Cancer patient goes to Alaska, reunites with doctor
Posted September 9, 2009
MADISON HEIGHTS — As a toddler he survived brain cancer, only to be diagnosed again years later, this time separated from the doctor and dear friend who’d treated him most of his life. So where did 14-year-old Kevin Hertz and his family seek solace?
That’s where Kevin’s oncologist of 10 years, Dr. Merlin Hamre, moved a year ago, and that’s where the Hertz family followed, spending a week in early August on “America’s Last Frontier,” a wish granted by the charity Benefit4Kids.
“The green mountains, the mountains with snow on them, the glaciers, the river with the fastest flowing waters I’ve ever seen — it was beautiful,” said Karen Hertz, Kevin’s mother. “You couldn’t turn your head without seeing something beautiful. You just keep turning and turning and turning.”
The Hertz family, Sterling Heights residents who have run the Madison Heights Auto Pound for more than 20 years, relished the getaway. They needed it after all the hardships Kevin had endured.
A rough start
At the tender age of 3, Kevin suffered vomiting spells and balance issues, until a CAT scan revealed a brain tumor. Diagnosed with medulloblastoma at 10 p.m., he underwent surgery by noon the next day, followed by two years of chemo and other therapies. It took him seven months to relearn how to walk, but by the end of his treatment, all malignant cells were gone.
Only the Hertzes weren’t in the clear. Years passed under the watchful eye of Hamre before an MRI revealed a second tumor on Kevin’s brain stem at age 12. Now he had glioblastoma multiforme.
“It was the roughest thing when he (Hamre) called me and told me what Kevin had,” Karen reflected. “I just couldn’t believe it when he told me the second time around that my child had another brain tumor. You don’t think that’s going to happen twice.”
Six months of chemo later, Kevin went back under the knife to have most of the cancerous tissue removed. But the problem persisted, and the Hertzes were doubly devastated a year later when Hamre accepted a new job in Anchorage, Alaska.
“He told me the longest walk he ever took was going down the hall to tell us that he was moving to Alaska,” Karen recalled. “He said to Kevin, ‘You’ll just have to come out and go fishing with me,’ and Kevin asked if we could, and I said we’ll see. I never really thought that a year later we’d be actually going out there fishing with him.
“You form a remarkable bond, especially if you have an amazing doctor,” Karen continued. “He has a heart and soul with these children that is just amazing.”
Remarking on the doctor’s work and noting parallels to a more famous Merlin, Karen said Hamre is “like a magician. That’s what I think of him — he’s my magician.”
Little did she know they’d next see Hamre in a more magical place.
Like most kids, Kevin doesn’t like staying still. He enjoys going places, seeing friends, playing video games and riding his golf cart.
Or at least that’s how things used to be; recent months have seen Kevin grow quiet, off-balance and withdrawn.
“He doesn’t do much anymore,” Karen lamented. “I want that little Kevin back. I miss him.”
So when Karen, her husband Dennis, Kevin and son Matthew, 24, flew out to Anchorage Aug. 4 and were greeted by Hamre and his wife at the airport, Kevin’s reaction was a special one.
“Kevin grinned, and he never stopped grinning until he fell asleep in his wheelchair at the airport,” Karen said. “We took him everywhere, to the hotel, grinning. He loved that.”
The doctor was just as thrilled to see him.
“Kevin is a character in the most delightful way you can describe,” Hamre beamed. “Eyes would shine and smiles would appear when you mentioned he was coming to the clinic.”
Thus began their tour.
Their first stop was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, followed by two days at Early’s Lodge in Soldotna, fishing from a boat on the Kenai River. Hamre fished with them, pitching a tent nearby to stay the night.
Hamre said Kevin caught two king salmon at 35 and 40 pounds, and Karen caught one at 50 pounds, though these were out of season and released.
“Silver salmon were in season, and about 14 silver salmon were caught during the two days, of which the majority were caught by Kevin,” Hamre recalled. “A few Dolly Varden and rainbow trout were also caught and had to be released because of size restrictions.”
Commenting on the unspoiled wilderness, Karen said, “You feel so clean, so crisp there, and comfortable, very comfortable.”
After fishing, they continued to Seward for a two-night stay that included a behind-the-scenes tour of the SeaLife Center, where Kevin got to dissect squid, hold a baby puffin and pet an octopus. Then they traveled to Whittier for a cruise on Prince William Sound, an awe-inspiring tour of ancient ice.
“Our boat took us to Surprise Glacier, and it was beautiful,” Karen said. “I cried, I cried as I stood out on the deck and saw a glacier. It was beautiful; it took my breath away.”
Many memories later, it was off to Anchorage and back to Michigan, returning home Aug. 11.
Kevin’s “outdoor wish” was granted by Benefit4Kids, a Macomb-based nonprofit that worked with other groups to make it happen.
“There were a group of fishermen from the West Michigan Fishing League. They had a fishing tournament, and they raised 100 percent of the money that it cost for us to send Kevin and his family on this trip,” said Steve Hearing, director of public relations at Benefit4Kids. “It was a big ‘wow.’ That happened in July, right before his trip.”
Wishes used to cost $3,000, but rising costs put Kevin’s at twice that, Hearing said.
Thankful for the chance to visit Alaska and see Hamre, Karen said that as rough as it’s been, Kevin’s illness has been an eye-opening experience.
“This has also brought us the best things in life, even though cancer is a horrible, horrible thing,” Karen said. “It has made us live life much better because we appreciate everything more. Everyday is a special gift to us; every day needs to be treated that way.
“There are really good people out there,” she said.
Donations to help the Hertz family with Kevin’s medical costs can be made out to Dennis Hertz and mailed to 4782 Brockham Way, Sterling Heights, MI 48310.
For more information on Benefit4Kids and its outdoor wish program, visit http://b4k.org.
About the author
Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski covers Madison Heights, Hazel Park, Madison District Public Schools, Lamphere Public Schools and Hazel Park Public Schools for the Madison-Park News.
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