High schooler helps others after bout with lymphoma

Student athlete Scott Verkulien took on cancer his senior year of high school

Scott Verkulien points to a silver bell on the wall of the cancer center. Survivors get to ring on their last day of treatment.

Skip over the uncomfortable stretch of months where Scott Verkulien didn’t know he had Hodgkin lymphoma, yet knew something was wrong.

Then skip over his treatments after he did find out he had a rare form of this disease. And bypass the accompanying fatigue and days away from school.

Go directly to the day that Verkulien, an excellent student and athlete whose last year at Moorhead High School was swallowed by cancer, was ringing the bell at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, North Dakota, last December.

He was surrounded by friends that day. They literally filled the hallways and the lobby for the bell ringing that signified he’d completed his last chemotherapy treatment.

“Of all the people who were there when I rang the bell, almost all of them had made it to one of my treatments along the way,” Verkulien said.

“I spent a lot of hours there but not that many days. So the number of people that actually came on the days I was getting the treatment and on the day I rang the bell was astounding.”

Sanford’s example

The example set by Sanford people providing his care has convinced him all the more to pursue a career in a health-related field. He is planning on attending Concordia College in Moorhead in the fall with the idea that he’ll pursue a career as an oral surgeon.

Certainly, given that he’s still a teenager, he has the opportunity to change his mind on that. What will not change are the tough days he endured that were made more comfortable by understanding doctors, nurses and staff. In short, they made helping others look like a solid career choice.

“It goes right back to treating others the way you would like to be treated,” Verkulien said. “The Sanford people always treated me with kindness. I was never happy, given my situation, but they were always kind. They were totally modeling exactly what I would do in the future.”

Verkulien’s medical history was brief

Six months after ringing the bell, Verkulien is healthy and working at a summer job in construction.

It has been a team effort to be sure with Verkulien quick to recognize the support. Like many healthy kids, he needed infrequent medical attention up until he was diagnosed with cancer.

“I can only say good things about the staff at Sanford,” he said. “And right now I feel really good about my health — so it seems they did a good job — the right job.”

More specifically, he calls radiation oncologist Dr. Sommer Nurkic “a blessing from heaven — absolutely wonderful,” and is effusive in his praise of the entire staff.

“All three of my oncologists over in the pediatric ward for chemotherapy were unbelievable,” he said. “The nursing staff is unbelievable. There is nothing else to say about them. They go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure you are happy and healthy and well while in their facility.”

Make-A-Weight-Room

Verkulien’s successful recovery is enough of a story on its own, but only part of his story.

He is also responsible for a dramatically remodeled weight room at Moorhead High School. This is because when Make-A-Wish Minnesota asked him what he wanted, he told them his wish was a new weight room for the football team.

Any testament to Verkulien’s character could start right there. He had a lot of options that would look good to a teenager. Disney World with the Super Bowl winners? Skydiving with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? The possibilities were limited only by his own creativity.

“I started letting my imagination run wild with that,” Verkulien said. “But I started thinking about what was missing. In the end, making a weight room my choice was pretty easy. There was always something missing and always too many people based on the amount of equipment.”

Using Verkulien’s logic, it made perfect sense: Make-A-Wish presents kids with the opportunity to do something cool that they wouldn’t get to do otherwise. That’s the whole point, right?

The Spuds coaching staff was on board and quickly began rallying others to contribute. The result is that Moorhead High School is getting a weight room far superior to what it had.

“It’s all coming together,” Verkulien said. “I didn’t think it would get as much attention as it did — to tell you the truth, I’m a little dumbfounded by it all.”

Daily life

Those close to him are inspired by the way he addressed his challenges. He’s been inspired, in turn, by the outpouring of support that he has received from everyone else.

He has no interest, however, in marching his ordeal around as a future source of strength. He’d rather just wave goodbye to the whole works.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — I get that,” Verkulien said. “But I’d rather put it behind me and move forward. I think that’s the best way to go about it. If you think about it more and more, the more it weighs you down. I ignore it as much as possible. I continue about my daily life.”

Not ever alone

His mother, Terri Trickle, tells of a conversation her son had with Dr. Samuel Anim, a specialist in pediatric cancer and blood disorders at Roger Maris Cancer Center. It was early on in the process and Dr. Anim memorably laid out the framework for what was coming next.

“He said ‘You’re going to have to do this — you’re going to do the work here, buddy. Unfortunately, all the hard stuff is on you,’” Trickle said. “Then Dr. Anim added, ‘But you’re not going to be alone. We promise you’re never going to be alone.’”

She texted Moorhead head football  coach Kevin Feeney, telling him her son had cancer and that she was going to need the coach’s help on making sure he wasn’t alone.

“All Coach Feeney said was, ‘We got it. He’ll never be alone,’” Trickle said. “And he never was.”

It became part of the Spuds’ football practice in August. There would be all the normal things going on in preparation for a football season and then it would be “Who’s going to see Scott? When are you going and who is driving?”

“He made visiting Scott part of being on the team,” Trickle said. “He even taught the kids how to enter a cancer ward.”

Verkulien’s introduction to cancer

In the spring of 2019, Verkulien was finishing up his junior year at Moorhead and looking forward to a senior year that would include football and all the other things that come with closing one era of your life successfully.

His neck started hurting in April, however, and that changed everything. Tests and doctor visits followed without immediate resolution. He even went to Europe with a high school history group, but when he got back in June the discomfort had intensified.

“When he got off that plane, he said, ‘Mom, my neck is on fire,’” Trickle remembered. “Then we were in a different place. I had a kid who was clearly telling me he was in more pain than he could tolerate.”

Eventually a surgical biopsy revealed he had cancer in his lymph nodes. Verkulien’s discomfort to that point did not have a name. Then it did.

“We got out of that meeting and I went right back to work that day,” Verkulien said. “I’m not even kidding. It was more like a relief to finally have an answer. It wasn’t the one that anybody would want but at least it was something tangible. I finished up work that week and had surgery a few days later.”

Normal life makes its return

In some ways ringing the bell at the cancer center was just the beginning. Verkulien did not know at the time, for instance, that the coronavirus would end up knocking out whatever there was left to salvage of a normal end to high school.

A bout with COVID-19 now could potentially be far more difficult to deal with than it would for a typical teenager, so he’s been especially vigilant.

As much as life can get back to normal for a cancer survivor living through the pandemic, though, it’s getting back to normal. He’s exercising regularly with Poppy, his big goldendoodle. He’s anxious to try out the new weight room at the high school and he’s already been water skiing in northern Minnesota.

“The water at the lake felt like it was about 48 degrees,” Verkulien said. “I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s way too cold and way too fun all at the same time.”

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Posted In Cancer, Children's, Fargo, Specialty Care

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