by Jim Boyle
As thousands of students streamed through the doors of District 728 schools this week for the start of school, they were greeted by an energized bunch of teachers.
The electricity could be felt Aug. 29 when hundreds of educators from across the Elk River Area School District packed into Zabee Theater for a heart-warming welcome back.
Nick Zerwas, an Elk River native who wasn’t supposed to live past the age of 7 and is now 30 years old, addressed teachers and educators to thank them for the profound impact they had on his life and to wish them luck in the 2011–12 school year.
He came at the invitation of Superintendent Mark Bezek, who led most of the meeting, which was capped off with Zerwas’ talk.
Bezek introduced him as one of the district’s own who persevered through steep odds to not only make it to school and through the elementary grades, he also made it through very delicate junior high school years and a challenging high school experience.
Elk River High School’s former senior class president graduated, too, and went on to earn a biology degree and his MBA. He now works in a forensics lab for Target Corp. and is on the Elk River City Council.
“You have had such a profound impact on me, and realize I am one student from one year,” Zerwas said. “Multiply that by your careers, and it’s pretty safe to say you are amazing.
“Thank you so much and good luck this year.”
Zerwas story starts off at Christmas time 30 years ago. His parents, Chris and Tom Zerwas, had two boys already and were prepared if they had a girl. She would have been named Holly. As it turned out, Nicholas was born with 10 fingers and 10 toes.
Three days after he was born and ready to depart the hospital he began to cry and lost all color, Zerwas explained.
“My lips went purple,” he said. “The way my mom describes it, there was a swarm of white coats (who) came in and took her newborn son.”
He was rushed from Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids to Children’s Hospital.
His heart defect was soon discovered, and the news Nick would not live past the age of 7 was sprung upon the Zerwas family. Tom and Chris decided the only way they were going to pull through this was to band together.
Nick’s first open-heart surgery was performed at two months. His second came at 2 years of age. By then he still wasn’t talking, walking or even crawling. The Zerwas family was told to accept that their son was mentally retarded.
The second surgery, however, helped spring the little boy to life. He began to walk and talk, and visions of school came into focus.
The thought of a student enrolling who was expected to die soon was no doubt unnerving, but Principal Dawn Moyer told the Zerwas family ‘You have a child and your child deserves to be educated,’ Zerwas explained.
It was at school, however, Zerwas said he realized he was different. When other children walked across the room to get a cup of Kool-Aid, he figured they were all tired and had to sit down.
“I didn’t realize kids had so much energy,” he said. “If there had been chandeliers, they would have been swinging from them.”
Zerwas spent the first year very ill, and doctors came back to their initial prognosis. They couldn’t cure him of his condition, but they offered the option of a an experimental surgery. It had only been done one other time in Minnesota at that point, and a 6-year-old girl from Duluth didn’t make it through the surgery, Zerwas told the crowd.
They agreed to do it, but first took a trip to Disney World. On the way back, Nick told his father he wanted to run and play with his friends and feel good again.
This, the third surgery, helped. For the first time his lips were not blue. He played more easily with classmates. Teachers had grown to love him and care for him in special ways, without Nick even fully realizing it.
He recalls how one teacher didn’t take a lunch one whole year so he could spend time with Zerwas, as the youth couldn’t make the trek from the school to the Handke pit for recess. They worked on science experiments together that year.
Zerwas had his fourth and fifth surgeries in junior high school, but by the end of ninth grade there was little left to his tired heart. On the second day of school in ninth grade he was hospitalized. Doctors said they could not fix the muscle, and he was put on a heart transplant list. He could not go home.
He would be stuck there for 5.5 months.
But the amazing thing was he didn’t fall behind in his studies. Teachers came to administer lessons and spend time with him.
“It’s amazing what that school (VandenBerge) did to keep me sane,” he said.
In addition to helping with studies, student groups took turns putting together a video of school happenings. Each week a new tape was delivered.
“I watched them over and over,” he recalled.
After 5.5 months, however, it was determined a heart could not be found. Doctors told Nick it was time to go home. He was given six months to live and sent home.
“Go home and be with your family,” doctors told him.
So he did. He also went to school two hours a day.
Then another experimental surgery surfaced. Doctors wanted to try repairing his heart with a sack that goes around that of a cow’s heart.
Initial thought: “That will never work.”
Doctors said, “It might.”
Each year of high school was marked with another heart surgery and a month away from school for recovery.
Zerwas said Elk River High School Principal Jim Voight was always there for him to listen and serve as a sounding board. He would still ride his butt five minutes after their talks if he was straggling in the hallways.
Zerwas spoke at graduation about how “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a dream. And today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.”
That’s how Zerwas says he approaches life to this day.
“I can’t go into my past and make it so I have a normal heart,” he stated. “At this point I probably wouldn’t if I could. It has made me who I am.”
The future is a mystery for one of the oldest people to be living with his type of heart defect.
“I woke up today and feel fantastic,” he said. “I’m going to make the most of today.
“My present, my today, wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the unbelievable teachers and staff in the district. You have time and time again propped me up.”
Bezek closed, thanking Zerwas and commending teachers with some final words and a video.
“You make a difference in the lives of children,” Bezek told teachers and administrators. “That’s what separates you from those in the private sector. They have their gidgets, widgets and products, but our business is kids and we make a difference in their lives.”