November is here and with it comes the time of the year that we pause to catch our breaths and think about what we are thankful for in our lives. Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season give us a perfect opportunity to try to slow down — even if only for a moment — and reflect on what we are truly grateful for this year. These Grimes residents have much to give thanks for this year.
A special child
When Tina Sweeney was pregnant with her fourth child, she was told throughout her pregnancy there were no complications. Everything was proceeding normally. But they were thrown for a huge loop when baby Adam was born with spina bifida.
“We were not prepared, and we were hit between the eyes with a two by four,” she says. “Within 24 hours, he had to be helicoptered to another hospital, and it was very traumatic.”
In his short life, Adam has been through a lot. He’s had six surgeries for the shunt in his brain, as well as kidney and bladder problems and foot and hip surgeries. To meet him, though, Sweeney says you’d never know he’s been through so much.
“You’d never imagine in a million years that he’s been through the hell that he’s been through,” she says. “He’s one of the most joyful, happy people, and he teaches me so much.”
Last year over Christmas, Adam had a kidney and bladder surgery that didn’t quite have the desired outcome, so in a few weeks he will have to have another surgery. Sweeney says he takes it all in stride and handles it all with more grace than many adults would.
Sweeney’s older children are also fantastic when it comes to being protective of their little brother, she says. Adam has to travel to Iowa City of many of his medical appointments and surgeries, so they are constantly pitching in around the house and calling to check in.
If you would have told Sweeney five years ago that, “everything happens for a reason,” she says she would have blown you off. She definitely wasn’t in a position then to see the blessings that can come from her family’s situation.
“But I’ve learned you live in the moment and figure out what you’re supposed to be learning about how you can better the world and your kids,” she says. “I never knew a parent could learn so much from a child, but the things we’ve all learned from Adam… he’s taught us so much more than we could ever teach him about perseverance and courage. We’re so thankful.”
She says the Dallas Center-Grimes School District and the community have also been wonderful. When it was time for Adam to go on a field trip last year, he was worried about the lift he’d have to use to get his wheelchair into to vehicle, so Principal Ann Bass and others took turns testing it out for him and showing him it wasn’t scary. Those little things can mean a lot to a 6 year old and his grateful mother.
“The support that we get is amazing,” she says. “I used to be a control freak, but when you get knocked to your knees like we did, you take the help when it’s offered, and you get humble really quick. I felt like I was in a major valley spiritually for a couple years, but God is showing me He was taking care of me and all of us.”
Thankful for health
This past spring Mike Kastantin, assistant activities director at Dallas Center-Grimes High School, heard the words no one ever wants to hear: You have cancer. He was diagnosed with male breast cancer, after discovering a lump in his chest that just wouldn’t go away.
“You’re a guy, and you notice a bump and figure it will just go away, and you don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it,” he says, “Then it started to look gross, so I finally got it checked out, and they found out it was cancer.”
Kastantin’s cancer was far enough along that doctors had to do surgery to remove the tumor, which they did in April. He then started the first of 16 rounds of chemotherapy, which he finished in September. Because of his age at almost 50, doctors wanted to be sure the cancer hadn’t spread elsewhere. They did find some nodules on his thyroid, but luckily they were benign. He also had a benign tumor on one kidney that was removed in September.
Kastantin says he’s thankful his brush with cancer has had a good outcome so far. He hasn’t had any issues with chemotherapy, and he’s had minimal side effects. He’s currently undergoing radiation therapy and has 11 more of 33 sessions to go. But through it all, he’s had minimal side effects and has been able to continue to work at the high school throughout the ordeal.
“Sometimes you wonder if you got it checked out sooner if things would be different, and my doctor says likely not,” he says. “But you can’t worry about that anyway. You have to deal with the here and now. So I’m down a kidney, but if you want to talk about thankful, it goes without saying. I’m thankful everything seems to be going well.”
A miracle recovery
Last fall when Austin Needham was 12 years old, he had a spontaneous stroke. His mom, Bridget, a nurse, says at first he was acting sick and thought it was the flu. But when he began screaming and not making sense, her nursing instinct took over, and she rushed him to the hospital.
“They did a CT, and they found the brain bleed, and then they sent us over to another doctor over at Mercy who saved his life,” she says. “He was on a ventilator and he had hydrocephalus, swelling in his brain. His birthday was Sept. 27, and we celebrated his birthday by him coming off the ventilator, but we were in the intensive care unit for a week.”
Austin then moved to ChildServe for intensive rehabilitation for a month. Bridget’s mom came to stay with her younger son. To outsiders, Austin doesn’t look like a youngster who nearly lost his life. Bridget says he’s nearly fully recovered.
“At night, his speech and his balance is not quite up to par,” she says. “He has a slow thought process sometimes, but that’s the only lasting effect. But our priorities have changed. He’s changed my life. He never asked, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ He just did what he was asked to do.”
Austin was recommended to the Make-a-Wish program, and recently the family found out that his wish will be granted. He wants to go to see the All-Star Baseball game, and they will be going July 15. The organization was thrilled to feature such a happy story and to grant Austin’s wish.
Bridget says their lives have been turned upside down, and they’re just starting to figure out a “new normal.”
“I am beyond thankful,” she says. “My husband I had a conversation just the other day, and so much goes on in your daily life and nothing matters. My child is alive. The little things I used to stress about, now I’m like, ‘Really?’ Austin hasn’t asked, ‘Why me?’ so I quit asking why and questioning. I’m just thankful.”
Lost it all
Last summer, Mike Levenhagen, the girls basketball coach at Dallas Center-Grimes high school, went through something that’s the stuff of nightmares — a house fire in which nearly everything was lost.
Thankfully, no one was home at the time, and neighbors were able to rescue the family’s dogs. As far as investigators can tell, a pick-up truck in the garage caught fire and it spread to the family deck and home. The family spent six weeks at a hotel, and they’re now renting a townhome in Johnston while they rebuild.
“The whole experience has been surreal,” he says. “I keep thinking, ‘This isn’t really happening. Surely I’ll wake up.’ I have three daughters, and none are at home anymore, but we had all their memories tucked away in the house. We got some of that back, but not a lot.”
Levenhagen says the community support has been incredible. A former basketball player organized a benefit basketball game for the family just days after the fire, and his team has had a car wash and other fundrasiers.
Another thing that’s been difficult is the constant reminders of what they’ve lost. Levenhagen says the night they went to the hotel after the fire, he wanted to brush his teeth and go to bed, but he remembered he didn’t have a toothbrush. Now, as he gears up for basketball season again, he realizes that athletic gear and clothing is lost.
But through it all, he says they’ve managed to remember what’s really important.
“We’re just thankful that we have each other,” he says. “My wife and I are the only ones still at home now, but I keep telling the girls that our foundation is not bricks and mortar. It’s each other and the memories between your ears.”