Pay it Forward with Hope and Inspiration
There are few words in our language that evoke the kind of negative thoughts the word “cancer” does. And when the word “cancer” is associated with a child, you can multiply those thoughts ten-fold.
Katie Winkle, now 18, and her family had those thoughts in June 2006 when they received word that what they thought was mononucleosis, in a worst-case scenario, turned out to be acute mylelogenous leukemia. She was only 13 years old.
Thankfully, through the support of her family and the community in her hometown of Orange, Katie has emerged on the other side of a battle with the leading cause of death by disease among U.S. children between infancy and age 15, as a young adult with a perspective well beyond her age.
In February 2007, Katie and her family received the news all cancer patients hope to hear; your disease is in remission. Realizing she has received a life “mulligan,” the senior at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn., now looks to spend as much time as possible helping raise money for research, in hopes that someday a cure will be found, while also sharing first-hand experiences with those who are also facing many of the same battles she did.
“Right from the start, Katie was always positive and knew when she beat the disease, she would spend a good portion of her time helping others who are facing what she did,” Dr. Joe McNamara, who was Katie’s pediatric oncologist, said. “There were many times during her treatment and recovery she kept our spirits high. She is now a young lady with a great perspective who has a strong sense of self and what she will do with her life.”
Katie has played in all four softball divisions of Orange Little League, concluding her career this summer in the Big League division before heading off to college. She has also been an integral member of successful high school teams.
A right-handed pitcher who also has played shortstop and first base, Katie helped her Little League (11-12-year-olds) team earn a berth in the 2005 Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Ore. She helped the team, which with seven of the same players the previous season, fell one game shy of a World Series berth, losing in the regional final, advance to the championship game. Katie’s no-hitter in her first game of the tournament was followed with a complete-game shutout highlighted by 10 strikeouts and the only RBI in a 1-0 semifinal victory.
A loss in the championship game, their first in 25 tournament games, was a sour ending to the season, but set the stage for the team, with many of the same players, to make a run at the Junior League Softball World Series two years later. That team won the state championship before losing in the regional semifinals.
Katie’s high school career has been marked by similar success.
In 2009, she hit .444 and pitched the Pacers to a strong season in which they fell one game shy of the state tournament. Last spring, Katie garnered all-state honors while helping the Pacers earn that berth in the state tournament that had eluded them the previous season.
More than an athlete, Katie understands life is now about what is ahead of her.
In the summer of 2009, Katie began training a local girl in the fundamentals of pitching during her free time. Katie and her student, Grace Whitman, soon developed a friendship to the point she would also babysit, during which time they worked more on pitching. Last summer, Grace, an accomplished swimmer, and inspired by Katie’s successful battle with cancer, donated a portion of what she had raised with “Laps for Life” to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
“I am proud of Grace for donating the money she raised by swimming laps in a pool over the summer to a charity that is close to my heart,” Katie said. “For someone only 10 years old to do something like that is extraordinary. There are a lot of other things a person her age could have done with that money.”
Another way Katie and her family are giving back is by hosting or helping out with blood drives. This especially hits home because during Katie’s treatment and recovery from her life-threatening illness, she received numerous blood and platelet transfusions.
“Going through what I did, I have first-hand knowledge of how important it is to give blood,” Katie said. “The transfusions I had were essential to my ability to beat the disease. There is a need for blood on a daily basis all over the world as people in the same position I was in battle to stay alive.”
Many of the blood drives the Winkles have been a part of since the summer of 2007, have been so successful that people would wait in lines for up to an hour, and in some cases people had to be turned away.
“The community we live in has been unbelievably supportive in so many ways over the last six years,” Katie’s mother, Beth, said. “They helped our family during Katie’s time in the hospital and they have continued supporting related causes to this day. Every time there is a need in this community, the outpouring and support of everyone is something you can’t put into words.”
Many of Katie’s friends and family friends also enjoy joining the Winkle family in supporting other fund-raising events in the area such as the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, the Leukemia and Lymphoma’s Light the Night, and the annual Tommy Fund Walk that benefits the pediatric cancer area of the Yale/New Haven Children’s Hospital, where Katie was treated.
One of Katie’s former teammates on the 2005 Little League team, catcher Jen Post, came up with the idea to have t-shirts with “Kate’s Krew” printed in support of her battle and to identify the people who are members of the team. Many times they will also use “Kate’s Krew” as the team name at the various fund-raising events.
“Kate’s Krew has been a huge support system for me from day one,” Katie said. “They support me, and the causes that are close to me, at multiple events every year. Their support has been a big part of my recovery and they will continue to be an important part of my life moving forward.”
Katie Winkle’s (left) story meant so much to local 10-year-old, Grace Whitman, that Grace donated a portion of the money she raised with “Laps for Life” to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society on behalf of Katie.
One of the events Katie looks forward to each year is attendance at Camp Rising Sun in Colebrook, Conn. It is a camp for children, ages 5-17, who have been diagnosed with cancer. Each year the camp hosts children for a weekend in March and for a whole week in August.
Dr. McNamara, who has spent his vacation for the last 20 years working at the camp, encouraged Katie to attend.
Katie was a camper there for four years and recently went through the training to become a camp counselor. In March, she completed her first experience at the camp as a counselor.
“As a camper at Camp Rising Sun, there were so many people who gave of their time to help us enjoy our time, whether it was an activity, a craft or just sharing a conversation,” Katie said. “Now as a counselor, I love seeing the kids having fun, giving them a chance to forget about their situation. It is easy for me to relate to what they are going through.”
“Katie is a wonderful role model at the camp,” Dr. McNamara said. “She is an example of a child who has beaten the disease. I think there are a lot of children at the camp who draw inspiration from Katie and other counselors who are proof you can win the battle.”
Another way Katie is lending a helping hand is by returning to the same floor she was on in Yale/New Haven Hospital on a weekly basis to help children who are in the same position she was. She serves as an inspiration for the patients she meets as part of the “Circle of Care” program through Dr. McNamara’s office.
But maybe Katie’s greatest “gift” will come with the next step in her life. Set to attend Quinnipiac University, also located in Hamden, Conn., this fall, Katie will begin work toward a professional career as a nurse with a specialization in pediatric oncology hoping to continue her work with others who have had their lives affected the way she did.
Katie’s mother, Beth, who assists with the family bus company, Winkle Bus Company, along with her husband, Craig, who is the vice president, knew Katie had a kind heart, but her caring attitude has multiplied in the last few years.
“Katie was always one who looked out for the underdog,” Beth said. “She made a lifelong commitment and has honored her word by her actions. Craig and I feel we are blessed to have such a remarkable daughter who will spread her goodness in this world.”
“I would like to help as many children who are sick as possible,” Katie said. “I want to give back to the medical community and help make a difference in the world by being a nurse.”
But, it is probably David Ruotolo, a family friend and Little League District Administrator for the area around Katie’s hometown, who summed it up best.
“Katie has experienced more in her life than most people twice her age,” he said. “She went from being a healthy 12 year old to a 13 year old with a life threatening disease. Going through her recovery definitely made Katie more mature for her age, but Katie can be giddy and loves having fun just like any other girl her age.”