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THON Family Hour: 'Our Lives Have Changed and Will Never Be the Same'

by and on February 18, 2018 2:47 PM

By Geoff Rushton and Elissa Hill

The families who inspire year-round fundraising and a 46-hour dance marathon took center stage on Sunday afternoon as THON 2018 headed into its final hours.

The emotional Family Hour recognized all the families of the Four Diamonds, the program at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital that provides financial and emotional support to pediatric cancer patients and their families.

The hour also featured three families who discussed their experiences with cancer, the Four Diamonds and Penn State's THON, which has raised more than $146 million for the Four Diamonds since 1977.

“Family Hour is known to many as the most inspiring part of THON,” Family Relations Director Tommy Misiak said to introduce the families to the Bryce Jordan Center. He thanked every Four Diamonds family: “You remind us every day what we are capable of, and you motivate us to work even harder so that one day no parent will ever have to hear, ‘Your child has cancer.'”

Landon Knepp

On Oct. 13 2014, four-year-old Landon Knepp had been having chronic stomach aches for months. Doctors didn't have an explanation, until the day his parents thought he was having an appendicitis and took him to an urgent care clinic.

"God do we wish it was an emergency appendectomy," his mother, Katie Knepp said. "That was the worst day of our lives. Our lives have changed and will never be the same because of cancer."

The Knepps would learn Landon had stage 4 neuroblastoma. He was taken to Penn State Hershey Medical Center for emergency surgery, where he immediately developed a relationship with pediatric oncologist Malika Kapadia.

"I knew then he was going to be ok," Katie Knepp.

He would go through six rounds of chemotherapy, five inpatient and one outpatient. The outpatient round would often land him back in the hospital.

"We got through all of that with the support of all of you," Katie Knepp said.

She said the family probably would have been bankrupted by medical bills if not for THON and Four Diamonds, but the relationships the family formed were even more important.

“They go big or go home at Penn State Hershey for Halloween,” Katie said. She told the story of sprinting through the hospital with a nurse so Landon could see the magic show on Halloween and have the opportunity to “just be a kid.”

Katie also said it really hit her when Landon started to lose his hair. “It was the feeling of walking around and having people — without realizing it — give you that look of pity…When we started noticing those looks, it was kind of just like we couldn’t pretend any more.”

The Knepps were paired with Zeta Psi fraternity before THON 2015, but couldn’t attend because Landon had a surgery the following Monday. Zeta Psi sent five brothers to the hospital that week. “From that day on, our lives changed forever, for the better.” Over that summer, Zeta Psi also paired with The Student Nurses' Association of Pennsylvania Penn State chapter.

Katie tells a story of once when she asked if some of the brothers could FaceTime Landon to raise his spirits. They did her one better: The next day, in a blizzard, they sent eleven brothers to the hospital.

Landon was declared cancer free in January of 2016. When Katie said that, the crowd roared with applause. “There are no amount of words to thank you for all that you do for our kids.”

At last year’s THON, Mike Gesicki came into the lives of the Knepp family. Katie said Gesicki has kept up with them through Instagram, at the Zeta Psi house, and at a bowling alley in State College.

The Knepps now have a new pairing with Zeta Psi and Sigma Kappa. “We cannot thank you enough.”

Landon Kreider

In September 2012, Landon Kreider was a five-year-old who had just begun kindergarten and playing soccer when his parents became alarmed the bruises, that his gums were bleeding easily after eating and other strange symptoms in their previously healthy child.

Their pediatrician ordered bloodwork and found his Landon's platelets were very low. He was sent to see a pediatric hematologist oncologist at Penn State Hershey. 

"We were told the unthinkable," Landon's father, Brian Kreider, said. "'Your son has cancer.'"

He was immediately admitted to begin treatment for leukemia.

The Kreiders were scared at first, but were determined to help their son beat cancer. Within 30 days, he was considered in remission, but still had years of chemotherapy to endure.

Landon ended chemotherapy and was declared cancer free in December 2015.

“Learning about the Four Diamonds and THON brought us a glimpse of hope, knowing financially we would not have to worry,” Brian said. “We are thankful to the Millard family for creating Four Diamonds in memory of their son Christopher, and its legacy for helping so many children like Landon.”

The Kreider family is paired with Penn State Harrisburg, who gave a loud cheer from the upper bowl.

“Without research and advances and treatment, Landon’s story may have been quite different,” Brian said. “We know this is why you THON… Please know we recognize what you do to help Landon, our family, and other Four Diamonds families. Your sacrifice, hard work, and passion is not unnoticed."

The Kreider family at THON 2018 on Sunday, Feb. 18. Photo by Patrick Spurlock

Hope Maldonado

"Never in a million years did I think I’d be standing in front of people talking about how my daughter lost her life to cancer," Nicole Maldonado said.

She said they were an ordinary family, with two sons playing football and their 12-year-old daughter, Hope, cheerleading. 

But in December 2013, they noticed Hope's left eye bulging. They were sent to an eye doctor who after X-rays sent them to a specialist at Penn State Hershey. 

There was a mass behind Hope's eye and there would need to be a biopsy.

"'I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Maldonado, but hope has cancer,'" Nicole Madonado said doctors told them in January 2014. "I’m sure there was more but that’s all I heard.

“When I finally snapped back into reality, I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to explain this to my boys? How am I going to explain this to Hope? How am I going to reassure them that everything’s going to be okay when I don’t even know?'”

Hope was in a lot of pain through treatment, but her mother said she continued to smile and laugh through it all. She joined the swim team and beat her best friend in a race the day after chemo.

“The nurses and the doctors were so amazed… They made Hope feel like a superstar.”

Hope wanted to attend THON and the Maldonados were paired with Alpha Xi Delta and Sigma Phi Epsilon. “They not only became our Greek org, but they became our extended family, and we adored them.”

"Hope made it to THON and she had an amazing time," Nicole said. "Unfortunately it was her last time."

On Dec. 26, 2015, at the age of 14, Hope Maldonado died.

"It was the worst day of our lives. A parent should never have to bury their child," a tearful Nicole Maldonado said.

She thanked the Four Diamonds and THON for their support throughout Hope's battle.

"Without their help we would have missed precious time with our Hope," she said. "Thank you everyone for standing. You’re all amazing.

“One day we will be back as parents to a Sig Ep member and a Penn State football player.”

Hope’s friend and neighbor Rose spoke on stage next — the same friend she beat in the swimming race after chemo. She tells the story of knocking on the door to get ready for school, and Hope’s father telling her Hope wouldn’t be going to school for a while.

“I didn’t really know how to take it in or understand what that really meant,” Rose said. “I didn’t really know how to act around her at first.”

When Rose realized Hope still needed a friend, they became inseparable. “If we weren’t at her house, we were at mine, and if we weren’t at my house, we were at hers…Wherever we were, we were together.”

Rose said it never really hit her how bad the cancer was until Hope told her she had the same cancer as Augustus Waters in The Fault In Our Stars. “She didn’t let the cancer and chemo stop her or take her life away. She just kept living in the moment the best that she could.”

Hope made it three months longer than what the doctors originally expected, and she and Rose spent much of that time together. “She was a warrior. Unfortunately, though, our time fell short.”

Instead of opening gifts on Christmas morning, Rose drove to the hospital to visit Hope when she was admitted to the hospital and not doing well. “I walked into Hopie’s room and held her hand and told her that I loved her and that I was so thankful I could call her my best friend…It was still just too much for me to wrap my head around.”

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

Elissa Hill is managing editor for Onward State.
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