Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Blog

Remember the Person who Changed You

Filed under: childhood cancer research — The Good Cookies @ 11:25 pm May 12, 2020

What made you become a Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale host?

Who changed you from being a person on the pediatric cancer sidelines to one in the arena?

For many of us, the answers to those questions are deeply personal or even painful.

My “what” was an anguished blog post.

And my “who” was Liam Witt — who would have turned 16 today.

On July 22, 2009, I was in my office, reading a blog post from by Larry Witt. Ten years had passed since I had worked with Larry’s wife Gretchen. In that time, she had moved to a new city, married and had two children.

One year earlier, I received the horrible news that Gretchen’s eldest child, Liam, had been diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma. Gretchen and Larry’s blog was how I kept up with his progress and Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, the nonprofit they founded. It’s also where I learned who little Liam was – a loving, inquisitive, scooter-riding daredevil who was always thinking of others.

On that sunny, summer Wednesday, I learned that five-year-old Liam had relapsed.

In their blog, “Prince Liam the Brave,” Larry detailed the horror of that news and described that “a fairly involved surgery” would come next. But the words he wrote after that ripped me wide open: “I was told to expect that he will be in intensive care following the surgery and on a ventilator.”

Nineteen years had passed since I had witnessed my 47-year-old mother being revived, in an ICU, on a vent, after her first all-day surgery for a benign brain tumor that would soon would take her life. Medical science has improved dramatically since 1990. But what I saw that day remains the single most traumatic scene I’ve ever witnessed.

If you are reading this, you understand exactly what I’m describing.

Something and someone changed you too.

Something and someone inspired you to tie on a bake sale apron and step into the pediatric cancer arena. 

Days later, while Liam was undergoing surgery, I stood on a street corner, behind a bake sale table, with my three kids. Together we raised nearly a thousand dollars for pediatric cancer research. It felt so good to put my anguish to productive use.

Just over a year later, Gretchen posted news on Facebook that her worst nightmare had become reality. Sharing the results of Liam’s most recent scans, she wrote, “My heart is literally shattering into a million pieces.” Her post concluded with “Pray for him and hold a bake sale.”

With that heart-wrenching post, she changed everyone who had ever worked with her at our old public relations agency in Richmond, Va. A switch inside all of us was thrown.

Just weeks later, all of Gretchen’s former co-workers banded together to host the nation’s first-ever city-side bake sale, at the time Cookies for Kids’ Cancer’s highest grossing event. Over a period of 10 years, thanks to matching grants, that annual city-wide sale has raised well over half a million dollars for pediatric cancer research.

Blissfully, all that Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale money – ours and others – accumulated, ultimately enabling a life-saving neuroblastoma vaccine and so much more.

But it came too late for Liam.

He died four months after our first sale.

At his memorial service, Liam’s surgeon, the renowned Michael La Qualgia, spoke. He quantified the sickening numbers of tests, procedures and surgeries Liam had borne with “patience and grace and love and inquisitiveness.”

Near the end, he invented a fanciful scene, with young Liam, nearly seven, embarking for heaven, and the farewell dialogue they might have had.

“Why did I have this illness?” La Qualgia’s imagined Liam asked.

“I don’t know, Liam,” La Qualgia replied. “But I suspect that God picks only the strongest and best kids to get this because of all the stuff you have to go through.”

I’ve never forgotten that statement.

Liam was undoubtedly special. He just was. You could see it in his eyes, in his face, in how he carried himself, in how he interacted with others and the world.

The thing is, so many of the kids who get this damn disease are special too. They really are “the strongest and the best.”

These are the kids who changed you – who got you off the sidelines and into the arena.

“Science isn’t holding us back. Funding is.” That’s what a doctor once told Gretchen as she sought solutions for Liam’s diagnosis. Those words are sickening and yet incredibly motivating. Bake sale money really, truly changes and saves lives. There’s plenty proof of that. It’s what keeps me in this fight.

Today our entire world is changed. In every corner of the globe, medical researchers – their labs and resources – are pivoting to focus on COVID-19. It gives us all great hope.

Yet it also makes me think of Gretchen and Liam and all the families like theirs that still desperately need hope in the fight against pediatric cancer, most cowardly of diseases and the number one disease killer of our children.

As the medical world turns its focus to COVID-19, what becomes of them? How might this virus further endanger their compromised immune systems? How are new hospital protocols, like barring visits by family members, making their lives even more unbearable? What becomes of the funding and treatments they so desperately need?

Today our nation grapples with what September might bring. Will our kids go back to school? There is so much uncertainty.

But one thing is certain: Richmond, Virginia, will find a way – somehow – to host its 11th annual city-wide bake sale. Why? Because Amber VanderMeer, the woman now in charge of it, was once changed. She was changed 10 years ago, when her son Ber, a hospital peer and friend of Liam’s, received the vaccination that Liam never did. Today Ber has no evidence of disease.

Had he lived, Liam would turn 16 today. Had the bale sale money that enabled an effective treatment for his particular cancer been raised just a year earlier, he may have spent January weekends skiing full speed down a mountainside, just as he used to slalom his scooter through city streets. He was such a loving kid. What might he and his sister Ella might have cooked up for Gretchen on Mother’s Day? Would he be getting his driver’s license this week?

Today we celebrate the day of Liam’s birth, but we also grieve the future taken from him.

To honor him, and so many others, let’s renew our efforts to innovate during this uniquely challenging time.

The world has awakened its hatred of disease and, in every community, people are thirsty for acts of kindness and opportunities to do good. How can you seize this moment to come up with clever (and socially distanced) way to raise funds for pediatric cancer research?

Start by remembering that person who changed you.

– Wendy Martin, Witt family friend and founder of the Richmond, VA CFKC city-wide bake sale 

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