by Nathan Warner
For senior Jonah Skrove, of Zimmerman, a catastrophic illness that claimed his leg was an opportunity to encourage others devastated by his circumstance and struggling with their own difficulties. Upbeat and positive, Jonah’s cheerfulness has inspired many when his own situation remains a challenge – one he is determined to overcome.
Jonah suffers from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that primarily affects teenagers. Around 300 children are diagnosed in the United States every year.
“Because it isn’t as common of a cancer, there just isn’t the funding available to research it,” Jeff Skrove, Jonah’s father, said, “compared to breast cancer, for example, which affects far more people.”
Jonah’s condition completely blindsided the Skroves. While Jonah was running with friends, swimming in the pool, and working out in gym, he felt some pain in his ankle but nothing more than a mild sprain.
“I just kept doing what I love to do and didn’t miss a beat,” he smiled. This included a 25-mile hike through the Boundary Waters with his dad in June of 2012 – a trek that he later learned could easily have killed him.
“He’d been limping around quite a bit, but we just thought it was a sprain from a friend landing on it,” Jeff said, “but when it came time for our trip down to Texas to see Jonah’s brother, Jared, we decided to have it checked out.”
They went to Fairview Zimmerman in September of 2012 and were sent to Fairview Memorial Northland in Princeton after an X-ray showed a cloudy mass where the bone was supposed to be. The doctor scheduled a biopsy on the day they planned to leave for Texas and they discovered a cancerous tumor in Jonah’s leg that had nearly devoured the bone.
“The doctor said Jonah had to keep off his leg and we were lucky it hadn’t broken,” Jonah’s mother, Sarah, said, “because if it had, it would have been a death sentence for him.”
In shock from the news, the Skroves left the hospital for Texas to see Jared graduate from Basic Training in the Air Force. The brothers are very close and Sarah said their shared love of video games keeps them in touch almost daily.
They rented a wheelchair from Goodwill in Texas. While the family knew Jonah’s condition was serious, they did not know it would claim his leg, a blow to his plans as he had hoping to follow his brother, Jared, into the military. When the Skroves returned to Minnesota, they checked in at the University of Minnesota’s Amplatz Childrens Hospital, a place that would soon became the Skrove’s second home. Jonah’s surgeon, Dr. Edward Cheng, assumed the cancer had already spread and put his survival chances at around 30 per
cent. Cheng broke Jonah’s treatment into three phases beginning with two months of chemotherapy. Once this was successfully concluded, Cheng would perform surgery to remove the tumor, followed by 32 weeks of chemotherapy. This plan was set in motion, but when it came time to do the surgery, the size of the tumor prevented bone reconstruction and amputation became the only viable option. While his family, friends and hospital staff were devastated by this outcome, Jonah took it in stride.
“Once he knew it was his only option, he was upbeat about the whole thing,” Jeff recalled, “which kept everyone around him from getting too low during those dark days.” The fact that the cancer had not spread became a ray of hope and Jonah’s survival chances improved to 60 percent. It was Jonah’s desire to help people that drove him to encourage all those around him. “The only time he wasn’t smiling and encouraging people was the day after his amputation when his pain medication was accidentally reduced to half what it was supposed to be,” Jeff said. Jonah pushed his cheerfulness to new levels when he began wearing elaborate costumes to his appointments.
“I came as Lucille Ball from ‘I Love Lucy,’” Jonah recalled, “and then there were the Mario Brothers, Uncle Fester, and Batman to name a few.” Jonah’s Uncle Fester costume alarmed his nurses because the dark eye shadow added a sickly hue to his already pale skin.
He remained in character constantly to the amusement of the hospital staff. During his hearing exams, Jonah would speak in his Batman voice, cracking up the technician. His Slappy the Clown costume attracted the attention of the Shriner’s and they have asked Jonah to be a greeter at the circus this year, something he’s planning to do.
The 32 weeks of chemotherapy were tough on Jonah, and his oncologist, Dr. Brenda Weigel, had to employ two aggressive drugs in addition to his other four.
“They were so potent that I had a fever six out of seven times I was given the treatments as my immune system was seriously compromised,” Jonah said.
Unable to attend school, Jonah’s teacher, Kelly Ellingson, ensured he didn’t miss a single week of school and tutored him into senior year. To everyone’s surprise, Jonah’s grades actually improved substantially.
“I like to think of it as a silver lining,” Sarah said with a smile. “Mrs. Ellingson has done an outstanding job, and she’s become family to us.”
Jonah is back in school now and has even signed up for the part of Mr. Goyer in the play “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jonah’s desire to encourage and help others has driven him to consider careers in education, law enforcement and firefighting. The hospital staff really encouraged him to go into nursing, because they felt he could be a real encouragement to others. Of course, most of these occupations will require him to wear a prosthetic.
“I can’t wear a prosthetic until the surgery fully heals,” he explained. The months of chemotherapy have slowed that progress, but now that he is done, he hopes to move forward soon.
That will be easier now because, as of August, Jonah has tested cancer free. He will drop by Amplatz Children’s Hospital to be tested every three months until he can officially be declared in remission at the end of five years. Jonah said he’ll still dress up in costumes for his check-ups to keep people on their toes, but he’s also going to keep busy.
On Oct 29, he’ll be landing in Japan as a part of the “Make a Wish” program to visit his brother who has been stationed there, and in December, he’ll lend his voice to KS95 at the Mall of America to talk about his cancer battle. He’ll be stepping up beside the now-empty chair of Zack Sobiech, the teen musician from Stillwater who died in May after a long battle with osteosarcoma. Sobiech’s song “Clouds,” was dedicated to his doctor’s diagnosis that he had only a limited time to live. The song gained extensive national media attention, bringing much-needed awareness to osteosarcoma and has over 8 million views on YouTube.
“People struggling with this cancer need a representative to lend them voice in the culture, and I think Jonah could really help represent them with his optimism and caring spirit,” Jeff said.
Jonah’s optimism is contagious and it is what drives him to go where few would be willing to follow.
“We have to go through this world, so we might as well leave our mark on it,” Jonah said, smiling. “I keep reminding myself that there’s always someone out there worse off than me, so I need to get through this so I can try to help them.”