Honored Angel: McKenzie
The heartfelt, inspirational story of McKenzie, our 2019 Honored Angel, is a powerful and inspiring love story between a beautiful, strong young woman and her equally beautiful and strong mother and family.
But, honestly, it is much more than that. It is also the story of a young woman -- wise and mature beyond her tender age of 18 -- who valiantly fought an aggressive and terrible cancer while thinking of others by allowing her tissue to be studied in the hopes of helping other people, particularly other kids. “That’s just the way she was.”
It is also a story of divine faith, particularly at the end of her life, as she returned to the Catholic Church and was baptized by Fr. Kent, a healing priest that her uncle and aunt reached out to before her passing. He traveled to McKenzie’s bedside in time to baptize her per her wishes at her sickest hour.
McKenzie passed away just after midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 2019. She battled a very rare, unrelenting condition of mutating ovarian tumors called Sertoli Leydig Cell Tumors that eventually took her life.
Bianca, McKenzie’s mother, recounted the events that lead up to her diagnosis. “McKenzie was originally diagnosed with an ovarian cyst.
Normally, this is a relatively benign condition that is easily managed. A few months later it ruptured and it was then determined that it was, in fact, a tumor. She underwent treatment and, at one point, it appeared through scans that the cancer had disappeared. Unfortunately, it came back and then just kept mutating. In spite of everything that the doctors did, they couldn’t save my daughter’s life.”
“McKenzie would amaze me all of the time with her strength and will power. She’d always look at me and tell me that everything was ok.” While saddened by the toll it took on her beloved daughter, Bianca is appreciative of everything that was done for McKenzie after her cancer diagnosis. “It was comforting to hear that her doctors in Albuquerque were in contact with other amazing oncologists at M.D. Anderson and in the Twin Cities to consider the best course of action to battle McKenzie’s tumors. We also heard that doctors in Germany and Italy were consulted. We are so appreciative of everyone’s efforts. It gives me comfort knowing that the best minds in the medical community did everything they could to stop this evil disease.”
Being a normal high school senior was important to McKenzie. The disease wouldn’t allow that but her high school superintendent and principal delivered her diploma to her in the hospital. Her senior class has a dedicated page to her in their yearbook.
“Her last days were overwhelming and hard. She didn’t want to hear about hospice. She just wasn’t ready to accept that fate. She was a true warrior.”
Supporting Bianca throughout McKenzie’s journey was her boyfriend, Jesus, along with McKenzie’s brother, Joshua, and sisters Savannah and Natori.
“In McKenzie’s name, it is important that we keep research going so that others will not experience what my beautiful daughter had to endure. Thank you to all who support the great things you do with the funds that are raised at this event.”
Honored Patient: Benjamin
Let’s start off with some really great news. Benjamin (4) from Farmington, MN will be starting preschool this fall and he’s so excited to make new friends there. Due to his treatment for leukemia last year, he wasn’t able to attend preschool as planned. We just had to get that out!
Since he was diagnosed with B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on February 20, 2018, Ben and his family (parents Nathan and Brigitte, brothers Matthew and Isaac) have ridden the roller coaster of emotions that all pediatric cancer patients and their families face.
Ben’s mom, Brigitte, recounted the challenging weeks that led up to his diagnosis. “Ben had swollen lymph nodes in his neck around Christmas 2017 and later got sick with a virus in January. He had a complete blood count and was tested for influenza, strep, and mono, and everything came back negative. In February, he spiked a high fever and was diagnosed with the fu and pneumonia. He got a little better with antibiotics but then his fever jumped back up to 104°F. His body just wasn’t responding to treatment.” Their doctor urged them to come back in and then go straight over to Children’s where his diagnosis was confirmed.
Ben had 9 months of intense frontline treatment from February-November 2018. He then began the maintenance phase and that will continue until April 27, 2021.
Ben’s family is appreciative of everyone at Children’s Minnesota.
“Children’s has been AMAZING! Every member of the staff really cares about each and every one of the kids and families that walk through their doors. The Oncology Department is like a family and we feel like we are part of it. It is a family we never wanted to be in but we are so grateful to be a part of it now,” said Brigitte.
Dr. Bruce Bostrom, his primary oncologist, even taught Ben the “Captain America Song.” Ben’s favorite superhero is Captain America but Ben's family had no idea that he even had a song. Ben also likes to “talk shop” with a few of his nurses who are also hockey fans.
Ben's family also has a soft spot for the Pine Tree Apple Tennis Classic and all who support it.
“The funds that are given to the physical therapy department through the Pine Tree Apple Tennis Classic have been instrumental in Ben’s cancer journey. Lynn, Ben’s PT, is leading the charge by advocating for the physical therapy needs of kids going through cancer treatment. She is teaching physical therapists around the world how to help these kids. Back in March of last year, Ben could hardly walk from the couch to the table without holding someone’s hand, as he was physically handicapped due to his cancer treatments. If it weren’t for her and the other staff, Ben would likely not be able to run, jump, and play like a normal 4-year-old boy should. Without these physical abilities Ben would not be able to play baseball and hockey, which he loves, or climb on play equipment and chase after his friends with a water gun. It is so important for their emotional and mental health for kids like Ben to be able to be physically active.”
Clara & Edison
Few patient/family stories in recent years better represent the mission, research and patient care that can be traced back to the Pine Tree Apple Tennis Classic than that of Clara and Edison of Bemidji, Minnesota.
When Clara, now age 9, was 15 months old, her parents felt a lump on her side. An ultrasound quickly showed what was believed to be Wilms tumor on her kidney and they were immediately directed to Children’s Minnesota in the Twin Cities. At that point Clara’s mom, Amanda, said the frst of many “miracles” occurred.
“We were so blessed to have Dr. Yoav Messinger on call that evening. In the course of him asking us background questions, I casually mentioned that my older sister had what we would later find out was PPB (Pleuropulmonary Blastoma). Immediately, Dr. Messinger went down a new line of questioning based on his knowledge and experience of the disease through Children’s Minnesota's and his involvement in the Pine Tree Apple Tennis Classic. Instead of Clara being treated for Wilms tumor and having her entire kidney removed, Clara was diagnosed with Cystic Nephroma and her kidney was saved with surgery.”
Clara had the DICER 1 link. With their family history, Amanda and Justin's children would all need to be all screened. When Clara’s little brother Edison or “Eddie” was born he too had the DICER 1 mutation. Fortunately, their older son Charlie (10) does not carry it.
“When Eddie was 11 months old, scans showed a small tumor in one of his lungs. A month later he had surgery. Because it was localized, the surgeon was able to remove the tumor completely. Later on, another small tumor appeared on his lung and our “second miracle” occurred. That tumor eventually disappeared on its own and there is no sign of the cancer now.”
Today, both kids are doing great. Clara is going into 4th grade, is outgoing and a huge sports fan. She loves participating in basketball and softball and cheering enthusiastically for the Minnesota Twins. Her love of life and her pride at being a cancer survivor show through to all around her.
Eddie is now 3 and, like his older sister, is extremely outgoing. He’s very aware of everything going on around him and loves doing anything outside, particularly if it involves his older brother Charlie who he worships.
Clara and Eddie's family is extremely thankful for the care they continue to receive at Children’s Minnesota under the direction of Dr. Kris Ann Schultz. “How do you put it into words?” said Amanda.
“We know we are very blessed and so lucky to be seen by the doctors and nurses and researchers that take care of our kids, particularly given their expertise with PPB.” Amanda also wanted to thank all the supporters of the Pine Tree Apple Tennis Classic. “We know that our kids' good health is tied to the great work that results from the funds that are raised here.”
For Nick and Sheena of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, their daughter Olivia’s cancer diagnosis on November 22, 2017 was a life-changing reality check.
“It’s something we never thought we would ever be going through and wouldn’t wish upon anyone else,” said Sheena. “But, a lot of good has come out of this situation. It has truly shown us what is most important.”
Now just 2 years old, Olivia was diagnosed with Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma after her family noticed that her head grew by 2 inches in 4 weeks and she stopped rolling over. Since then, Olivia and her family have completed 18 of their 20 months of chemotherapy treatments.
“Olivia’s cancer diagnosis has changed everything about our lives,” continued Sheena. “From certain beliefs we had about cancer to how we live each day, little things that used to be stressful to us are no longer on our minds. We see things a bit more clearly now and have found strength in ourselves and in our family that we didn’t know existed. We have been honored to receive so much from our family, friends and community, and we look forward to the day we can give back to others in need. We have grown deeper in our faith and can see God working through Olivia and our family.”
Nick's and Sheena's appreciation extends to Olivia’s medical team led by Dr. Anne Bendel at Children’s Minnesota and those who contribute to ongoing research efforts.
“We could not be happier or more grateful for everyone involved with Olivia’s care. We owe her life to everyone on her team and that is something we will never forget. We are excited to be nearing the end of treatment but when I think about not seeing everyone on our weekly trips to Children’s it makes me sad. They have become family to us and we get a sense of joy whenever we see everyone who has helped Olivia throughout this journey.”
Olivia’s intense treatment has not tempered her cheerful personality and infectious smile. According to her family, Olivia has been a fighter from Day 1 and always inspires them to keep going and push through the challenging days.
The family is looking ahead with optimism for a wonderful life for Olivia. Today, she loves swinging, going for walks and just about anything outside with her sisters Lauren (7) and Kendall (5). She also loves playing with her babies and making food in her play kitchen.
When asked about advice for other newly diagnosed families, Sheena offered the following.
“Take things one day at a time. Try to focus on the good things that happen and the wonderful people you will meet. It can be easy to get sucked into the negative emotions but please don’t waste energy on those things. Just do what you have to do in the moment and if you have a form of spirituality, try to harness that - it will help give you strength.”
The core story that Cheryl tells about her son Andre from July 6, 2017 is one that is all too familiar in the world of pediatric cancer.
“I took Andre to the doctor because he’d had periodic nosebleeds and small red spots that appeared and spread across this body after returning from a family trip to hike Machu Picchu in Peru. Doctors suspected Dengue Fever or Zika virus but then blood tests revealed something very different and unexpected -- leukemia.”
Andre was immediately hospitalized in the ICU at Children’s Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. Further tests revealed T-cell ALL, one of the most common forms of pediatric leukemia.
Andre’s diagnosis came only 10 months after his family moved to St. Paul from the Chicago area. “We were so lucky to be back in our home state where family and friends could help us and be near Children’s Hospital where Andre’s type of cancer could be treated,” continued Cheryl.
“Cassondra Howard is our primary nurse and always took time to draw Andre out, to ensure he was comfortable, to connect and make him laugh. We’re so very lucky to have her through this journey! Dr. Rawas, his oncologist, is gentle, kind and truly listens to our concerns. We are fortunate that our hospital is progressive, offering new treatment therapies like physical therapy as part of Andre’s treatment plan to ensure that Andre can be as normal as possible.”
Lending support to Andre (16) along with Cheryl are his dad, Mel, and siblings Alina and Rafa. Andre completed his 10 months of intense chemo in May 2018. He is almost 2 years in to his 3.5-year treatment plan.
Andre is a ‘chill’ kid. He’s quiet, humble and doesn’t complain. Andre likes to hang out with friends and loves his two dogs, Winnie and Oliver.
Andre's family is consistent with other pediatric oncology families in advice for others impacted by cancer. “Lean on others for help. Whether you have family to assist or not, there are plenty of kind, wonderful people who care about you and your family. Cancer has definitely changed us but we try not to let it rule our lives.”
Andre comes from a tennis family. In fact, “everyone” plays. Andre missed most of his freshman year of high school and tennis, too.
“He played varsity tennis this year as a junior while still on chemo and undergoing treatment. He’s an amazing kid and we’re proud of him.” Andre was named after tennis legend Andre Agassi. Like Agassi, he’s a fighter!”
“Corporate relocations kept us moving around the world but we always returned to Life Time Fitness in White Bear Lake to play tennis and attend the PTATC whenever we could. Little did we know that we would rely on the hospital and doctors for our own child’s survival.”
“We’re thankful for Pine Tree Apple Orchard and Life Time for sponsoring this event. With cancer on the rise, it’s critical that we keep researching how to prevent and treat childhood cancers.”