Recipients of this year's award were honored at a special luncheon hosted by Stefanie and Chris at the Greater Columbus Convention Center on April 20, 2005.
Alliance Excavating – Jim Sowers & Tony Long
Carl "Tony" Ratliff nominated his employers, Jim Sowers and Anthony Long, at Alliance excavating after they offered him both emotional and financial support when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"One day Tony and I were walking over to see one of our employees who had been really, really sick. This guy just kept coming to work sick, and I just thought he should see a doctor. Well, he finally told me he couldn't pay, so I said, ‘OK, you're going to the doctor, and I'm paying for it, and that's the way it's going to be.'
"As we walked away, Tony mentioned how nice I'd been, and I said, ‘That's good, because you're sick, too, and you're going to go to a doctor just like he did.'
"You see, Tony had this sore throat for about four months and hadn't done anything about it. As we walked on, we ran across this fellow who was drilling a core in a catch basin for us. He told us it was his first day back at work. Turned out his dad had died of throat cancer just a few days earlier. When he heard about Tony, he put down his tools and said, ‘Maybe you just needed to meet me today; let me tell you about throat cancer.' Now, mind you, this all took place in less than an hour.
"Tony went to the doctor the next day, and when he called to tell us he had cancer – it was stage four – we all just broke down and cried. I told him he'd never miss a paycheck. I didn't give that part another thought."
Amazingly, Tony took some time off for treatment, although he didn't miss much work, and today is cancer free. He can't thank Jim and Anthony enough.
"My life is back to normal, as normal as it can be," he says. He rides his motorcycle in the summer and just recently went on a cruise, adding, "Life is good."
Says Jim: "See how God watches over you? I don't know what the moral of the story is, but Tony always says that our business is blessed; too many good things have happened to us. I guess we were just meant to be together. When one of us is down, the other picks up the load. That's just the way we are."
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Eric Beverly -- A Giant with a Gentle Heart
Danielle Beverly nominated her husband, professional football player, Eric Beverly, after he offered to put his career on hold to be there for her during her battle with breast cancer.
Danielle and Eric will never forget that day in October nearly two years ago when they received some life-changing news. Danielle was doing a self-breast exam and found a small lump. She put off going to the doctor, but because of Eric's persistence, eventually made an appointment. It was breast cancer.
"We couldn't believe it. At 29, it seemed as though I was too young to have breast cancer. I elected to have a bilateral mastectomy. We both wanted to have children, and I felt that it was the best way to assure long-term survival.
"In the midst of what I was going through, Eric became a free agent, and he signed with the Atlanta Falcons. He had just come off ankle surgery and had to travel back and forth between Michigan and Atlanta. He would be in Michigan for my appointments and return to Atlanta for rehab and workouts. Eric was willing to put football on hold if need be, but I wanted to keep some normalcy in our lives so that really didn't seem like a good option to me.
"He was just so loving and supportive. He even went as far as to try and get a hospital bed for our home. He spent countless hours surfing the Internet for information, taking care of the house - even doing the bathrooms! Once, he even went to Meijer's at midnight to buy me a chocolate cake with butter cream frosting! He is just a gentle giant with a great big heart."
Eric says cancer has brought them closer together, although it wasn't always easy.
"Danielle is a very upbeat and happy person, and she didn't want to bring me down, so instead, she began to disconnect from me. We sought counseling. It was very helpful, yet humbling. We both found out that what we thought were problems before really weren't that big of a deal after all."
Their journey isn't quite over. Just recently Danielle found out that despite her surgery, the cancer has come back. Their plans for children are on hold again, and Danielle and Eric are in the midst of formulating another game plan for their latest battle against cancer.
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Bryan Ferguson -- Newlywed and Newly-Diagnosed: Redefining Normal
Jeanette Ferguson nominated her husband, Bryan Ferguson, after he stood faithfully by her side and cared for her when she was diagnosed with oral cancer when they were still newlyweds.
Jeanette Ferguson and her husband Bryan were newlyweds, just settling in to their new routine as husband and wife and coping with their busy schedules. He's a computer specialist for the state of Ohio and she, a pathology student working on her Ph.D. at Ohio State. One day, Jeanette noticed that a sore in her mouth didn't seem to be healing.
"It really spooked me," says Bryan. "She was down to eating one Cheerio at a time."
One night, her tongue swelled up to twice its normal size. Jeanette saw a doctor the next day and was immediately diagnosed with stage four cancer on the base of her tongue.
"We were in total shock. I needed surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. I had a lot of complications – a blood clot in my leg, a fistula and bone spur on my chin that wouldn't heal, allergies to the treatment. We spent our first wedding anniversary cheering each other with Ensure.
"But Bryan was amazing. He would work all day, go home and shower and then come spend the night with me. He learned how to tube feed, how to give me shots; he would get me up, give me my feeding, come home for lunch, go back to work. We both knew that this is what we had to do."
"There is nothing that can prepare you for this," says Bryan. "I am 33, she is 29. She was always brushing, always clean, meticulous about her care. It didn't make any sense. The first thought that came to my mind is that whatever it takes, we will get through it. The hardest part? Not being able to take the pain from her. If there is one thing it's taught us it's perspective. Cancer makes you redefine normal."
"One thing we know is that we will never get a divorce," says Jeanette. "They say that the first year is the worst, and I can't imagine anything worse than this."
Jeanette celebrated her recovery last year by realizing one of her childhood dreams. A vocalist and a longtime Cleveland Indians fan, she brought tears to her friends and supporters as she sang the National Anthem before a stadium full of cheering fans!
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Doug Kristof -- Mr. Fix-it
Kathleen Nickels nominated her son-in-law, Doug Kristof, after he lovingly welcomed her into his home, even remodeling a bedroom for her, during her treatment for breast cancer.
"In a way, I owe Kathleen my very existence, so I really couldn't do anything different," says Doug Kristof. "I married Susan, her daughter, and I wouldn't be here today were it not for Kathleen, so how could I behave any other way?"
Doug is very matter-of-fact about his role in his mother-in-law's recovery from breast cancer, but to Kathleen Nickels, he was her bedrock and foundation while she was going through treatment last year. She was living near Cleveland when she was diagnosed, and when the doctor explained to her that she would have to make multiple trips across town for regular treatments, her whole family knew that she wouldn't be up to doing it alone. So they decided she'd simply have to move in with them, at least for a while.
Doug was a little anxious. "We're a lot alike. Kathleen's Hungarian and I'm Slovak, and things aren't always smooth. But she's mom. That's just it."
So Doug got down to work, launching a home remodeling project to rival any "extreme makeover" you might see on TV.
"We gutted a room, put in new floors, new carpet and new furniture. We added a ceiling fan. Everything. I'm the grunt worker. I'm not creative; I'm a worker bee. Just show me a problem, and I'll fix it. I figured that's what I could do best."
According to Kathleen, he was not only a busy carpenter, but a whole lot more – ferrying her to and from appointments, tending to her needs without a murmur.
"He never complained, not once, no matter what I had to do." A Champion, from start to finish.
So how did he feel about his nomination?
"I was shocked. I mean, what did anyone really expect? It's really not so unusual, really."
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Tony Piper -- Cancer Takes Him Center Stage
Robert Piper nominated his son, Tony Piper, when the 17-year old aspiring actor stepped up and put his young life on hold to help take care of his father when he was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer.
"My husband drove semi for 20 years, and this past August we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. You sure don't expect anything like this," says Barbara Piper.
"This" is the fact that her husband, Robert, is fighting laryngeal cancer, and it's a very tough battle. "He thought it was just a raspy throat, that maybe it came from drainage from an infected tooth, and when the doctor came out and told me it was cancer, I thought I was going to die," recalls Barbara. "It was just like a cold, death-like feeling that comes through you."
Barbara says Robert went through one surgery, and it looked like the surgeons had gotten all of it, but less than two months later, doctors found still more tumors and said he'd need even more surgery.
Through it all, she says it was the couple's youngest son, Tony, who became Robert's champion. Barbara tells the story because Robert has lost his voice box.
"We adopted Tony when he was only three days old. We had five other children at the time – the youngest was 17 – so you can imagine how that changes your life.
"He's always been special. He is an honor student and he wants to be an actor. He is well-liked. He just got in Shawnee State. The other kids lived so far away when Robert got sick, it was just up to Tony and me. For me, it wasn't hard work; this is the thing you do when you live together 30 years.
"But then I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and everything fell on Tony. He put a rollaway bed in dad's room at The James. He stayed around the clock. He said, ‘Dad has always been there for me, so I am going to be there for him.' He's in a lot of plays at school, but he had to miss practice. He missed a lot of school. We can barely get by on what we have coming in. Thank goodness Tony doesn't need designer clothes or anything like that. We are just very proud of him. We shop at K Mart and Wal-Mart. He is just a good kid."
For his part, Tony says he got even more interested in acting after his dad was diagnosed with cancer.
"You get to be somebody who is not in your life. Just for that little while, you are a person who has no cares in the world. I can escape the world for just one hour and know that it is going to be fine. I mean, I love my life, but sometimes you just want to step outside the box. Accents – I can do almost anything. All my life I've been jealous of my cousins – you know,
‘I can play football,' – ‘I can do this and that.' I always wondered what I can do. Now, I know."
Tony has been in several plays at school and is planning on auditioning with the American Musical and Dramatic Company, based in New York.
"I thought my dad's surgery would take care of everything. But then there was another surgery and another. I am a Christian; I believe in God. But when I had to stay up there all the time, I felt like I was losing faith. I don't know how it came back, but it did. Everything seemed so discouraging. I had never seen my dad so sick. We are almost back to normal."
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Nikos Rutkowski -- Son Becomes Sunshine
Sandi Rutkowski nominated her son, Nikos Rutkowski, after he selflessly put his new life on hold to aid in her recovery from breast cancer.
Sandi Rutkowski had just returned from a conference when she discovered a nurse had left a message for her to call back. She'd recently had her annual mammogram and felt a shiver as she played back the message. She found that she had indeed flunked her mammogram; she was quickly scheduled for an ultrasound, and then a biopsy confirmed the worst. She had breast cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation followed. Chemotherapy scared her the most.
"I'd heard a lot of horror stories and I was worried. In my family, we all have such sensitive stomachs. I was scrupulous about taking my anti-nausea medicine, though."
Still, things were pretty rocky.
But she also had something better than any medicine. Nikos, her son, a recent college graduate, simply put his life on hold to take care of her.
"He put off grad school, he put off trying to find a job. He even put his social life on the back burner. And I didn't even have to ask him. Pretty amazing for a 21-year-old,"says Sandi.
Nikos remembers feeling that his mom would make it through treatments OK, but thought it might be hard getting there.
He brought her ice water, herbal tea and smoothies.
"He would make sure I was warm, remind me to take my temperature; he took on most of the pet and house management tasks. That way, my husband could go to work and know that there was someone taking care of me, too," says Sandi. "I also felt I didn't have to hide anything from him about the way I felt."
Sandi says her low point was Thanksgiving Day, when, incredibly, she says, she had asked friends over for dinner. It was Nikos who had to cook.
"We always make gumbo, for some reason," he says, although he threw in all the basics, too. His mom remembers it as a time when, for the first time in her life, she never cared what she wore. That says a lot for anyone who knows Sandi, who was named one of Ohio State's snazziest dressers in 1996 by the faculty/staff newspaper, onCampus.
"I pretty much looked like a bag lady, and that's probably an insult to bag ladies everywhere."
Again, for Nikos, Thanksgiving was no big deal – adding that he is a veteran when it comes to taking care of those in need. A couple of years ago he found a tiny kitten, not more than three weeks old, abandoned under his front porch.
"I brought her inside and put a hot water bottle in with her, stuff I thought would be handy." Sandi says he fed the little one with special kitten milk formula every two to three hours, day and night, until she was able to eat on her own. Today, Willem (after de Kooning) rules the roost.
"Nikos just has a big heart," says Mom. "He's my Champion."