The Legacy of Katie Heintz: Still Helping Others

Katie HeintzThe day Katie Heintz’s blood work indicated she might have leukemia, her entire family dropped what they were doing and traveled to C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. It was a trip they would endure repeatedly during Katie’s 10-month battle for life.

Katie had to go to Ann Arbor weekly to receive chemotherapy because those services were not available for children in northern Michigan. Her mom, Leslee, recalls the drive home from those appointments, often having to pull over as Katie was sick. The strain of dealing with a horrific diagnosis was compounded by having to travel five hours each way for the medical care Katie needed.

Living Life – Katie Style

The first question 15-year-old Katie asked when told she might have leukemia was, “Is it contagious?” True to her nature, she thought of her family and friends first. Katie, the youngest of four children, always focused on others. Each request during her extended bedtime prayers ended with, “especially for my family and friends.” She beamed love and sought harmony.

Katie was the one who always agreed to accompany her dad, Pat, when he was looking for someone to join him in an outdoor activity. She was the one who always ran to the car to give her mom a hug, even if Leslee was just going to the store.

Katie’s strong faith got a special boost at a Catholic youth conference the summer before her diagnosis. She came home and told her family, “I know there’s something God wants me to do with my life, and I don’t think it’s playing basketball.” “She had this unbelievable contact with God that few of us will be able to experience,” Pat said.

Fighting for Life – Katie Style

Treatment started immediately after Katie’s diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in October 2004. Her parents were told she had an 80 percent chance of survival. In December, two weeks before her 16th birthday, Katie had a stroke and was airlifted to Ann Arbor on the North Flight jet. Remarkably, she recovered from the stroke only to face a new diagnosis two months later – Acute Myeloid Leukemia – cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Katie underwent a bone marrow transplant on May 12, 2005. Caregivers in Ann Arbor called her “the transplant champ” because she refused morphine, not wanting to put anything into her “God-given” body that wasn’t absolutely necessary. In sports and in life, “Katie always played the best when the competition was the toughest,” Pat said. Not content to let life pass her by, Katie got her driver’s license and went to the St. Francis High School prom, two rites of passage for any 16-year-old.

Celebrating Life – Katie Style

Katie died on her mom’s 50th birthday. Only days before, Katie talked with her sister, Alicia, insisting they do something really special for their mom’s birthday. The Heintz family now celebrates two events on August 28 – the day Leslee entered the world, and the day Katie left it to be with God. “What could be more special than that?” Leslee says.

Helping Others – Katie Style

The Heintz family wanted to honor Katie’s memory in a way she would appreciate. They teamed up with the St. Francis High School Key Club to launch “Hoops for a Cause.” Every player wore a shirt with Katie’s number – 32. During the next 10 years, the annual Katie Heintz Basketball Tournament raised more than $125,000 to benefit pediatric oncology and hematology patients at Munson Medical Center.

Pediatric infusion services are now provided at Munson Medical Center, allowing ailing children and their families to avoid some of the trips needed for specialty care. “The kids in Key Club do all of this work to make this happen,” Leslee said. “Katie would not want to draw attention to herself, but she would love to make a difference for these other sick kids.” The Heintz family also sponsors an annual $1,000 scholarship for a graduating senior at St. Francis. It goes to a senior who, like Katie, is kind to everyone.

Keep Believing – Katie Style

Ten years later, cars around town still sported “We Believe – Katie style” stickers. The phrase came from Katie’s sign-off on her hospital care page. “It is amazing what God can do and what praying can accomplish...I hope in some way I can help strengthen your Faith (I hope you have a wonderful Faith) but through this experience, I have learned just how much God does and how much Faith means. I hope you all can realize just how truly awe inspiring Faith in God is! Hope all is well with everyone and continue to Keep Believing...God Bless!”

When Katie’s class graduated in 2007, Leslee and Pat gave every student a memento that said, “Just Believe... Love always, Katie.” “To this day, I’ll still see some of the girls with their bracelets on,” Leslee said.

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