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Heidi Rensink: a survivor in every sense of the word

September 15, 2008

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

Even though this Minnesota Twins season will soon come to an end, Heidi Rensink of Delano is forever a Twins fan.

In 2004, Rensink was a junior attending Delano Schools when she went to see those favorite Twins of hers with her family.

“I had really bad headaches, and began throwing up,” Rensink recalled of her trip. “It was Memorial Day weekend, I remember. It pretty much ruined my whole Kansas City trip.”

Doctors thought, at the time, it was due to medication changes, but her mother, Clare, thought in the back of her mind, “something else is wrong.”

Italicized text is Heidi’s own words, taken from a speech she has given at numerous Relay for Life events over the past few years. Heidi was the honorary survivor at this year’s Relay for Life event in Delano in late July, but was unable to attend or speak at the event because she had just returned home from the hospital that day.

When the Rensink family returned back to Delano from their Kansas City trip in 2004, Heidi did not get better. Her family brought her to the emergency room at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, where an MRI was done.

“It just seemed like ‘this is not right,’” Clare said of her daughter’s pain.

The results were devastating.

MRI scans showed a golf ball-sized mass on the right frontal lobe of Heidi’s brain. Even though Heidi and her family suspected something was not right, this hit them hard.

My heart dropped – time stood still – and from that moment on – my life would never be the same.

The Rensinks were referred to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. They received news the tumor was thought to be benign, and that it was nothing to worry about, but still needed to be removed.

Overall, the news was optimistic, even though I was still facing brain surgery with all of its uncertainties.

Brain tumors were something the family was not stranger to, as Heidi’s aunt, Laura, had a melanoma brain tumor that was inoperable. The family was relieved Heidi’s could at least be removed.

The downside of this was that Heidi would undergo a craniotomy, which is a type of brain surgery in which a portion of the skull is temporarily removed in order to access the brain, then replaced again.

Her surgery was scheduled for two weeks after the visit, which left Heidi time to think about the upcoming procedure – too much time.

What choice did I have? Was I going to be the same person after surgery? Would I have a different personality? Would my tumor grow while I waited? Would it be cancer?

The thoughts, alone, overwhelmed Heidi, and she was put on steroids to reduce swelling in her brain and also to relieve her headaches. She had to sleep with her bed elevated to help reduce the pressure in her brain.

I didn’t feel like myself or comfortable with a lot of visitors. I just wanted the surgery day to come so this could all go away.

When the day of her surgery arrived, Heidi went into it with feelings of both optimism and nervousness. The four-and-a-half-hour surgery ended with 48 stitches from ear-to- ear. Her surgeon had successfully removed the entire tumor. Following two days in intensive care, she began her road to recovery.

It was then that I realized that I couldn’t do those everyday things you take for granted. I couldn’t sit up, much less walk. I couldn’t feed myself, much less write.

Daily physical and occupational therapy helped her relearn these skills. At the time, this process seemed overwhelming.

But, in comparison to what I was about to face – it was really nothing at all.

The third day after Heidi’s surgery, doctors met with her and her family, and explained they were having trouble identifying the exact type of tumor she had.

During the two-week period Heidi had between her initial appointment and the surgery, the tumor grew to about the size of a tennis ball. While the entire mass was removed, it was found to be of a malignant nature, which meant further treatment would be needed.

My tumor was not benign, it was malignant! Our hearts sank. It was now official – I had cancer.

Seven days later, Heidi was allowed to go home. She remembers it was Father’s Day. Her father told her that day, having her come home was the best Father’s Day gift he could ever get.

While continuing her recovery back home in Delano, the Rensink family took a “crash course” on brain cancers and different treatments. Two weeks after her surgery, a report came back indicating her tumor was a “high-grade Astrocytoma,” which usually occurs in middle-aged to older adults and is very difficult to treat.

I was only 17 . . . How could this be?

A family vacation through the “Make A Wish Foundation of Minnesota” was arranged to help the family focus on positive things. They flew to Santa Monica, Calif., which Heidi said was a beautiful and amazing place.

When the Rensinks returned home to Minnesota, three other pathology sources offered opinions on Heidi’s tumor. All three disagreed with the original opinion of what it was. All three believed it to be PNET-type (primative neuro ectoderman tumor), which is usually found in very young children.

Again, I did not fit the mold. As a result of these differing opinions, I would be treated for both types of cancer.

Six weeks of radiation treatment began in August, and three weeks into it, Heidi lost all of her hair. They had warned her this would happen, but it was still a traumatic experience for her. Following the radiation treatments, she had three weeks off to recuperate before beginning phase two of treatment.

Part two of her treatment plan involved six monthly intravenous treatments. She finished her sixth treatment in March 2005 – more than half-way through what would have been her senior year in high school.

Not being with my friends and classmates was the hardest part.

Heidi ended up missing the first three quarters of her senior year of high school.

“Because of that, I had to take online classes in order to graduate,” she explained. Her high school principal, Dr. Bruce Locklear, worked to get Heidi set up with the school’s online learning program. She was able to take the same classes regularly offered to students, and ultimately was able to graduate with her class on time.

“If it weren’t for the online classes, I probably wouldn’t have graduated that year,” she said.

Needless to say, my graduation day was filled with tears of joy and happiness. I will remember that day forever.

Upon her graduation from Delano High School in 2005, she went to the College of St. Catherine that fall and began studying nursing at that time.

“The nursing care right there (at Children’s Hospital) just wanted to make her join that group and be a part of that,” Clare said.

“I actually want to work at Children’s,” Heidi continued. “I’d like to be a nurse there.”

The next year, Heidi transferred to Mankato for her second year, and then went on to complete her third year in May 2008.

Completion of this third year, though, did not come without its own set of challenges. She had been working in Wisconsin as a full-time nanny over the summer, and returned home to Minnesota. The week before school started, Heidi began having seizures.

An MRI at Children’s Hospital showed a recurrence of her tumor in the right frontal lobe of her brain.

It had been three years of clear MRIs, so this was quite the surprise.

Because of the recurrence, treatment needed would be far more aggressive. She had to have a second craniotomy, followed by more chemotherapy, and then a stem cell transplant.

My family and I were familiar with the craniotomy and the chemotherapy, but not the stem cell transplant.

Heidi’s second brain surgery took place Aug. 27, 2007. She had the same neurosurgeon as the first time, and the surgery took place in a $9 million operating room that “resembled the inside of a space ship,” she said. The room had only been used by 30 patients prior to her. Her surgery lasted about six hours, and her recovery process at the hospital was about 10 days.

In September, she received her first round of chemotherapy, and her stem cells were also harvested at the Memorial Blood Bank. In October, she had a high dose of chemotherapy, and was also given her stem cells back. For the next two weeks, she dealt with side effects of the chemotherapy.

Then, in January, Heidi was able to return to Minnesota State University, Mankato for her spring semester and completed her third year.

MRIs through June of this year were clear and cancer free, until June 5, when her brain cancer returned yet another time. This meant another round of treatments – and more unknowns for Heidi.

She had surgery not long before the Delano Relay for Life event, where she was named this year’s honorary survivor by organizers. She was unable to attend this year’s ceremony, but has been able to attend Delano’s Relay for Life in the past.

Since then, Heidi has been returning for treatments, and said an average hospital stay is three nights and four days if her counts are good. She said a class this fall online may be possible, but said she’s unsure at this point.

“It’s a lot of unknowns,” Heidi said. Heidi and Clare said they may also look at having a team in next year’s Relay for Life event.

Despite the unknowns in her life, Heidi remains positive. She is very appreciative of her family’s support, including that of her father, Neil, and siblings, Ryan, who is a sophomore at North Dakota State University, and her sister, Kelly, who is a senior at Delano High School.

Kelly is involved in tennis at Delano High School, having participated at the state level. Some of this success can be attributed to Heidi’s love of tennis when she was that age.

“Heidi is actually the reason Kelly is in tennis, and that’s the reason she is doing so well is because she played with Heidi,” said Clare. “When Heidi was in 10th grade, Kelly got beat by Heidi a number of times, and it probably made her a little tougher.”

“I’d teach her how to play, and then she’d cry ‘don’t hit it so hard at me, Heidi!” Heidi recalled with a laugh.

Heidi is modest about Kelly’s success in tennis, but Clare said Kelly does look up to Heidi a lot. Kelly, however, isn’t the only one looking up to Heidi.

Heidi has shared her story at several Relay for Life events, including one in Clare’s hometown of Mapleton, and also at her college in Mankato.

“I don’t have a hard time talking about it,” she admits, even though when she gives her speech, it is emotional, because she said it is like reliving everything she has been through.

I will continue to face challenges related to my battle with cancer, and its side-effects, but I will not complain. I have been blessed with this beautiful gift of life.

Heidi said she is able to look at life differently than she would have had cancer not entered her life. It pointed her in the direction of her career choice, and is making her strive to help others less fortunate than herself.

“I would not be the fighter I am today if it weren’t for the undying support of my loving family and every single one of amazing friends,” Heidi said, “Without these encouraging people in my life, I feel I would have less reason to ‘push’ through this strenuous battle with cancer. I thank God every day for these remarkable people.”

Updates on Heidi’s progress can often be found on her caringbridge web site, located at www.caringbridge.org/visit/heidirensink.

The updates frequently detail Heidi’s progress through treatments, and also sometimes provide updates on those Twins of hers.

Clare writes in a recent update from Sept. 6:

“It’s Saturday night, and I thought I’d update you on the last few days. Again, I wonder how the time slips by so quickly. Grandma Rensink came to stay with us on Tuesday to help with things . . .

“On Wednesday, Heidi received two more bags of platelets and came home for more rest. On a humorous little side note, we were watching the Twins game last night and when Justin Morneau was up, with the bases loaded. I simply said out loud, ‘hit a grand slam for Heidi,’ and the very next pitch, he hit a homerun! That was pretty cool, or at least I thought so! Too bad I can’t use those powers all the time.”

Heidi’s family also joked with her that a recent platelet transfusion was from Twins catcher Joe Mauer.

“We kid her that her two bags of platelets were from Joe Mauer, but not to worry about growing sideburns,” wrote Clare on the web site. “I think just the thought of having his platelets has put her on the road to recovery. She definitely has a ‘liking’ for him.”

All kidding about Mauer and Morneau aside, Heidi is finding the strength to live life to the fullest from her battles with cancer, and encourages everyone to do so.

As a cancer survivor, I live life to its fullest, and I hope you would all do the same.

“When Heidi does well, we’re doing well,” Clare said. “You do what you gotta do – one day at a time.”

Financial contributions accepted at local bank

Anyone interested in making a contribution toward Heidi Rensink’s schooling and medical costs can do so by mailing donations to the following address:

Crow River State Bank

Attn: Heidi Rensink Account

PO Box B2

Delano, MN 55328

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