Daughter's cancer teaches faculty member about THON firsthand

University Park, Pa. — When Penn State faculty member Matthew Restall first heard about THON in 1998, he was new to the University and presumed jokingly that the name referred to undergarments worn at a large student dance party.

But less than two years after joining the faculty, the Edwin Erle Sparks professor of colonial Latin American history, anthropology and women's studies learned the true meaning of THON — also known as the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world — the impact of Penn State students who became such a positive source of courage and strength for his cancer-stricken daughter.

“Unfortunately, it took the devastating experience of having a child with cancer to open my eyes to the incredible achievement that is THON,” said Restall.

Sophie Restall was 5 years old in 2000 when she came down with a fever she couldn’t shake. After a month of repeated trips to the pediatrician but no improvement of her condition, further tests revealed she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Matthew and his wife, Helen, a professional photographer, immediately began a nationwide search for the best medical care available for their daughter. They were surprised when the search led them back to central Pennsylvania, to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. But Restall quickly learned how lucky he and his family were to be living within easy driving distance of Penn State Children’s Hospital.

Sophie underwent chemotherapy treatment at Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey, where the Restalls learned about the Four Diamonds Fund and their partnership with the students involved with THON. Matthew Restall credits the doctors at Penn State Hershey for saving his daughter’s life, and said that knowing THON helps raise funds to support their medical efforts makes him feel good about being a part of the Penn State community.

“Our family not only benefited from the world-class doctors and nurses at Penn State’s medical center, but we were blessed by the financial, logistical and moral support of the Four Diamonds Fund,” said Matthew. “The Fund provides such support to hundreds of families like ours year and after, and it is all made possible by the Penn State students. These undergraduates set an example of selfless commitment to a cause and of the joy of volunteering and working together as a team toward a noble goal to help others, especially children.”

In 2001, the Restalls attended their first THON.

“It was an amazing experience to realize this was going on all along right under our noses, although it was a bittersweet thing because we didn’t expect we would be attending THON under those circumstances,” said Matthew. “Sophie is now a beautiful and healthy 14-year-old who has been cancer-free for eight years and is looking forward to attending her ninth THON on Feb. 20.”

Students from Orchesis Dance Company and fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon, who Sophie refers to as “my dancers” in THON, adopted her as one of their Four Diamonds kids.

“The young men from ‘Teke’ and women from Orchesis keep in touch all year-round via e-mail and in person; they host us over at the Teke house half a dozen times a year,” said Matthew. "For example, at Halloween they organize a huge pumpkin-carving party for us -- dozens of them, both Tekes and Orchesis, and our family of five! And several times a year we have about 20 of them over to our house for dinner. We also attend the Orchesis dance showcases every semester. We see them most before and during THON but, as I said, all year-round; and once the students graduate, they tend to stay in touch with us.

“There is nothing that these students can learn in any class at Penn State that is a substitute that an undergraduate can actually learn by participating in THON,” he added.

He would like more faculty and staff members at Penn State to be open to attending THON and seeing the hard work and dedication the students put into the event, especially in the last few hours.

“THON is a life-changing experience for thousands of people; it is Penn State’s best face,” said Matthew Restall. “If you are a Penn State faculty member, please visit the Bryce Jordan Center over THON weekend and do all you can to support the students who contribute to this amazing phenomenon.”

Restall will be there to offer encouragement to students in his classrooms and others from across the University, because he knows that the small investment of his time could never repay the unexpected but invaluable, intangible benefits that THON and Penn State students offered to his daughter and the entire Restall family in 1988, at a time when they needed it more than he could have imagined.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010