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Orderly racks and shelves. Coffee gurgling in the café pots. Carts arranged and ready to roll. It's 6 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving at a SuperTarget store in Minnesota. Debbie Witschen feels energized despite the early hour. As the Store Team Leader, she supervises some 400-plus employees and she's not at all daunted by Black Friday crowds.
You'd never know it to look at her, but her child is battling a brain tumor.
On August 18 this year, 14-year-old Dylan was tackled at football practice. Afterward in the locker room, his left hand went numb and he had a seizure. At a local hospital, an MRI revealed a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. The mass was removed and found to be cancer. Debbie and her husband, Ed, were devastated.
"It took every ounce of strength not to break down," said Debbie. "We had to stay positive for Dylan."
As Dylan recovered from surgery, Debbie and Ed searched for ongoing care. They were entering a different world.
"I knew Dylan had cancer, but I never thought 'terminal,'" said Debbie. "I thought, 'What does cancer really mean?' I learned that it was a months- or year-long process of treatment. We were living this fight."
Because Target has been a long-time supporter of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's Thanks and Giving® campaign through point-of-purchase sales, Debbie knew to include the hospital in her search. What she learned impressed her even more.
The innovative treatment plan at St. Jude led to better survival odds than those of other hospitals.
The St. Jude protocol offered radiation combined with a more intense course of chemotherapy than at their local hospital, thereby reducing the treatment time by three whole months. Dylan's healthy stem cells—harvested before his chemotherapy began—would be transplanted back into his body after each round of chemotherapy, speeding the repair process.
Best of all, the treatment had proved successful.
"We saw that the success rates are better at St. Jude than at other hospitals, and that was one of the contributing factors as to why we chose St. Jude." said Debbie.
Insurance concerns also weighed in St. Jude's favor. When their doctor in Minnesota first consulted them about Dylan's ongoing care, he warned Debbie and Ed to "Get ready for financial hardship." Insurance had covered most of Dylan's care so far, but what happened in the future if he needed an experimental drug? In the world of pediatric cancer, many promising treatments are still in the research stages. What if their insurance company balked at the risk and refused to pay?
At St. Jude, they would never have to compromise on Dylan's treatment because the hospital is the only pediatric cancer research center where families never pay for treatment not covered by insurance.
In the end, they presented all the pros and cons of each treatment option and asked Dylan what he thought. Would Dylan be willing to leave his friends and family for months on end to travel to a hospital—even a very good one—that was 850 miles away?
The answer was a definitive yes.
"I want to go wherever I have the best chance," he told his parents. "I want to go to St. Jude."
Once the family had made its decision, her Target family supported Debbie every step of the way. Something Debbie is so grateful for.
"They made it easier for me to handle Dylan's cancer diagnosis," said Debbie. The outpouring of support from Target humbles her still. Her coworkers wished her well, dispensed hugs, sent cards and heartfelt letters and offered to cover her shifts indefinitely.
After all, Target has supported St. Jude families for years. The corporation donates so much money to St. Jude that its funding built and supports Target House, a comfortable dwelling for St. Jude families facing long-term treatment.
When Debbie first stepped inside St. Jude, she was in awe of the beautiful murals, happy kids and personalized attention that Dylan received from the medical staff. When she entered Target House for the first time, she felt something else—pride.
"It's so amazing," said Debbie. "It's absolutely free to families. To work at Target, to see what we do for St. Jude families from communities all over the world, it's absolutely amazing."
In each Target house apartment, families are provided with Target toasters, bedding and draperies – all the merchandise Debbie sold in her store, and all provided for each family's comfort. Hundreds of miles from Minnesota, here at Target House, the Witschen family felt at home.
Target House offers apartments complete with bathrooms and kitchens so families can lead as normal a life as possible. The communal areas are very nice too. Families may check out DVDs from the video library. Children play piano in the Amy Grant Music Room or paint pictures in the fully stocked arts and crafts studio. Dylan made friends right away.
Dylan is done with the radiation portion of his treatment, and he got to spend the month of November back home. Now he's back at St. Jude for tests, a stem cell harvest, months of chemotherapy and the stem cell replacement. If all goes well, he should be back home by April or May. His teachers back home send lessons to the teachers at St. Jude so Dylan won't lose a year of school.
He misses his friends but keeps in touch by texting and Webcam. And he has a box on his TV that lets him keep up with his favorite Minnesota sports teams. It hasn't always been easy, but he's kept a good attitude.
"Dylan is a great kid. A happy-go-lucky, fun-loving kid," said Debbie. "For every moment we cry, we laugh 10 times more."
Knowing Dylan is in such great hands makes Debbie feel better as she travels back and forth from Tennessee to Minnesota to work part time at her Target store back home. She says that keeping her job at Target is "great therapy."
"Keeping my Target routine has helped me remain positive and strong for Dylan and my family," she says.
And this holiday season, she has extra motivation to work as hard as she can for Target.