By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Their eyes light up every time they see their father step off the ice and make his way through the player tunnel towards them.
It’s always a race between Luke and Dean Church to see who can grab a hold of Dad — Everblades veteran forward Brad Church — first and catch a ride into the locker room.
This scene repeats itself after each Everblades home game at Germain Arena, regardless of whether the team has won or lost. To 4-year-old Luke and 2-year-old Dean, all they see is their hero, and the man who cleans them up after a messy dinner.
Kristin Church’s heart melts just like any mother’s during moments like these. But when the scene unfolded again after Wednesday night’s game against Greenville, it meant even more.
It was Thanksgiving eve.
And she realized how much as a family they had to be thankful for.
That’s because a little more than a year ago, Luke’s laughter was muted by a series of tubes running through his chest and lungs.
Doctors at at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia struggled to figure out how the 3-year-old had contracted pneumonia in his left lung, which had collapsed.
Kristin — age 29 and still adapting to another new city as a wife of a professional hockey player — found her life turned upside down. In Reading, Pa., far away from her family, who live in Falmouth, Maine — she felt scared and alone.
For the first time in his life, Brad, 28, experienced a sense of helplessness, which isn’t easy for an accomplished athlete used to being in control both on and off the ice. And it was only two weeks into the 2003-04 season for the Reading Royals, so he still didn’t know a lot about his new teammates or organization.
Dean had just turned 1 and was oblivious to everything that was going on around him.
All he knew was that he needed his mom and dad, not realizing what a frightening ordeal his older brother was going through.
This was a family in need of answers and in need of support. Over the course of two weeks they got both, developing even more strength and establishing a closer bond with their immediate and extended families.
They would need that strength again the day after Thanksgiving, and one more time for Dean just a few weeks ago.
Will Luke be OK?
It was mid-October of last year, right around Dean’s first birthday, and Luke was feeling a bit under the weather with a bad cough. Doctors thought it was maybe a chest cold and prescribed some basic antibiotics.
But young Luke, who looks like his father when Brad was the same age — right down to the short brown hair — wasn’t getting any better over the course of the next couple of days. In fact, he was feeling worse, and it was apparent that the antibiotics weren’t effective. So the doctors ordered chest X-rays and a few other tests and discovered he had full- blown pneumonia in his left lung. Luke was taken to the hospital in Reading, where he stayed for five days.
After seeing no improvement or reaction to the antibiotics — and then noticing fluid filling up his lung — the doctors deemed it necessary for Luke to be transferred by ambulance to Philadelphia.
Once he arrived at the Children’s Hospital, the doctors there tried another mixture of antibiotics, inserted a chest tube to drain the fluid from his lung and performed a bronchoscopy to reinflate the collapsed lung.
“To see your child as sick as he was and being helpless to the whole situation, not being able to take his pain away or make him feel better at that moment, was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever experienced,” says Church, whose own younger brother, Jeff, had bronchitis and asthma as a child and was in the hospital almost every month.
Luke was kept in a quarantined room in the intensive care unit for 10 days while a team of five doctors worked around the clock trying to determine his illness. He was tested for tuberculosis and other rare diseases, and was unable to communicate with his parents because of the tube in his throat, making it the scariest environment any toddler should have to be in.
Meanwhile, Brad and Kristin still had Dean to look after, so they rotated shifts. Brad watched Dean during the day. When he needed to be nursed at night, Kristin took over and Brad kept Luke company at the hospital.
They stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for $15 a night, which both of them praised highly.
The Royals gave Brad the entire two weeks to be with his family. The players and head coach Derek Clancy even visited Luke at the hospital and brought gifts.
“We had a real good group of guys there last year and it meant a lot to have your teammates genuinely care about a guy’s family, not just about stuff at the rink but away from the rink,” says Church, a first-round draft pick of the NHL’s Washington Capitals in 1995. “You spend a lot of time with these guys and you become a family because everybody’s away from their families.
“When you see guys that genuinely care about your children and your health, it means a lot.”
Church eventually was chosen to be team captain and helped lead the Royals to the ECHL’s Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost in five games to the Everblades.
Kristin’s mother Donna and older sister Kimberly flew down to help as soon as she called them. Brad’s parents, Laurie and Wayne, provided support over the phone initially from his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba, in the western part of Canada.
They eventually came out, too.
Kristin is the middle of five children — Kimberly, 35, Mark, 32, Adam, 26, and Kailey, 17 — and her parents and siblings treat Brad like a brother. Likewise on Brad’s side, whose younger sister Alyson, 23, flew down with his parents last week to spend Thanksgiving in Fort Myers. But for the most part, Brad and Kristin leaned on each other.
“For me, he was the rock,” says Kristin, who only remembers truly breaking down once.
“There was never a time where I felt like he was more scared than I was, which helped me through.
It’s funny that he felt the same way. We probably got each other through.”
“We’ve been married for five years and were together for a year before that. She’s incredible,” Brad says of Kristin.
“I can’t say enough about her, and not only everything she’s done for me and my career but for those kids. They couldn’t ask for a better mother or a better example to follow. She’s been a rock with a soft heart for both of them.”
Right about the two-week mark from the onset of his symptoms, Luke began to show signs of improvement. All of a sudden, once his lung had been drained of fluid and reinflated, the antibiotics began to work, and within two days he made a remarkable turnaround.
After his spikes in fever dissipated and he began to get his energy back, Luke started to walk around again and began to breathe normally. He was released from the hospital the day after Halloween and sent back to Reading, with the doctors chalking it up as a really bad case of pneumonia.
Here we go again
Brad resumed practicing and playing with the Royals, and with the team scheduled to go on the road during Thanksgiving, Kristin decided to take the boys to her parents’ house in Maine for the holiday.
The couple, who met in Portland when Brad played for the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates, still own a house in Cumberland five miles away from Falmouth and go back there in the offseason. They also visit his family in Canada during the summer.
The day after Thanksgiving, Luke had a relapse and was taken to the hospital again with pneumonia, only not as bad as before. But because this was a second occurrence, the doctors wanted to get to the root of the problem.
They tested for cystic fibrosis and it came back negative.
They then narrowed it down to either an allergy or a form of asthma.
“And when they said asthma it made sense because Brad’s brother has bad asthma,” Kristin says. “We’re lucky in that Luke’s asthma is called virus-induced or cold-induced. So when he’s not sick, he’s fine. It’s not like he’s not going to be able to play sports — he’s going to be able to do whatever he wants. But if he’s got a cold it triggers his asthma and every time he will develop pneumonia without his medication.”
Luke has been on maintenance and rescue inhalers ever since, and the Church’s also have a nebulizer machine if they need it.
Since that second episode, the rambunctious boy has been relatively healthy, thanks to the right antibiotics, and is even participating in two youth hockey programs at Germain Arena.
But his mental scars from the two ordeals are only now beginning to show.
“This poor kid. What 4-year-old do you know — when he gets hurt or has to go to the doctor or if he gets a scrape — his first question is, ‘Do I need an IV?’,” says Kristin, who herself reacts like a rabbit whenever she hears Luke or Dean cough. “If he falls, he asks, ‘Do I have to go to the hospital?’ It’s because he’s been through so much. It’s really sad.”
Feeling like a brother
Just a few weeks ago, Dean, who has Mom’s blonde hair and her oh-so-serious mannerisms, broke out in hives from his head to his toes after having an allergic reaction to Amoxycylin. Brad was on a lengthy West Coast trip with the Everblades, so Kristin found herself all alone again.
Her mother and sister had been in town visiting, but their flight back to Maine was that same day, and now she had to take Dean to the emergency room.
“After four-and-a-half hours, having to find someone else to get my mom and sister to the airport, having to leave Luke at school late because I’m here by myself, they tell me that he had an allergic reaction to Amoxycylin, and that he’s got pneumonia in his left lung.” Kristin recalls. “I just about dropped. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
“So he is on all the same medicines as Luke, the inhalers and the nebulizer if we need it. I think that Dean has the same diagnosis as Luke, the virus- induced asthma. They’re both on a maintenance inhaler every day.”
That someone else Kristin found to drive her parents to the airport was Megan Hartlieb, the wife of Brad’s linemate, Ernie Hartlieb.
Brad and Kristin are on the same page, as far as how to medically treat their boys, and also where their children rank on their list of priorities — at the top.
“You give thanks for your health and you realize how important your family is to you,” Brad says. “It’s a hard lesson to learn, but you take that extra time with your kids, stay away from the golf course. There’s no question now anymore about what comes first. They’re the No. 1 priority in my life and nothing’s ever going to change that.”
“Children are the biggest blessing in the whole world,” says Kristin. “And to ever even think about one being taken away …”
Those thoughts are not for today.
This is Thanksgiving, after all, and right about now Luke and Dean are choosing their quickest route to Daddy’s legs.
Copyright 2004, Naples Daily News. All Rights Reserved.