When life itself is a gift
by Nathan Warner
Christmas Day means something extra special to Erin Mathison of Zimmerman and her son, Jason, who will turn 7 years old this Christmas.
The young boy is a cancer survivor.
Erin Mathison was a junior at Elk River High School when her life was turned upside down after she discovered she was pregnant. “I was trying to complete my classes in time to graduate while also trying to balance the increasing responsibility of my pregnancy,” she said. Eight months before graduation, Erin gave birth to Jason Kukowski and struggled to take care of her newborn son while turning in homework and studying for exams.
One morning in early February, when Jason was only two months old, Erin says she found him soaking wet in his pajamas, his skin felt icy cold and he was much fussier than normal.
“He’d been a little colicky up until this point,” Erin recalled, “and he’d been having cold-like symptoms, but I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary for a baby in the middle of winter.”
The symptoms this morning, however, were very different, and Erin knew Jason needed to go to the hospital immediately.
She called the Fairview Zimmerman Clinic but they did not have any openings with Jason’s doctor, so she called the Elk River clinic, but they also did not have any openings available. Erin finally called the Zimmerman clinic back and told them Jason was very ill, pleading to get in. “By now, I was in tears,” she said, “and frantic to get my baby help.” The Zimmerman clinic was finally able to squeeze him in and Erin arrived half an hour early, thinking that someone would know what to do for Jason if they could just see him in the waiting room. Fortunately, Jason’s nurse walked in for another patient and stopped by to see Erin. “She took one look at Jason and said we needed to get him to a room right away,” Erin recalls. When they got to the patient room, the doctor ran an oxygen test on Jason and called for an ambulance.
“They knew with only one look that something was horribly wrong,” Erin says, adding that Jason’s blood-oxygen level was down to 72 percent and he had begun turning blue. Jason was rushed up to Fairview Princeton Clinic where they successfully stabilized him, but he had to be airlifted to Minneapolis Children’s Hospital for further treatment. Little Jason remained on a ventilator for 37 days and nearly died when he suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage due to a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his small chest.
“We were so frightened,” Erin recalls. “The doctors told us he was suffering from neuroblastoma and no one in my family had ever heard of it before — we couldn’t even pronounce it, so I had the doctors write it down on a card for me.” Erin says she couldn’t understand how her little two-month old son could be suffering from cancer and wanted to do research immediately, but the doctors advised her not to look the condition up on the Web. “They said there was a lot of frightening information out there and Jason was actually doing better than most cases because of his age,” Erin remembers, “so that helped just a little to take the edge off my panic.”
“Neuroblastoma is a disease in which cancerous tumors develop in the nerve tissue of the adrenal gland, neck, chest, or spinal cord, occurring primarily in infants and children,” says Kelly Schultz, marketing and communications coordinator for Children’s Cancer Research Fund. “Neuroblastoma is the fifth most common cancer in children less than 15 years of age (following leukemia, brain tumors, lymphoma and sarcoma). Schultz added that neuroblastoma is the second most common cancer in infants less than 1 year old (following leukemia). Most conditions of neuroblastoma begin in the abdomen or in the chest and can spread to the bones (face, skull, pelvis, shoulders, arms and legs), bone marrow, liver, lymph nodes, skin and around the eyes.
Jason endured four rounds of chemotherapy and numerous biopsies and spinal taps during his long treatment for the disease. It was during this time that Erin looked up the meaning of the name she had given him. “Jason means ‘healer,’” she says, “and being born on Christmas Day and after nearly dying, I just know that he is going to do something special with his life. I’m just so thankful he was too young to remember any of the pain and trauma.”
Not able to attend classes anymore, Erin’s English teacher, Deb Shellum, became her tutor, bringing homework down to the hospital and teaching her during the long hours at the hospital to ensure that Erin would graduate with her classmates. “That was so wonderful,” Erin recalls, “Deb even came down some days and helped me look after Jason.”
Jason’s last chemotherapy session was on Mother’s Day while Erin was able to attend her senior prom. Not long afterwards, six-month-old Jason was officially declared to be in remission by his doctors and was able to attend his mother’s graduation, seeing her walk in and graduate with her peers from Elk River High School.
Erin says the whole experience has made her more thankful than ever for what she has in life, and she and her family are determined to give back for all the help they received by supporting cancer research through Children’s Cancer Research Fund.
Jason and Erin regularly lead “Team Jason” at Time to Fly, a walk/run event hosted by Children’s Cancer Research Fund each year in June.
2011 marked the 13th annual KS95 for Kids Radiothon event, benefitting Children’s Cancer Research Fund and Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, which helps to raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer research and children living with complex disabilities.
Each year, Children’s Cancer Research Fund and Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare select several children who have had a cancer experience or who have received care at Gillette to be featured during the KS95 for Kids Radiothon. Jason and Erin were one of the 12 selected this year and they were interviewed by KS95 on-air staff who broadcast their story during the event.
“In its 13-year history, the KS95 for Kids Radiothon has raised more than $11.6 million for our causes,” says Schultz. “In 2011 alone, the KS95 for Kids Radiothon raised more than $413,000 from listeners calling and making donations averaging $10 and$20 at a time.” Schultz added that they also receive generous pledges of $1,000 to $2,000 from individuals, as well as support from corporate sponsors.
Today, Jason is as energetic and healthy as any first-grader. Erin says he is goofy, funny, sweet, caring, respectful, kind, and sensitive — all desperately balancing against a healthy dose of boyish mischief. “He’s very nurturing,” she added. “When someone is hurt, he’s the first one trying to help.” She says he likes to be the class clown and loves to make people laugh. “Sometimes I’m positive he thinks he’s 15 and not 6 going on 7,” Erin smiles.
It’s been a long road from the day she discovered she was pregnant in high school and thought the world was coming to an end. “I had no idea my life and another precious life was just beginning,” she says, thinking back to the Christmas Eve when she was rushed to the hospital and gave birth to her son Christmas morning. “I remember thinking the hard part was over as I cradled Jason in my arms,” she says thoughtfully, imagining most of her classmates were on break, unwrapping presents and sharing gifts at the time, “but only a few short months later, I learned that the hard part was just beginning.” After Jason fell ill, Erin says she felt like her life was unraveling again and she isn’t sure what she would have done without the support she received from friends, family, and her school. “I’m just so thankful,” she says, “and at times it’s hard to believe we’ve been through so much together already. Jason is the best Christmas present I could ever ask for and I’m so thankful he’s alive. I’m so thankful he was born and I know, I just know, he’s here for a reason.”
To learn more about neuroblastoma, childhood cancer, and children living with complex disabilities, visit Children’s Cancer Research Fund at www.childrenscancer.org.