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Voice for sick kids shares his own emotional journey

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Ryan Veldkamp with his mom, Carla Veldkamp.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Ryan Veldkamp with his mom, Carla Veldkamp. Photo Store

I know it happens -- it has to, given what kind of real-life episodes they witness -- but I've never seen a police officer weep. Having said that, I can't imagine there weren't at least some wet eyes in the audience Saturday night at the Canad Inns Polo Park after 17-year-old St. John's High School Tigers football lineman and cancer survivor extraordinaire Ryan Veldkamp finished speaking to those gathered for the annual Winnipeg Police Association gala.

I can't say for sure, because somehow -- unlike Premier Greg Selinger, Mayor Sam Katz and, of course, police Chief Devon Clunis -- my invitation went astray. Again.

But I happened to hear what Ryan said, because on Sunday I called his mother, Carla, and asked her to read me the speech over the phone.

Basically, it's the story of the personal hell and heavenly help Ryan received surviving what is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among North American children.

Ryan is the Walmart-sponsored Champion Child for the Children's Hospital Foundation, a role he explained during the speech.

"I represent the thousands of kids who go through the hospital every year," he said. "Being a child, I am their voice."

It's his and his family's way of giving back to the hospital and its staff. But it's what he went through while he was there -- that's enough to make grown men in plainclothes or even police uniforms cry. His story, if not his speech, really starts with these words.

"I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood, on Nov. 5, 2008, two weeks after winning the provincial championship with my football team, the North Winnipeg Nomads. I was 11 1/2 years old and in Grade 6."

His treatments, and his fight, would span the next 40 months.

"In that period of time, I've had 27 spinals -- two of them when I was awake -- four bone marrow tests, 50 X-rays, four EKGs, two EEGs, eight rounds of radiation, two ultrasounds, seven CT scans, seven blood transfusions, three platelets transfusions, three (echocardiograms) on my heart, two lung tests, four MRIs, 10 treatments of IV, IG, 17 different kinds of chemo. Which means countless chemo treatments, blood tests and checkups."

But, early on, before going through that gruelling gauntlet of treatments, Ryan almost died. Just four months after he was diagnosed, Ryan's mom took him to the ER with a fever.

"I was so confused I couldn't even remember my dad's name, and I called him Dustin when his name is Albert."

Initially, the doctors didn't know what was wrong. They told his parents to prepare for the worst.

It turned out to be an allergic reaction to a treatment.

There would be other near misses.

Ryan would contract and fight off H1N1 and battle through the symptoms of diabetes and contract a super-bug. The worst part of having the super-bug was being placed in isolation when he went to the hospital for treatment and not being able to see his young friends who also had cancer.

Then there was the treatment that saved his life, but stopped him from growing. All the radiation that targeted his brain also damaged his pituitary gland. He would go through 870 needles injecting himself with a growth hormone every day.

"When I started taking the growth hormone I was 5-2," Ryan told the audience. "I am now six feet. I'm now taller than my mom who is 5-4, my brother who is 5-11, and my dad who is 5-11 and three-quarters.

"Now I am the tallest in my family. That was my goal."

Ryan had his last handful of chemo pills on Feb. 24, 2012. And this year he'll play football again for the St. John's Tigers, which is a fitting nickname for a team with a kid like Ryan. Who cares if they didn't win a game last year.

Ryan beat cancer.

"I am just so happy that I am able to play again," he told the gathering.

He plans to go on to university and become a child-life specialist so he can work with kids who have or have had cancer. "I think I can help them down that road, because I know it can and probably will be rough, bumpy and sometimes dark. But I think I can light that lantern to help guide the way."

Of all the rough and bumpy and sometimes dark times along his own road, there was one that felt less like a pothole than a sinkhole. On Sunday, I asked the kid who has been through so much, and given that speech so often, what the toughest part is for him.

"Whenever I say, 'I made lots of friends on my journey, but I've lost 12 friends to cancer.' That's when I get emotional."

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2014 B1

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