Linda Donnelly Gontko called Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in March with a special request. She was visiting Seattle and wondered if we could help her find a bench that had been donated in gratitude for her late son’s treatment here in 1983. Yes, we could, and did.
Diagnosed with leukemia shortly before his 18th birthday, Gontko’s son, Chip, received a bone marrow transplant in the early, harrowing days of transplantation. Fred Hutch had then been located in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, and that’s where the original bench was installed. When the Hutch moved to its South Lake Union campus, a new bench was placed in Mundie Courtyard. The wording on the plaque – written by Chip – is the same.
Seeing the bench was “grand” Gontko said, as she was touring Fred Hutch and its treatment arm, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Afterwards, in a phone conversation filled with laughter and tears, she shared her story.
When Chip was growing up we lived in Saginaw, Michigan. That’s where he went to school and graduated, and where he died. Now we live on Lake Huron in the summer, at Point Lookout. He would have loved the lake house!
I was a financial advisor at Northwestern Mutual for almost 50 years. I didn’t work full-time for three or four years when the kids were small. We had three children: Chip, Mark and our daughter Debra.
Chip was my first-born. He was my difficult child. He and I never seemed to see eye to eye. He was rebellious and determined.
On my 40th birthday in December 1982, my husband, Larry, threw a little surprise party in the basement. I had Chip’s senior class picture on the piano. It was taken in August. Our friend Bob, who had moved to Florida and was in town for Christmas, said, “What a handsome looking kid!” Then Chip came downstairs, and Bob says, “Oh my gosh Chip, you don’t look at all like your picture!” It was December 27.
In the third week in January 1983, Chip had been having pain in his legs and back. He did not attend school and I decided to stay home with him. I was dusting the piano, looking over at him on the couch, and that sentence came back to me. “Chip, you don’t look at all like your picture.” And my heart sank to my ankles. I said, “What’s going on? You don’t look like your picture.” He jumped from the couch and showed me his belt still fit him. But he really did look pale and weak, and I was concerned.
My brother Denny died of leukemia when I was 7 years old. He was 12 when he was diagnosed. He lived three months. He was my mother’s first son, her mother’s first grandchild. I am the oldest daughter of 13.
My husband was already going to the doctor. And so having lived through this with Denny, I said, “Take Chip with you. Have Doc run a blood test.” Then I got a phone call at my office the next day, and they said, “We want to run another blood test.” That really concerned me and it was a long weekend. By the time Monday came around, they called and said, “It is acute myeloid leukemia.”
That was the beginning.