Sophomore dancing in THON to celebrate brother's victory over cancer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State sophomore Maddie Sherlock was a freshman in high school when her brother Carl, then 20 and a Penn State student, got sick. A trip to the emergency room of Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College turned into a helicopter trip to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where ultimately he was diagnosed with a pediatric brain tumor.

"Why he got a pediatric tumor at the age of 20 no one knows, but it does happen and it did to our family," said Susie Sherlock about her son's diagnosis.

The next year was full of surgeries, treatments, setbacks, triumphs, more setbacks, more treatments, more triumphs and many, many trips to Hershey.

While they did everything they could for Carl, Susie and husband Phillip decided early on to keep life as normal as possible for their other two children, Maddie and their other son, Nevin, who was a doctoral student at Penn State at the time.

"It was hard for Maddie, because she was used to me being here all the time and going to all of her activities. How that affected her I don't really know, but we didn't know how to do it any other way. The fact that the siblings were older made it easier on everyone than if they were little children, but it is definitely tough on a family," Susie said.

"I didn't see Carl again for a few weeks," Maddie said. "My mom stayed in Hershey for most of the next few months. My dad was home a little bit more, but I still barely saw him. My oldest brother Nevin and my grandma stayed with me a lot of the time. Nothing was normal."

Cancer was only one challenge for Carl to overcome. The night he went to the emergency room, he had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke because of the tumor. He also had other medical issues, including paralyzed vocal cords. Maddie didn't get to visit her brother in Hershey often, but she did go a few times.

"I'll never lose the image of my big brother lying in that hospital bed with more tubes than I could count coming out of him, looking so weak," she said.

Over the course of the next year, he went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and started intense physical therapy. Through everything, he exceeded everyone's expectations.

"He learned to walk again. He learned how to talk again. He learned how to write and feed himself. He graduated from Penn State a little over two years after he got sick. He got a job and moved out on his own. He's an amazing guy," Maddie said.

Although he has some lingering difficulties, mostly with his balance, Carl's mother said he is off to a pretty normal life, after four years. "He has already held down a job for almost two years, and if you would have seen him before that, closer to the tumor and treatment, you would not have thought that was possible," she said. "THON is a wonderful thing, and Four Diamonds is a wonderful thing. We feel very fortunate that the night they life-flighted Carl from Mount Nittany they sent him to Hershey," Susie said.

In addition to some Hershey doctors she says saved her son's life, she credits some decisions the family made early on for contributing to his remarkable recovery. Although they were there for help and support, they had Carl move back to his apartment instead of living at home. He also went back to school immediately by starting with online courses and then worked back to halftime on campus. "His doctors have said very few would have continued to improve the way he has, but we expected him to continue to work on his physical therapy and his academics, and so there was no choice. World Campus was a godsend to him," Susie said.

The Sherlock family first attended THON, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, in 2008, right after Carl finished treatment. Although they had heard of THON, they didn't really know much about it until the doctors and nurses at Hershey started talking about it and asking them if they would be attending.

"When I started at Penn State in 2004, I had never heard of THON. My junior year, 2007, I had heard about it vaguely, mostly that it was a big fundraiser for kids with cancer, but not much else. Then I found out I had a brain tumor," said Carl.

Although he was very weak and still on active treatment, attending his first THON in 2008 was a good experience for Carl. "I showed up and realized that, 'Hey, these students are celebrating ME. They're dancing and partying because they raised over $6 MILLION dollars to help provide medical care for cancer patients like ME. They're celebrating the fact that I'm still here, beating the odds.' It made me very happy."

Susie said one difficulty for the family was that THON is structured around younger children. "Carl was a 21-year-old who should have been sitting in the stands with his peers instead of being so sick and on the floor as a THON kid, so it was really hard to be there," Susie said. "It has taken these four years to get used to the feeling of celebration that goes on there ... but I have come to see the importance of keeping separate the terrible reality of the disease and the treatment from the wonderful deeds and enthusiasm and excitement the undergrads bring to the fundraising effort. Their effort is probably why my son is alive today, but to go there and feel like celebrating was very hard."

Maddie agrees. "Going to THON as a family member the first time was really tough. It was just a constant reminder of the horrible year my family had been through. I really didn't spend much time at THON at all until last year. I appreciated everything the Four Diamonds Fund had done for us, but seeing all of the other families and sick kids was almost too much."

Maddie knew she wanted to be involved with THON as soon as she decided to come to Penn State. She spent a lot of time at THON last year, both with her family and with her teammates on the Club Softball team.

"Last year, I really started to understand the commitment of every person in those stands. The view from the stage during the last four hours was incredible. Now, I can't get enough of THON," Maddie said.

This year she wanted to get even more involved, so she became the Club Softball team's THON chair.

"It's a lot of work to organize everything, but I love doing it. Even though we missed two canning weekends (one conflicted with a softball tournament and the third weekend was canceled due to bad weather) we have already greatly surpassed our total from last year, and I'm so proud of all of our team," Maddie said. "On my first canning trip, I was so inspired by how many people gave money. I don't think they even realized how much they were helping people like my brother and my family just by emptying out their change into my can."

Having experienced THON as a family member, Maddie now is looking forward to experiencing it as a dancer this weekend (Feb. 17-19). "I THON for Carl, and I THON for every other family going through the same thing we went through. One day we will all dance in celebration, but for now I can at least dance to celebrate my brother's victory," Maddie said.

Carl couldn't be more proud of his little sister for dancing this year. "She's fighting for me. I can't tell you how proud that makes me. It is just beyond impressive to get out there and dance for 46 hours, for no reason other than to support people going through some of the worst times of their lives. My sister is saving my life and thousands of others. How can I be anything other than grateful, humbled and proud?"

Carl has been cancer-free for four years, and is about to start a new job in Washington, D.C. "This has certainly been a trying experience, and it's by no means over," he said. "But I've been doing things I thought I'd never be able to do again, and accomplishing things I never knew I could. I take it day by day, and always stay positive because the only way is up. Hope is everything. I want to give everyone who goes through this experience some hope, because it makes all the difference."

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Last Updated February 14, 2012