Rik and Lindsay Zortman still look at the photographs, hoping to spot a clue they might have missed.
But each time they look at the images, captured at a family wedding in March 2008, they see the healthy, happy face of their youngest son, 3-year-old Armstrong, the boy who liked to run, run, run every time daddy took him to the park.
“Eight months later, he had a seizure. And on April 9, 2009, he was gone,” Rik, assistant manager of the Harlan Hy-Vee, says. “We look at those photos and wonder, what went wrong?”
The doctors called it a Stage lV Glioblastoma Multiform brain tumor. Rik was in Qatar, working for a military contractor, when the diagnosis was made. It was shortly before Thanksgiving. A frantic trip stateside followed, but Armstrong, nicknamed “Army,” was already in surgery by the time his dad got home.
Their lives became a torrent of multi-syllabic medical terms —sequential chemoradiotherapy, antiangiogenic therapy with bevacizumab, gamma knife radiosurgery, symptomatic care with corticosteroids—expensive, hard-to-pronounce drugs and trips to specialists who tried to figure out exactly what was growing in the boy’s skull, and why it was growing so fast.
Rik listened to it all. Then he prayed. He knew in his gut that Army’s prognosis was not good.
“Doctor just came out. Army is done with surgery and they were able to remove about 80% of the tumor … Still some concerns about what areas may have been affected, but we will have to see as Army comes out of the anesthesia … the next step is to let Army recover, go home, and get some rest and enjoy his Christmas.”— from the Zortman family’s blog, Dec. 10, 2008.
But the cancer would not relent.
“Our goal is to prolong his life ... not save it.” I threw up in the doctor's office after that. Up until today’s appointment, I had the total belief that Armstrong was going through all this with the future outcome of possibly being cancer free and healthy.”— Lindsay Zortman, Dec. 22, 2008.
“We tried everything. We tried experimental drugs, we did radiation. But in April there were two more tumors. Two more surgeries. We knew we didn’t have much time,” Rik says. “It was tough watching him fade away. He missed his birthday by less than a month.”
Run, run, run.
The memory of those father-son trips to the park both buoyed and haunted Rik after his youngest son’s death.
“He ran everywhere he went, so I decided I would, too,” Rik says. “I decided I was going to do it for him.”
Rik laid out a physical conditioning plan and a schedule of fund-raising walks and competitive runs that include the June 13 Hy-Vee Triathlon. Each accomplishment, he said, would correspond to a letter of the boy’s name.
“When I reach the ‘G,’ it will signify “Goal achieved,” he says.
There was a 5k walk for brain tumor research in May, followed by a 10k run and a half-marathon in Kansas City.
The Hy-Vee event represents “S.”
“I really had never done anything like this before. I played basketball and baseball in high school but was never into endurance sports,” Rik, 37, says. “Now I have to learn how to swim better. I did three laps and thought I was going to die, but Lindsay was a high school swimmer, and she will help coach me.”
The couple has four other children: Robert, 16; Montgomery, 9; Isabella, 8; and Jackson, 6. All will be in West Des Moines to cheer Rik to the finish line — after they honor their little brother by competing in youth events earlier in the day.
Rik hopes the family’s collective effort will raise awareness of the help needed by the National Brain Tumor Society to fight the type of cancer that Armstrong was unable to beat.
“I know I can only do the best I can do,” he says. “I don’t care where I finish, or in what time. No matter how hard, I won’t quit. It’s almost like a higher spirit is running with me.
“I want to finish for him.”
May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month
According to the National Brain Tumor Society:
- There are more than 600,000 U.S. residents undergoing treatment for brain tumors.
- There are an estimated 210,000 new cases each year.
- Brain tumors are the leading cause of cancer death in people 20 years old and younger.
- Brain tumor patients have poorer survival rates than breast cancer patients.
- Metastatic tumors — cancer that spreads from other parts of the body — represent the most common type of brain tumor.
- There are more than 100 types of brain tumors.
- Thirty percent of patients survive five years after diagnosis. Although as many as 74 percent of children will survive, they are often left with long-term side effects.
- Symptoms can include headaches , especially in the morning, seizures, cognitive or personality changes, eye weakness, nausea or vomiting, speech disturbances or memory loss.
To learn more and get information on how to help, visit to braintumor.org