Sick youth organizes walk-a-thon

September 14, 2010

By Laura Geggel

The Hope, Strength, Joy team, organized by Cullen Rogers to raise money during the Make-A-Wish 5K, starts out on its walk (above). Rogers and his team of family and friends were the top individual, team and state fundraiser for the event. By Mitch Reinitz

When Cullen Rogers fell ill, the Issaquah community reached forward to embrace him with support. Now, Rogers wants to help other children living with life-threatening conditions by fundraising for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

At age 12, Rogers, a Bothell resident, found his fingers hurt him. His parents thought he had sprained them and told him to be more careful during gym class. But a later X-ray showed no sprain, and anti-inflammatory medication didn’t help his fingers recover.

By the time a specialist at Seattle Children’s diagnosed him with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, the disease had spread to his limbs, knees, wrists and ankles.

“It was everywhere,” his mother, Shelley Rogers, said.

Doctors prescribed him more aggressive medication, but Cullen still had to stop playing baseball and basketball.

“He wasn’t able to swing the bat.” Shelley Rogers said. “His life changed in a few months’ time from being really active to having lots of doctors’ appointments.”

Then, life threw him another curveball. Doctors diagnosed him with severe obstructive pulmonary disease, meaning he had trouble getting air out of his lungs. He needed a double lung transplant to survive, and miraculously, within 36 hours of getting on the United Network for Organ Sharing, Cullen found a match. He and his parents flew to Stanford Hospital, and Cullen got a new pair of lungs in January 2008, when he was 13.

Lisa Reinitz, of Issaquah, and her sisters, helped their nephew by babysitting his twin sisters when he and his parents stayed in California.

As Cullen’s medical drama unfolded, Cullen found support from his immediate family in Bothell and Issaquah, and even Issaquah well-wishers he had never met.

Issaquah lends a hand

Issaquah resident Tom Cochran regularly receives e-mails from his sister-in-law, asking him to pray for people facing challenges or illness. When he heard about Cullen Rogers’ story in fall 2008, he decided to share it with his third-grade Sunday school class at St. Joseph Catholic Church and School.

“I thought they could probably relate to that, to someone who was having trouble,” Cochran said.

He mentioned it to his mother, another St. Joseph member, and she surprised him, saying she knew Cullen’s grandparents, who also go to the Issaquah church. At the next service, Cochran met Dorothy Rogers, Cullen’s grandmother.

“She told me more of the story about his arthritis and lungs,” Cochran said. “She said, ‘It’s wonderful that the third-graders are learning about his story and praying for him.’ I said, ‘How about we send him a get-well banner?’”

From there, Cochran’s class began sending Cullen get-well cards and paper snowflakes when it snowed in Issaquah, but not in Stanford, where he was recovering.

“They started asking every class. It got to be where it was normal routine to have a report about how Cullen was doing,” Cochran said.

Cullen’s grandparents, Dorothy and Lyle Rogers, visited the class and shared Cullen’s story. Cullen wanted to come, too, but his immune system needed time to recover from his surgery.

“It just made me almost tear up that the kids would think that much about a young man that they didn’t even know,” Dorothy Rogers said.

“Every few weeks, I would get a ton of cards from the third-grade class,” Cullen said. “It meant a lot to know that people were there with you every day, because it was hard.”

Cullen continued to receive support through his illness. The summer after his surgery, he received a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“When I found out from my doctor that I was eligible for Make-A-Wish, I knew right away I wanted to do the Seattle Mariners and meet Felix Hernandez and watch the game,” Cullen said.

The day of the game, the sun shone, the Mariners beat the Minnesota Twins and Cullen got signed Mariners paraphernalia.

“It meant so much to me,” Cullen said. “It’s not just the wish, the wish is great. It just kind of boosts your spirit.

“Even before the wish, it gives you something to look forward to,” he added. “Before you make a wish, you’re just worrying about your health and all of your appointments.”

He started raising money for the annual summer Make-A-Wish 5K and even spoke at a Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraiser.

In 2009, he raised about $1,200, and this year his team has raised about $6,300.

Cullen thanked his Issaquah supporters and said he would continue to fundraise for the foundation.

With the wish, “You can control it, and you can’t really control your health stuff,” he said. “You can go back to all of the memorabilia. It boosts your spirits. I want to help other kids have that.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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