For the kids. That’s the mantra of BuckeyeThon, an Ohio State student fundraiser for the children and families in the Hematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant Department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. BuckeyeThon’s student participants raise money throughout the year, and if they earn enough (a $250 minimum in 2017), they gain entry to a 24-hour dance marathon. That dance marathon, at the Ohio Union, is a celebration filled with music, games and a red carpet for kids who have been treated for pediatric illnesses. The children run down the carpet while the students cheer. At the end of the marathon, students unveil the total amount raised for pediatric cancer. It was a record in 2017 – more than $1.5 million – and when it was announced, a roar thundered through the Union. Exhausted students started dancing again.
Those touched by BuckeyeThon all have their stories. Here are just a few.
No one wanted to tell Carter Davis that he had cancer – “leukemia” seemed a less daunting word – but he figured it out anyway. And he knew what stretched out before him: months and years of chemotherapy, all of it halting his childhood. “But I just knew that we would get through it,” he said. He was 7 then. He’s 11 now. He did get through it. He finished chemo in February (2017). Twenty-nine spinal taps and more than 80 hospital nights later, he has the chance to be a kid again. His oncologist told him he’ll be feeling normal in no time. BuckeyeThon exists for kids like Carter. It raises money to assist in their care and fuel the research that could someday end childhood cancer. The children know this, and they know something else: BuckeyeThon – and especially the fundraiser’s closing dance marathon – picks them up when they may be feeling at their worst. “It’s so cool when like you run down that red carpet and high-five everyone, and they’re all cheering,” he said. Carter’s story began with what seemed like a virus. Blood tests confirmed that it was much worse. Doctors told his parents that he was gravely ill.
“It didn’t really click at that point, so we walked upstairs and they said, ‘Welcome to Oncology,’” said Carter’s mom, Julie. “So that’s when we knew something was very wrong.”
They discovered BuckeyeThon during Carter’s treatment. Carter’s father, Brian, was struck by how hard the young volunteers worked and how much they gave. Relationships followed. Students quickly became family. Dance marathons felt like reunions. And in 2017, it was an especially happy reunion. Carter was nearly done with chemo and relishing the thought of not being sick anymore. He stayed up late, past 11 p.m., playing games with his college friends. Everyone wanted to play with Carter. Even he was amazed. “I turn the corner and someone is always there to say, ‘I’ll play this with you, I’ll do that,’” he said. “It’s just super cool that so many college students gather to come and help kids with pediatric cancer.”
To Anthony Stranges, cancer meant dying. He was 7 and in the second grade and had something sinister growing in his mouth. Doctors gave it the worst name. “It meant a bad ending,” he thought. But he was wrong. More than a decade later, Stranges enrolled at Ohio State, where he joined BuckeyeThon and ultimately became president of the student-driven fundraiser to beat pediatric cancer. During his tenure in 2016-17, BuckeyeThon raised more than $1.5 million for the kids at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“I’ve been able to see one generation truly fighting for the next generation of students, of leaders, of people in our community,” Stranges said.
In a way, he’s also fighting for that little boy who thought cancer meant death. When he was 7, a dental hygienist discovered a discolored spot in his month. Countless exams, scans and exploratory surgeries later, doctors at Ohio State and Nationwide finally diagnosed him with a rare form of cancer. He got lucky. Surgery took care of his cancer, and it never came back. There was no bad ending. He grew up and learned about BuckeyeThon through his older sister, and he joined as a freshman. By senior year, he was finishing his degree and volunteering full-time for the cause. It ran him through a roller coaster of emotion and took an extraordinary amount of dedication, but he couldn’t help but be involved. He saw what it meant to the volunteers – and he already knew what it meant to the children.
“We’re empowering an entire community to rally behind a cause,” he said. “And it empowers these kids to see that we are working to find a cure for them.”
THE MEDICAL STUDENT
Jim O’Brien had his reasons, and they were pretty good ones. He liked science. He wanted a comfortable life. But when he got involved with Ohio State’s student-driven fundraiser for kids with cancer, he felt his career decision take on a greater purpose.
“BuckeyeThon flipped a switch for me,” said O’Brien, now in his second year at the College of Medicine. “It’s given a whole new meaning to being a doctor.”
O’Brien is a former president of BuckeyeThon, which raised a record $1.5 million in 2017 to support children at the Hematology/Oncology/Bone Marrow Transplant Department at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He knew about the fundraiser as a freshman, but he didn’t fully understand it until he was there as a sophomore in 2013, at the end of BuckeyeThon’s climactic overnight dance marathon, watching from a balcony as students below learned much money they had raised. The crowd chanted: “For the kids!”
“Looking out over the sea of people and knowing that they’re all with you and behind this movement and have worked so tirelessly for this cause -- it was really something special,” he said. “It was something that I wanted and needed to have more of.”
His work with BuckeyeThon in the years that followed taught him about determination and drive, about committing to something far bigger than himself. It showed him how a group of passionate people can make a difference. And it pushed him to find the deeper meaning in becoming a doctor.
“BuckeyeThon is one of those things that hits you at your core,” he said. “It really will ignite your life and what you choose to do with it.”
There’s something particularly inspiring about the dance marathon marking the conclusion of BuckeyeThon, Ohio State’s student-driven fundraiser for kids with cancer. Even the doctors leave feeling rejuvenated.
“When we go back to work on Monday morning, everyone is just pumped up and ready to go,” said Dr. Keri Streby, a pediatric oncologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Ohio State. “It brings a new energy into everyone in our division.”
And it brings even more to the hospital. BuckeyeThon funds the programs at Nationwide that help kids forget about their cancer for a while. Most of the money raised goes toward the hospital’s psychosocial services, which include art and music therapy, massage and – if the child is hospitalized long enough – help with school work.
“We try to do as much as we can to give them a normal kid life, but it’s very challenging at times,” Streby said. “And that’s where BuckeyeThon steps in and helps give them back their kid life.”
The money raised also goes to training and research. It assists in the slow, expensive process of discovering new treatments and getting them approved. Fighting cancer isn’t easy. Not for the kids who have it, and not for the doctors working hard to treat them. So the BuckeyeThon Boost – that jolt of energy that follows the dance marathon – is a welcomed weapon in the battle. “I love coming to the BuckeyeThon dance marathon,” Streby said. “It inspires and motivates us.”