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THON Family Hour: 'Thank You Will Never Be Enough'

by and on February 17, 2019 2:30 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 2019 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 $157 million for the Four Diamonds since 1977.

Michael Palm

John Palm remembers that day in August 2003 when his six-year-old son Michael's swollen glands turned out to be something so much worse. His wife, Barb, was at the hospital with Michael while John was home with their daughters and the call came.

He drove to the hospital "in a catatonic state" and upon arrival asked himself "Can I see through the darkness?" As he watched his son scream in pain from being poked with needles, he realized he and Barb had to be Michael's bridge in his battle with leukemia.

"Our journey through troubled waters had begun," he said.

Throughout his remarks, John paused as Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," played, a song he listened to often on trips to and from the hospital.

While at the hospital, the Palms were introduced to the Four Diamonds and THON.

"We quickly learned we had found our bridge in you," John said.

The Palms attended their first THON in 2004, and Michael hasn't missed one since. He and his sisters, Kelsey and Erin, would all organize mini-THONs at their elementary and high schools. Erin danced in THON as a Penn State student.

The family was paired with Sigma Phi Epsilon as their THON organization. Now a Penn State student, Michael is a member of the same fraternity, has been involved with THON for four years, and in 2019 is one of 707 THON dancers.

"I look around the BJC and I see heroes," John said. "I truly see heroes. It’s absolutely humbling to be among such an incredible community."

For Michael, THON 2019 marked a journey coming full circle.

"I want to thank you for saving my life," Michael said. "I would not be here today and able to fulfill this 15 year dream of dancing in THON without each and every one of you."

John Palm, father of cancer survivor and current THON dancer Michael Palm, speaks to the crowd during THON 2019 Family Hour. Photo by Patrick Spurlock | Onward State

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Bekah Tuckey

On August 27, 2011, Bekah Tuckey was less than a week away from her first day of kindergarten. It was that same day that her mother, Katherine, received a call from their pediatrician that changed their lives. After a doctor's visit because Bekah's color looked off, blood tests came back abnormal.

Pack a bag, the pediatrician told Katherine. A room was being prepared for Bekah at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. The 5-year-old would be diagnosed with leukemia

As the family walked down the hallway, they stopped at the Lion statue for a blurry photo — what Katherine now calls the last moment of the Tuckey family’s “old normal.”

“Every time a doctor or a nurse came in for one thing or another, I had to tell her it was okay,” Katherine said. “But was it? Is any of it okay?”

After 799 days of treatment, Bekah beat leukemia. A year later, then in third grade, she relapsed.

“[These kids] are resilient, but they are broken,” Katherine said. “When Bekah relapsed, cancer took her spirit, it took her laughter, it took her drive.”

The Tuckeys didn’t have an old normal, but Katherine said they were inspired by the support of their families, friends, communities, and now the movement fighting against pediatric cancer, which includes THON and the Four Diamonds.

The organization HEAL, an acronym for Help Every Angel Live, was paired with the family. Even when Bekah wasn’t able to attend THON because of treatment or compromised immunity, alumni and members of the organization gave the Tuckeys “a full house.”

“I call them our HEALroes because they have done more than they could possibly know as far as getting me through this journey,” Katherine said.

Now 12, Bekah has beaten cancer twice, with her last treatment in 2016.

Although Bekah decided not to speak, Katherine left the crowd with her favorite quote from Rocky Balboa:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

The Tuckey family on stage during THON 2019 Family Hour

Emilia Dameshek

“Before that day, we were just your every day, sort of run of the mill American family.”

Emilia Dameshek was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma six years ago at the age of 9. Unlike many families, Emilia’s mom, Natalie, already knew about the Four Diamonds when the organization was introduced to her at the hospital.

Natalie described how she heard about Four Diamonds and thought in the back of her head that her family didn’t need it — her husband, Mitchell, had a good job, and the family had great insurance. However, they weren’t prepared for the days that lied ahead.

Through 14 chemotherapy cycles, five different drugs, a life-altering surgery, and two weeks of radiation, the Four Diamonds was there.

Around the time of Emilia’s surgery, the family was partnered with the Club Gymnastics THON rganization. It was the perfect pairing — Emilia was constantly trying back bends and tumbling. Four girls from the organization traveled to see the Damesheks over a cold weekend, and a few weeks later, they got to meet the rest of the members at THON 2014.

“I was so overwhelmed because you were all here for us,” Natalie said. “You were supporting our child, our family, other kids like ours.”

After Emilia had finished her treatment, the family found out that she had developed a blood cancer from one of the drugs that treated the Ewing’s Sarcoma. Emilia spent 37 nights straight in the hospital, took a drug that cost more than $5,000 per month, needed overnight nutrition at the family’s home, and had labs taken at their home. Four Diamonds paid for everything when insurance wouldn’t.

When she was at home rebuilding her immune system in hopes of returning to school, Emilia developed a fever, and Mitchell stayed home with her. Natalie later got a call at work from the nurse.

She had relapsed — three cancers in less than three years.

The Damesheks didn’t expect to be able to go to THON that year, but Emilia asked her doctors and was cleared to attend as long as she left Sunday when it got crowded. They decided to surprise their dancers when they walked onto the floor, and they were overjoyed.

Three months later, Emilia was gone. At 12 years old, Emilia passed away in May of 2016.

“She never got to be a teenager,” Natalie said. “She never made it to 13, which is the age Max (her brother) is now, because she died.”

More than 800 people attended Emilia's funeral, including Club Gymnastics members from all over the country, as well as doctors, nurses, and staff that the family had encountered throughout Emilia’s battle.

“We are here today to tell this story, and I remember our first family hour,” Natalie said, recalling the Eli Sidler family story. “It was one of the few times that we ever just cried right in front of our kids…because we knew that one day that could be Emilia, because she had the same cancer.”

Natalie thanked THON leaders, volunteers, and dancers for their dedication to the cause and passion to find a cure.

“I want to thank all of you. We did it with all of you,” Natalie said. “You helped us through the darkest time in our lives. Thank you will never be enough, but we’ll continue to say it.”

Natalie Dameshek, mother of Emilia Dameshek, speaks at THON 2019 Family Hour.

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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