BILL MCCLELLAN : Years of living with cancer hold lessons in richness of life
By Bill McClellan
I was at Eddie Greenhill's house Thursday night. He said he was glad -- well, almost glad -- that he had
"I don't know how my life would have been without the cancer," he said. "It would be better in one way,
but I don't think it would be nearly as rich."
Eddie has long been a hero in the community of families with seriously ill children. A remarkably upbeat
fellow who turned 26 last May, Eddie has been an unofficial counselor to hundreds of kids and
teen-agers who have been stricken with cancer.
Eddie's personal battle with cancer began about 13 years ago, just as he was about to turn 14. He was a
lively kid, mischievous. He never got in any real trouble, but the staff at Buerkle Junior High in the
Mehlville School District all knew who he was. He was the kind of kid who couldn't be anonymous.
One day, his mother noticed a knot on the side of his left foot. A cyst of some kind, she thought. She
took him to the doctor. Eddie had synovial sarcoma, a very rare kind of cancer. Extremely aggressive. The
doctors told Eddie and his mother that there was no sense sugarcoating the situation. Eddie had less
than a year to live.
His mom's name is Betty Kimker. Eddie's dad died when he was 5, and Betty remarried. At any rate, Betty
returned home from the hospital the day she and Eddie received the terrible diagnosis, and she called
his school. The secretary listened to Betty's news and told her not to do anything for a minute. I'll call you
back, the secretary said.
The secretary called back in a few minutes and told Betty that she had made arrangements for Eddie to
see an oncologist at Children's Hospital. Also, one of the assistant principals was a Shriner, and he was
making arrangements for Eddie to be seen at Shriners Hospital for Children.
That conversation took place 13 years ago, but Betty recalls it perfectly. Actually, what she recalls is that
feeling of gratitude that somebody was reaching out to help. It was a feeling she would have over and
"I think of it like angels' wings that carried us along," Betty told me. "One person couldn't have done it. It
took so many people."
Through the years there would be many small kindnesses. Large ones, too. Betty works at the VA
Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks, and her bosses have been flexible with her as time is concerned.
Co-workers have donated sick days. So Betty has been able to keep working and take care of her son
when the need has arisen.
Those early days were dark. Doctors at Shriners Hospital for Children amputated Eddie's leg. It was the
week of his 14th birthday. He was on chemotherapy for a year, and he was very, very sick. One day, some
people from Make-A-Wish Foundation visited. They asked Eddie whether he had a wish.
I just want to die, he said.
We don't like your wish, one of them said. We have other ideas.
They sent Eddie and his family to Florida. There were other kids and their families on the trip. All the kids
were in Eddie's situation, facing life-threatening illnesses. One night, Eddie and one of his new friends
waded into the ocean. They thought they saw a shark.
If it is a shark, Eddie said, you climb on my shoulders and I'll stand on my artificial leg and that shark will be
the most surprised fish in this ocean when he takes a bite!
Eddie had turned a corner. He was back to his old self, lively and mischievous. He returned to school. He
finished his chemotherapy, and things looked promising. Then he began to have trouble breathing. Not
trouble so much as a little pain.
The cancer was in his lungs. The doctors at Children's Hospital were upbeat, but the cancer was back and
it was in his lungs. Not good.
Doctors removed a portion of his lung, and Eddie was back in chemotherapy. He had to drop out of
school. But a year went by, and things were again looking good. Eddie was studying for his GED, which
he would need before he could apply to college, but one day Betty came home and Eddie told her
they'd better get to the hospital right away. He was losing his sight.
It turned out to be a tumor at the base of his brain pressing against an optic nerve. More surgery followed.
Eddie survived that, and he got his GED, and he was accepted at the University of Missouri. He went to
Columbia and moved into a dorm. He drove an old Mustang, and he hung around at coffee shops, and
he dated a number of girls. He reveled in living a normal life. He came home for Christmas break, and he
didn't feel too well. He had another tumor in his lungs. More surgery. More chemotherapy.
By this time, Eddie was more than just a patient at Children's Hospital. He was practically staff.
"Even when Eddie wasn't sick, he'd be here," said Janalee Tomaseski-Heinemann, a former pediatric
social worker in oncology who now lives in Florida. "I could always count on Eddie to go talk to another
kid, whether it was a teen-ager or a young child. He was an inspiration to hundreds of kids. Here was
Eddie, not only able to survive, but to cope and laugh. He'd lost his leg. He'd had relapses. He almost
went blind, but the next thing you know, he's off again."
Off again, indeed. He learned to ski on one leg. He rode a motorcycle. He served as a counselor on
numerous trips for kids living with cancer. He worked at camps with seriously ill children. He was, even
then, something of a legend in the community of families with seriously ill children. The very worst that
can happen - a relapse - would happen time and time again to Eddie, and he'd somehow bounce back.
So when another child or teen-ager would have a relapse, the very best person to have visit was Eddie.
You can beat this, he'd say, and his words would have a certain authority. He was one of the first
members of a Teens with Cancer group.
"He was great in a group," said Tomaseski-Heinemann. "He helped people learn to laugh about things
like losing your hair, but he knew when to cry, too. With Eddie in a group, people would be crying one
minute and laughing the next."
He was a role-model to the younger kids.
"He had taken to wearing a bandanna after he'd lost his hair a couple of times, and he made wearing a
bandanna cool. If Eddie did it, then all the little boys thought it was cool," said Tomaseski-Heinemann.
Diana Meyer's son, Paul, was one of those little boys. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor seven years
ago. It is now in remission.
"Eddie would talk to kids, and he'd say it was strange but that cancer was one of the best things that ever
happened to him," she said. "That if it hadn't been for cancer, he would have been a delinquent. If you
didn't want to take your chemo and Eddie told you to take it, you did. No questions asked. The other kids
were all in awe of him and felt a certain privilege to be in his presence."
Eddie had to drop out of college after that first semester. The following fall, he was back at Columbia. He
relapsed again. And so it went. More relapses, more surgeries, more treatment. He lost the rest of his left
lung. He had a bone marrow transplant. Always he returned to college, and eight years after he started,
he graduated. He got his degree in recreational therapy. He finished his course work this past spring.
He was supposed to take his certification test to become a recreational therapist in November in Kansas
City, but in October, the cancer came back. This time a tumor had wrapped itself around his spinal cord.
He was paralyzed. Radiation treatments helped him regain a little movement, and he took his certification
test in the hospital.
Meanwhile, his stepfather built a ramp so Eddie could come home in a wheelchair. He did. On Dec. 3, he
got a letter informing him that he had passed the test. Two days later, he died. He was 26.
"He died in my arms, right here in this room," his mother told me as we sat in her home in Oakville. She
talked about what a courageous young man Eddie had been, and how very, very proud she was of him,
but then she said that if I really wanted to understand Eddie, I should hear him talk. She put a tape in the
VCR. Eddie was talking about his cancer. He said his life was richer for it.
"I think I grew up a lot faster. I reached maturity. . ." and then he stopped, and laughed and shook his
head. "You never reach maturity, but at 14, I learned what are the really tough things in life. It's better for
me that I went through this."
He said he felt the cancer had given him an inner strength, almost a different kind of health. He laughed
"The doctors say I'd be in perfect health if I weren't so sick."
A handsome young man who looked dashing with his bandanna wrapped around his head, he smiled
into the camera.
Submitted by Bill McClellan [email protected]
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