In the waning hours of Relay for Life, when the audience had gone home and the caffeine was losing its grip and team members dozed off one-by-one, Tyler Pooschke ran a mile on the track to stay awake.
He is all too familiar with the empty hours of the night.
He spent winter 2009 at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha. Continuous IVs make sleep elusive; thoughtful nurses who knew this would slip into his room to watch late night football or play poker with Hershey’s Kisses until sleep returned.
That was another life ago, when he battled Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 17.
Today, the junior from Elkhorn is the executive chair of the Survivor and Luminary committees of Doane College’s Relay for Life event. He is one of the forces behind Doane’s first-place ranking in the nation in fundraising for Relay, an annual American Cancer Society event. Doane's 2012 Relay raised more than $70,000 to top the nation (again) in per-capita fundraising among colleges with enrollments under 2,500 students.
That translates to about $64 per student. The runners-up in the fundraising race were elite names in higher education: Cornell College in Iowa, Claremont College in California; Franklin and Marshall College of Pennsylvania. The second place Relay event – Washington College in Maryland – raised about $60,000 or $42 per student.
It comes down to passion for the cause, Tyler said. “There’s just such an energy and pride here. It’s like ‘we HAVE to fight cancer; we HAVE to win.”
When nearly 100 survivors walk the opening lap of Relay each year, it’s worth all the work. Tyler was at the front of the survivor group last year and knows exactly what it means to walk when you once couldn’t; to hear the crowd cheer because you made it back to your feet after an unthinkable fight.
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It started with fatigue. At the beginning of his senior year of high school, Tyler would fall asleep on the couch after school. In contrast, his junior year he competed in three sports, ran the 400-hurdles, made state in cross country and earned an academic letter. He was ready for college and wanted to leave 2009 behind. His mom had lost a good job that year. She found a new one, but not with health benefits.
That’s why Tyler didn’t see a doctor until he was too tired and in too much pain to walk. When he arrived at the Emergency Room of Children’s Hospital in October of 2009 he was having trouble breathing.
Seventeen is not the year you suspect cancer. Maybe that’s why he recalls bizarre things from those first muddled days: He remembers that the man who said “You have cancer” was so big and jolly that the words didn’t match his demeanor.
There’s no good way to describe the next few months, with its five rounds of chemo and holidays in the hospital. He was always nauseous, always battling infection. He never really rejoined his class. He lost friends who didn’t know how to hang out with someone who’s sick.
Good mixed in with the bad. His school raised money to buy him a laptop. His track club fundraised and dropped by to lift his spirits. He walked with his class at graduation and began to run again.
When people ask him if his life is back to normal, he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t have the black-and-white answer they want.
“It’s kind of never normal again. When I first tried to go back to school everyone always wanted to know if I was okay. I don’t have half those answers.”
In his first semester at Doane, he felt strong enough to join the track program. Once he witnessed Relay For Life, he knew he wanted to be involved in that as well. He is part of a committee of 80 students, who fundraise and strategize September to May.
Tyler’s team (Have Only Positive Expectations) ran a newspaper ad last winter offering to put up Christmas lights for donations. A Crete woman asked them to move furniture instead. Before they left, she told them about her daughter who died of cancer a few years earlier. They left with $100. “That’s my favorite memory of all we’ve done. I still talk to her every once in a while.”
Sometimes Tyler gets tired of having cancer as part of his identity, the thing people mention when they introduce him. If you look deeper than cancer, you’ll meet a person who is so social he has made great friends by starting conversations in concessions lines. You’ll see someone who appreciates the smallest gestures because he "fought something so big"; someone who cancer turned abruptly from teen to adult; a person of more faith in everything.
“I’m not super spiritual… but when I think of all the tiny coincidences that happened during this experience, there’s no way it could not be a part of something bigger.”
The math and economics major wants to work for the American Cancer Society or another nonprofit that touches the world.
“It doesn’t matter where I start. I feel like I could take on the world now. I’ve already done this (cancer) so what can’t I do?”
Relay is the trademark service event of Doane, with nearly half of the student body and a large cross-section of faculty and staff participating. To be a part of this amazing event in 2013 go to www.relayforlife.org/doanecollegene.