For these three very ill patients, creativity is the key to coping
Being diagnosed with cancer last year wasn’t all that hard for Mike Van Kirk to accept. For Ron Schierholt, who was diagnosed in 1999, it was a tragedy that led to an epiphany. Karen Donathan, who suffers from lupus—a chronic disease that causes the immune system to overpower the body—has yet to come to terms with how to live her life since being diagnosed in 2004.
All three have very different stories, tied together by a common thread—art.
Van Kirk, 47, was born on Friday the 13th with a hole in his heart. Medically, his life has never been normal. He had open-heart surgery when he was 13 months old—the first child under the age of 2 to ever undergo the procedure, he claims. At age 13, he had a pacemaker put in.
When doctors found a cancerous tumor in the right side of his neck, he didn’t panic.
“On the plus side, I had the heart condition all my life—that helped me deal with this,” he says. “On the downside, I had a heart condition that we had to deal with. … Because I had so much happening when I was younger, I don’t know if my body is as strong.”
He also has a 22-year-old son with leukemia.
Schierholt, 52, who lives in Jackson, Calif., about three hours from Reno, is married and is the grandfather of a 5-year-old girl. Before being diagnosed with multiple myeloma—a kind of cancer that deteriorates bone marrow—he worked as an engineer. Fortunately, he made good money because he estimates that cancer has cost him about a quarter of a million dollars to treat, between lost wages, co-payments and other expenses—and that’s not counting what his health insurance covers.
Schierholt has tried experimental treatments with doctors. His goal was to push off the cancer while waiting for a cure. Schierholt has had two bone marrow transplants, which work by, “harvesting stem cells from your body,” he explains. “They hook you up to a machine … your blood goes through this machine, and it separates stem cells that are floating around in your blood stream … separating those from your blood and then your blood’s returned back to your body while you’re laying there.
“After they’ve successfully harvested an appropriate amount of stem cells,” Schierholt continues, “they give you some more drugs that kills all your bone marrow … since that’s where the cancer lives, for the most part … and then they give you these stem cells back … these stem cells repopulate your body and grow.”
It’s a lengthy and incredibly painful process, he says.
“It didn’t cure me, but it did buy time, and since then there have been more treatment options available,” he adds.
Schierholt’s wife has two other family members battling cancer, as well.
Donathan, 26, always knew something was wrong with her body. When she was rear-ended in 2004 and went to the hospital complaining of tight joints—a symptom of lupus—emergency room nurses dismissed it as whiplash.
“About a week later, I couldn’t bend my arms,” she recalls. “I couldn’t bend my arms to brush my teeth or anything.”
By the second week, “I couldn’t bend my legs or move my legs.”
By the third, her body was so delicate she couldn’t even put socks on her feet.
Then she was diagnosed with lupus.
All three people have spent months bedridden from their diseases and from the chemotherapy that followed the diagnoses.
“By the sixth week, I was so bored of being home I wanted to go to work, you know,” says Van Kirk.
All three have gone through ups and downs—told at times that they were healthy, only to find their diseases had returned. Diseases like cancer and lupus affect each person differently, so finding the best way to treat a condition can be extremely difficult.
“Cancer is like a fingerprint,” says Van Kirk. “It’s different on everybody.”
A common thread
All three people are performing artists: Van Kirk is a comedian. Schierholt is a musician. Donathan is an actress and choreographer.
In November, fellow comedians held a benefit roast for Van Kirk.
“The benefit’s not always that much about me, it’s about other people feeling like they did something for me,” says Van Kirk. For him, being a comedian in Reno’s comedy scene means that other comedians won’t treat him any different—something Van Kirk says makes him feel better than sympathy or pity. The jokes said at the roast prove he is really just one of the guys, so to speak:
“A priest, a rabbi and Mike walk into a bar,” one comedian says. “And Mike’s the only one that doesn’t get laid.”
“He’s not going to die of cancer,” jokes another, “he’s going to die of ugly.”
In December, Schierholt’s nieces—local amateur clothes designers—held a fashion benefit show to help fund multiple myeloma research.
“Any time I can go somewhere and get my mind off of things that are depressing or not fun to think about, that’s a good thing,” Schierholt says of the benefit.
For Donathan, art is tied to life.
Another actress Donathan knows also has lupus. When the other actress quit performing and being active, Donathan noticed her health went south—a sharp reminder to Donathan to stay artistically active.
“When I was stuck in bed for that six months, I was really scared that I wouldn’t be able to do dance or theater anymore,” she says. “Basically, like, everything flashed before me—as silly as that sounds.”
Since being diagnosed, Van Kirk has gone on to do comedy at every club in Reno except Catch a Rising Star, which he says is on his “bucket list,” his list of things to do before he “kicks the bucket.” His son has completed chemotherapy and remains on medication.
Schierholt is setting long-term goals—the most important one is seeing his granddaughter eventually get married. He also learned to play guitar after being diagnosed and hopes to release an album someday. For now, he plays in hospitals for other cancer patients.
Donathan has been choreographing children’s theater at Truckee Meadows Community College and original dance pieces she performs that she says reflect the emotions she feels toward lupus.
All three are aware of the possibility of death. Studies show lupus patients live, at best, for 15 years after diagnoses. Donathan will be 41 in 15 years—but she doesn’t believe the studies.
For now, she’ll continue choreographing dance pieces.
Schierholt will play guitar and wait for his granddaughter to find love.
And Van Kirk is working toward performing at Catch a Rising Star.