EXCHANGE: Leukemia survivor to help other kids with cancer

By Paul Swiech(bloomington) Pantagraph, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 3, 2015 at 2:31 p.m.



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NORMAL, Ill. (AP) — Ginny Kreckman, then 3½, was receiving chemotherapy intravenously at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., when an announcement was made that the St. Jude Runners were about to take off for Peoria.

Ginny's parents, John and Kristin Kreckman, are runners, so John urged Kristin to take a break to help see the runners off as he remained at Ginny's bedside.

"I stood by the curb, high-fiving all the runners. And I thought 'God, if you wanted us to run, all you needed to do was ask,'" recalled Kristin, smiling but with tears in her eyes.

"I came back to Ginny's room and told John 'I know what we have to do.'"

What the Kreckmans have done in the 13 years since then is not only love and care for Ginny, who is considered cured of her acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

John and Kristin also have participated in St. Jude Runs to support the hospital in Memphis and the Jim and Trudy Maloof St. Jude Midwest Affiliate Clinic at Children's Hospital of Illinois, Peoria.

This year, for the first time, the Kreckmans, of Normal, will be joined in the Bloomington-Normal-to-Peoria Run by Ginny. Now 16, she is old enough to participate in a St. Jude Run.

Her brothers, John, 19, and Ben, 17, also will be running while sister, Georgia, 14, will ride in a support vehicle.

"I just want to do it," Ginny said. "I went through it (cancer treatments). I want to help other kids who are going through it.

"I want them to know 'You can do this,'" Ginny continued. "I want to help St. Jude in any way I can."

Kristin nodded. "We run for the next family coming through the door. We run to find a cure (for childhood cancers)."

"One of the beautiful things about this whole event is we get a chance to meet some of the patients," said Dennis Cler, co-chairman of Bloomington-Normal-to-Peoria Run. "To see a success story like Virginia's (Ginny's) — she's now healthy and fit and able to join the run — that's what we all want.

"That's why we're doing this," said Cler, who is participating in his 19th Bloomington run. "We want every kid who is sick to get better."

Ginny was 3½ years old in summer 2002 when her right leg began hurting.

"I remember falling on the ground and not being able to get back up," Ginny recalled. Her next memory was being at her grandfather's house and not being able to walk down the stairs.

John — then a primary care physician in Mendota — didn't waste time. He requested a blood test, followed by tests at Children's Hospital. When they proved suspicious, the Kreckmans headed to St. Jude in Memphis.

There, a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"I was in shock," Kristin recalled at the kitchen table of their Normal home last week as she and John fought back tears and as Ginny, Ben and Georgia listened. "We did a lot of praying.

"We never thought we'd be that family. Suddenly we were," said Kristin, who works for the Illinois Reading Council. "We were used to giving help. Suddenly, we were receiving help."

Ginny began receiving chemotherapy. She was an inpatient for a month and that's when her mother first saw the St. Jude Runners.

Then, for several months, she was an outpatient receiving chemotherapy but remained in Memphis. After that, she returned home. Most of her subsequent treatments were at the Peoria clinic although she returned to St. Jude in Memphis from time to time.

"We had our suitcases packed for three years," Kristin said. "We celebrated Christmas at the hospital, hid Easter eggs and celebrated birthdays. You become creative."

"It's hard on families," said John, who works in the family practice residency program at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield.

The good news is the Kreckmans knew they were in good hands.

"When Danny Thomas opened St. Jude in 1962, the survival rate for childhood ALL was 4 percent," Kristin said. "Now it's 96 percent."

In addition, while St. Jude bills insurance companies, the hospital doesn't charge families for medical treatments, Kristin said.

Even so, all the worry, treatments and driving back and forth from Mendota to Memphis and Peoria took its toll on the Kreckmans.

"It was crazy," Kristin said. "We couldn't have done it without God, family, friends and community. We didn't appreciate what we had until we realized that everything could be taken away."

In July 2005, Ginny completed her three years of chemo and celebrated with a party with her oncologist, Dr. Ching-Hon Pui. Five years later, she was considered cured.

She returns to St. Jude for a yearly checkup. As a result of the steroids in the chemotherapy, Ginny is an inch or two shorter than a typical 16-year-old and her bones are more brittle.

"But I've never broken a bone," she said proudly. She does well in school.

"I just feel normal," Ginny said.

"She seems to be doing just fine," her mother said. "She's a success story."

John and Kristin began participating in the St. Jude Memphis-to-Peoria run to raise money for the hospital and the clinic in 2003. After several years, they began doing one of the satellite runs, the LaSalle-Peru-to-Peoria Run. After they moved to Bloomington-Normal in 2012, they joined the Bloomington-Normal-to-Peoria Run.

"At the end of the run, when there is this sea of runners entering the (Peoria) Civic Center to kick off the (St. Jude) Telethon, and knowing that we all are running for the same reason, there are a lot of hugs and a lot of tears," Kristin said.

"We have a story," Ben said. "But there are a lot of kids going through this and the survival rate is going up."

The Kreckmans are typical of many St. Jude families in that they begin giving back to St. Jude even as their child is undergoing treatment, Cler said.

"That says a lot about our families and is a wonderful testament to the great work of St. Jude," Cler said.

"That's why we run," Cler said. "And it'll be even better this year with Virginia (Ginny) with us."

"I hope people see that it does get better," Ginny said. "My motivation for doing this is to help others."

The run is just the start of Ginny giving back.

"I want to be a doctor," she said.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, http://bit.ly/1Pb54sX

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Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Bloomington) Pantagraph.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Paul Swiech(bloomington) Pantagraph

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