the summer.”

“We miss her every day, but each day when I look through Mia’s blue-green eyes, it is like I am looking into Jamie’s soul.” Joel and Michele Polakoff

Below is a message conveyed by one of Jamie’s close friends, Stephanie Brand from Deerfield, Illinois:

“Jamie greeted me with a smile every time I saw her. She was a huge part of daily life for the almost five years Ella spent at JCYS. She kept a close eye on the friendship Ella and Ryder built at JCYS and saved stories to tell me about them together whenever I saw her. I remember during professional pictures one year; Jamie told me Ella had no interest in being photographed but Ryder held her hand and helped her through it. When someone close to me received a breast cancer diagnosis, I knew I could talk to Jamie about it and I did. Jamie put me at ease and asked the right questions. Her time on Earth has been way too short …. But she left an impact that will remain for generations to come.”

Below is the link to a story that Jamie published in 2013 about losing her hair titled ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’.