By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, MN It all started simply.
Fifty-one-year-old Kevin Erickson’s neck was a little stiff, but the Howard Lake family didn’t think much of it.
“We thought that he maybe had pulled a muscle working on the tractor or something,” said his wife, Karen.
But when Kevin’s neck went numb one day, doctors realized something was seriously wrong.
The MRI showed a tumor on Kevin’s C2 vertebrae, which meant he needed emergency surgery.
“We just looked at each other in disbelief,” Karen said. “What do you say? I mean, who would have even thought that Kevin would have cancer? We just looked at each other and started crying.”
On Christmas Eve day 2009, the tumor on the back of his vertebrae was removed. There was another tumor on the front side, but his neck was too weak for it to be taken out.
This was the start of the Erickson’s heart-wrenching journey.
“It’s been so long, and it’s been up and down, up and down,” Karen said.
The family, which includes North Dakota State University freshman Tony Heisler, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted senior Kaylee Erickson, and HLWW sophomore Stephanie Heisler, hasn’t suffered alone, however.
“I cannot express how grateful we are to the communities around us,” Karen said. “It’s just like a big family.”
From generous gifts of money to thoughtful cards and prayers, local people have given the Ericksons practical help and much-needed hope.
“We’ve had local men volunteer to remove and cut trees, neighbors plow snow. . . get my skid loader unstuck. . . drain and prime the tractor tank because I accidentally put gas in it instead of diesel, help me put the belly mower on the tractor, install our dishwasher, take our dogs overnight during the holidays, give us gas cards, fix our manure spreader, fix our fence. . . fix our deck and screen porch, help with landscaping,” Karen noted.
“There is so much, I can’t even mention,” she added. “I have a list of them, and will keep this list in a handy place to look at from time to time.”
Organ donation is another selfless act that has helped the Ericksons.
“Kevin had a bone donor for his vertebrae,” Karen said. “Being in this situation made me realize how important it is to be a donor. You would not believe how many people are getting a second chance at life because of that.”
Karen said she greatly appreciates people’s prayers, and hopes people will continue to pray for her family, because the challenges are far from over.
After Kevin’s initial surgery in December, complications began to arise.
“Kevin should have been home in four days from his surgery, but he had a reaction to the meds, which turned into what I call a nightmare,” Karen said.
He ended up staying in the hospital until the end of January, and was only aware of his surroundings for seven days of that time.
Then, he had radiation treatments to remove the tumor on the front of his vertebrae, and treatment at the Mayo Clinic to kill the cancer cells.
Kevin is the ninth person to participate in a new treatment, which involves medication to increase cell production.
“We will find out at a later date as to how Kevin’s stem cell transplant has worked for us,” Karen said.
The week of Aug. 9 was terrifying for Karen, because Kevin’s kidney became traumatized, and his stomach wasn’t absorbing food.
Kevin’s fate was questionable,” Karen said. “My hope was gone and my heart was empty, but a miracle occurred.”
Somehow, Kevin’s kidney started to work.
“Anyone who thinks our bodies weren’t created by God, they don’t really have a clue,” Karen said. “It’s just plain amazing.”
This past year, Karen said she’s learned a tremendous amount about how the human body works and how it heals itself.
“Multiple-myeloma has no cure at this time, but is treatable in the way of remission,” Karen said.
Kevin has been weak this past summer, and on Aug. 19, he was transported by ambulance to a rehab center that’s part of St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester.
“Today, his hemoglobin is low and so are his white cell counts,” Karen said Tuesday. “When Kevin is strong enough, he will be released back as an outpatient at the Mayo Clinic.”
On Thursday, Kevin once again took a turn for the worse, and was suffering from a high fever.
He was transported by ambulance to Methodist Hospital, where the doctors are testing his blood and bone marrow to pinpoint the problem.
Karen has also personally faced her share of medical issues, including traumatic brain injuries.
People often tell Karen how strong she is, but she denies any unique abilities.
“If you were put in this situation, you would be, too,” she said. “God would carry you.”
Karen describes her husband as a “very honest, intelligent, Christian man who is a great volunteer of time and talent.”
For Kevin, the hardest part of having cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow has been mentally dealing with the illness, and not being able to go about normal activities.
“The greatest challenge, for me, during this past year, has been not having the answers to this illness and where it’s taking us,” Karen said.
The cancer has definitely caused the Ericksons to re-evaluate their lives.
“We have learned about how much we take life for granted going too fast in life without stopping to appreciate each other,” Karen said. “We’ve learned to try not to let the little things that normally would bother us get us in a bad mood.”
Friends, family, and neighbors have been an immense source of encouragement, as well.
“My husband didn’t come from a small town, and he is just blown away,” Karen said.
Karen and a few others shaved their heads in support, and a Caring Bridge website, www.caringbridge.org/visit/kerickson, was also created.
Because of Kevin’s cancer, Karen said she has developed a strong desire to help others who are going through similar situations.
“I have a heart to be there for them,” she said.
Karen encourages anyone who has cancer symptoms to get medical help as soon as possible.
“Don’t think this can’t happen to you,” she said.
In Kevin’s situation, he first went to a chiropractor and received physical therapy, but the stiffness only got worse.
Because the tumor had eaten away at his C2 vertebrae, seeing a chiropractor was not the best option. Karen said they are lucky that Kevin didn’t break his neck.
When he visited a medical doctor, Kevin was given a prescription for pain pills. The Ericksons were the ones to finally suggest an MRI.
Karen also said it is a good idea to have insurance, because they don’t know what they would have done without it.
Transplant houses, which allow patients and caregivers to stay near the hospital at a minimal charge, have also been a great blessing, she said.