Minutes after doctors showed Cheryl Kretz the CAT scans indicating a brain tumor at the center of her son, Mack’s, brain, she hopped on an ambulance with Mack and sat next to his stretcher as the ambulance drove an hour up route 15 from Gettysburg, Pa. to Hershey, Pa., sirens blaring full blast.
“We had about five to 10 minutes to process what was going on,” says Kretz. “Of course, we were crying. The doctors were crying too.”
A year and a half after diagnosis in January 2008, the Kretz family – particularly Mack and his father, Robert Kretz – welled up again, but this time the tears were positive. They had just finished their respite at the Believe In Tomorrow House on Wisp Mountain, and the family grew sad at the thought of leaving the house that unexpectedly drew them away from routine hospital visits and back together.
Pressure on the family began three days after diagnosis, when doctors operated in the center of Mack’s brain in a whirlwind effort to remove the entire mass. When they discovered it was a different type of tumor, they tried to de-bulk it as much as possible before ending the full-day surgery. Doctors would need to proceed with long-term chemotherapy to destroy the tumor further.
Cheryl says that when Mack came out of surgery, “He had a huge bandage on his head and drains coming out everywhere – but he had this big smile on his face and he knew we were his mom and dad.”
The next year would mean chemotherapy sessions as Mack, 13, struggled to stay in school using reading and memory tricks to compensate for poor vision and fatigue. Nine months into chemotherapy, Mack’s immune system was having trouble rebounding and doctors took him off it. Mack began seeing a neurophysiologist (to help with short term memory problems) and going in for MRIs – an appointment every six weeks – all while finishing the school year.
“The last part of Mack’s school year was really, really hard,” says Cheryl. “We were really stressed by the end of the school year. We needed something to make everybody feel good again.”
Cheryl met a family while at Hershey Medical Center who suggested they look into Believe In Tomorrow respite trips. When Mack began chemotherapy, the family couldn’t think of planning a getaway. But when Believe In Tomorrow contacted them about a trip this summer, Cheryl saw it as a chance to rejuvenate following a stressful year.
The Kretzes arrived at the Wisp house June 21 and Mack immediately went to fit his handprints into the Believe In Tomorrow logo plaque placed adjacent to the front door.
“The sky was blue, the leaves were green, the air was so clear,” says Cheryl of her initial impressions. “We weren’t home worrying about book reports and end of year grades. All of a sudden, just being some place different, we felt so cared about.”
Mack immediately walked through the house, saw the welcome basket, and soaked up the sun on the back porch. He kept saying: “I can’t make this smile go away.”
The first few days, Mack enjoyed time alone with his parents, who were happy to relax from their day jobs with their son. Later, Mack’s older brothers joined the family and they explored the pleasures of Wisp in the summer. Mack rode go-carts, kayaked, white water rafted, and went mountain biking for his first time. Now he’s looking for his own mountain bike on eBay.
“We were warned that he would never be allowed to drive a car, which was so devastating because that’s how you’re independent,” says Cheryl. “It was good to be able to see him doing things that other kids do. His friends saw him lose his hair. But no one here knew the difference.”
Mack – whose tumor is now stable, but could continue to grow – couldn’t bear to leave the mountain respite he was able to share with his whole family. But he can rest easy knowing the respite is available to returning families in Believe In Tomorrow programs October through May.“I didn’t think it would pull our family together again as much as it did,” says Cheryl. “We are all on a team together again. Sometimes vacation can create riffs. This was just sort of magical.”