Sunday, March 05, 2000

A SCHOOL CONFRONTS CANCER


Finneytown High faces life's hardest test

        In the first of a three-part series, cancer comes to Finneytown High School. This is the story of how students and staff find strength in each other.

BY JOHN JOHNSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Paul Thomas lost his hair after aggresssive chemotherapy.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Fall term, 1998

Paul Thomas sat quietly in a wheelchair listening to a hospital worker describe his cancer. Ewing’s sarcoma is an aggressive form of bone cancer, explained Beth Cullen Canarie of Children’s Hospital Medical Center. It’s rare — only two cases per million children a year. But the pale, thin 15-year-old already knew that. He had been diagnosed the previous April. This meeting at the beginning of the new year at Finneytown High School was for staff who would see Paul the most during his freshman year.

His teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the attendance secretary and Cathy Counts, the counselor for the ninth and 10th grades, gathered in an English classroom. They sat in student desks arranged in a circle. Paul was part of the circle.

He wore a tan Bugs Bunny cap to conceal his scalp, made bald by chemotherapy. He sipped a can of Dr Pepper. His mother, Monica Rolfes, sat next to him. She had urged Ms. Canarie to be open and honest with the staff.

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Thomas joins a boys' chorus rehearsal.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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They studied this boy’s face. He never flinched, not even when Ms. Canarie said the cancer could kill him. Ms. Canarie, education director in the hospital’s hematology/oncology division, knew that if teachers were uncomfortable with Paul, students would sense it and avoid him. But if the staff of the close-knit, 600-student school embraced the boy, classmates would be more likely to accept him.

Ms. Canarie explained the two tubes that ran into Paul’s chest. They were used to give him medicine, blood and IV fluids. She told the staff what to do if a tube came out.

She handed out information packets that said nearly two-thirds of children diagnosed with cancer are cured. Then she answered questions: What are his physical limitations? How much will he be in school? Does he need help getting from class to class? Can he sit at a desk?

How does a small school cope with cancer?

Everyone would have to answer that question in the coming months. Staff. Students. Families. Paul Thomas’ cancer was too public for any of them to ignore. And the people in this school cared too much to let him suffer alone.

The answers would come, one terrible step at a time, as Paul would get worse and, incredibly, cancer would strike two more classmates.

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Brian Weiss, left, in American History class.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Brian Weiss hadn’t felt well since the school year began. He was listless, lacked an appetite, coughed a lot. His mother, Tina Tebelman, had taken him to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and cough medicine.

No improvement.

And so on Oct. 9 the 16-year-old freshman returned to the doctor for a blood test. After the appointment, his mother dropped him off at school. He was called out of ceramics class just 15 minutes later.

His mother needed to take him to Children’s Hospital. On the way, she lighted a cigarette, her first in almost two years.

Five days later, the hospital called Ms. Counts. Brian had leukemia.

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Cathy Counts, counselor.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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The more that students and staff knew about the boys’ conditions, Ms. Counts reasoned, the better prepared they would be to deal with whatever lay ahead.

In September she visited English classes to talk about Paul. She returned in October to tell students about Brian’s diagnosis.

The 36-year-old married mother of three related well with kids. Energetic and intuitive, she liked to make eye contact, as if it were a window into the young lives she dealt with daily. She dressed casually, in jeans or slacks and a sweater or vest, the better to sit on her office floor and chat with kids. She wore her hair short, exposing three small earrings pierced into each ear.

She was beginning just her second year at the school, but Ms. Counts had a lot of experience. Before coming to Finneytown, she had taught grade school and college, worked as a counselor in private practice and in two other school districts, and had started on a doctorate in counseling.

But she had never dealt with two boys with cancer.

Four days after Brian’s diagnosis, Paul underwent a stem-cell transplant. Doctors hoped to replace diseased ‘‘mother cells’’ in his bone marrow with healthy cells.

Privately, Ms. Counts wondered if he would survive. Her thoughts turned to her sister, Cheryl Walden, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 35. For nine years, Ms. Counts had watched her sister alternate between sickness and health, enduring a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and a stem-cell transplant. In the hospital, Ms. Counts had sat with her sister as she lay dying amid tubes and monitors. She listened to Cheryl talk about the healing power of bringing people together.

Ms. Counts jotted her sister’s words in a journal: ‘‘It’s important for us to begin holding hands and forming circles. It’s here where we find strength. This is God’s work.’’

When Brian Weiss was diagnosed, Ms. Counts turned to science teacher Mike Dermody. ‘‘We need to do something,’’ Ms. Counts said. ‘‘We have to teach these kids to turn negatives into positives.’’

Mr. Dermody agreed immediately. His mother, grandmother and mother-in-law had died of cancer. And as a parent, he couldn’t imagine what the families of the two boys were facing.

Art teacher Julie Ficke also joined the team. After brainstorming ideas, the three decided on a fund-raising walk. They would call it the Finneytown Walk for Hope.

Ms. Counts felt a kinship with the small, tight-knit Finneytown community. She and her family had moved there 11 years ago because they liked the mix of middle-class people and the reputation of the schools.

The Walk for Hope would benefit both Paul’s and Brian’s families, which were struggling financially. But in Ms. Counts’ mind, raising money wasn’t the main goal.

She knew it would bring people together.

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Nearly 700 people participated in the Finneytown Walk for Hope in November, 1998.
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Sixty students showed up for the first planning meeting. They took assignments: Map a course and staff it with volunteers. Make registration forms. Order T-shirts. Distribute fliers and book a band. Student council members canvassed businesses for donations. The PTA organized a raffle. Classmates made Walk for Hope bracelets, to be sold for $1.

Students, teachers and parents kept coming forward: ‘‘What can I do?’’

Meanwhile, both boys were on the same floor at Children’s Hospital. Brian, who weighed 160 the summer before, dropped to under 100 pounds. Paul endured fevers up to 106 during the stem-cell transplant. He shook so badly his hospital bed seemed to vibrate.

Classmates made cards and banners for the boys. They wrote letters and sent balloons. They visited them in the hospital.

Paul’s immune system had been destroyed by chemotherapy, so anyone entering his room had to wear a gown, mask and gloves. He sometimes had trouble staying awake for visitors, and his room reeked; the stem-cell preservative in the IV bag smelled like rotten eggs.

Some students were so upset that they never came back.

On walk day, Nov. 14, the weather was perfect: a gentle breeze, the temperature climbing toward 60. Against a blue sky, the last of autumn’s golden leaves clung to trees around the school.

Ms. Counts, Mrs. Ficke and Mr. Dermody arrived first. ‘‘Cathy, what are we gonna do if people don’t come?’’ Mrs. Ficke fretted.

Slowly at first, people trickled into the school’s Multi-Purpose Building to register. Channel 9’s Paul Schaefer, the emcee, pulled on a white Walk for Hope T-shirt with names of more than two dozen business sponsors on back.

As more people arrived, a girl in the school video club stood before a camera. ‘‘With all the issues and problems in our society today,’’ she said into a microphone, ‘‘it is nice to know that in our backyard, people do look out for one another.’’

More people streamed in. Outside on the sidewalk, teens wrote colorful chalk messages to Paul and Brian: ‘‘Get well soon cuz we miss U!’’

As 10 o’clock neared, teens, adults, grade- school kids, babies in strollers and several dogs crowded the school parking lot. They gathered at the driveway, behind a big START banner.

Brian Weiss arrived, looking noticeably thinner. The size of the crowd amazed him. Mr. Schaefer called him to the microphone, and he stood before hundreds of people, smiling sheepishly.

He was his usual reticent self.

‘‘How do you feel?’’

‘‘All right.’’

‘‘It’s nice to see you and to see all these folks out here.’’

‘‘Yeah.’’

Monica Rolfes struggled to hold back tears. ‘‘I’m very overwhelmed by all the people here today, and everything everyone’s done,’’ she said.

She prayed her son, Paul, could be there, too.

‘‘Where is he?’’ people asked.

On his way. At the last minute, doctors gave his stepfather, Mark Rolfes, the OK to bring him. But he had to keep his distance from others and wear a mask to protect against germs.

Paul and Brian had more than cancer in common. Both were relatively new to the school district, and were building new circles of friends. Brian had moved to Finneytown a year earlier from Texas, where he’d lived with his father. Paul had transferred from another school district in seventh grade.

Paul was the outspoken one, whereas Brian guarded his thoughts closely. Brian didn’t care much for school; Paul saw it as the means to connect with friends.

On walk day, nearly 700 people trekked the streets around the school.

Later, when the food was gone, the rock band had packed up, and raffle prizes had been awarded, Mr. Dermody and Mrs. Ficke gathered at Ms. Counts’ Finneytown home. They emptied a brown bag on her dining room table, and began adding up checks, cash and coins.

The banks were closed, so Ms. Counts temporarily hid the money in a bag of potatoes. The total — to be split between Paul’s and Brian’s families — was more than $20,000.

Winter term, 1999

Brian returned to school in January, even as he began a second round of chemotherapy. Paul was still too sick to come.

That same month another freshman, Alan Huhn, injured his back while scraping ice after a storm. Alan was well known, active in theater, Scouts, band and gymnastics. His mother called Ms. Counts to say Alan would have back surgery on March 1.

Given what Brian and Paul had been through, Ms. Counts assumed Alan’s surgery was relatively minor. Every few weeks, she went back into English classes to update students on Paul’s condition.

But she was silent about another health matter. She had discovered a lump in her breast. Doctors removed it Feb. 21, the one-year anniversary of her sister’s burial. It was benign.

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Before the school year ended that summer, Finneytown High got some good news: Brian Weiss’ leukemia was in remission. He would continue taking medication, but he was eating well and gaining weight.

Alan Huhn, although still in pain after his back surgery, came back in April.

And Paul, still quite sick, felt well enough to return to school in May.

All three boys became sophomores, along with the other 154 members of the Finneytown High Class of 2002.

Summer break, 1999

Finneytown Marching Band practice began in early July. At the end of the month, the band spent a week at Wright State University learning its football halftime show.

Classmates and band director Brian Goslee missed Alan at camp but knew he did not feel well enough to attend. When camp ended, the band returned by bus to the school and performed its halftime show for parents on the lawn behind the school gym.

When the show was over and everyone headed home, a student approached Mr. Goslee. What the student said stunned him: Alan Huhn has cancer.

       



- A SCHOOL CONFRONTS CANCER
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