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Sean Kirst: A tale of a little boy lost to leukemia and the medical triumph that followed

Sean Kirst

The Sunday afternoon book club has been meeting in Lockport for about 20 years. Longtime member Jane Wendel will host a gathering Sunday, a moment of gentle pride for a mother whose son Tim is a distinguished author. The members will crowd into her living room and talk about Tim's new book, a tale of both a Western New York medical triumph and a journey back to a hard place.

Jane was thinking Friday about the pies she still needed to pick up for her friends. She said she is sometimes asked how she does it, how she maintains everyday composure while discussing "Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia." Lifting one hand, she said, "I try to be up on the ceiling while I'm watching me, while I'm down here."

It is a discipline she and her husband, Peter, have learned over many years, a way of recalling their son Eric, a 10-year-old lost decades ago to leukemia.

Tim, author of 13 books, is a writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University. "Cancer Crossings" is unlike any subject he has broached. It is both a difficult memoir and the account of a national medical triumph that took flight, at least in part, in Buffalo.

At the core, the book is the story of Eric, Tim's younger brother by seven years. Eric was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1966, at a time – as Tim puts it – "when cancer was not something people even wanted to say."

Seated Friday with Tim at a dining room table, Jane and Peter said physicians initially told them Eric might survive for only six months. They took him to the only place that made sense, the Buffalo medical center known at the time as Roswell Park Memorial Institute.

Eric lived for another seven years. It was long enough for Peter and Jane to watch as he developed a distinct and rich personality, despite a regimen of painful tests, chemotherapy and radiation that would have have staggered many adults.

Author Tim Wendel with his parents, Peter and Jane, at their home in Lockport. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Eric had an extraordinary gift, Jane said. She doesn't know if this intuition was intensified by cancer, "but he was able to walk into a room and see the people there – it didn't matter who they were or where they were from – and he understood them and embraced them."

She and her husband made a conscious decision. They raised Eric with the faith he would survive despite what anyone said, an unspoken commitment they tried to honor on all levels at home, the idea that belief in the future was tied in with the value of each day.

Of Tim's book and his recollections of his younger brother, Jane said, "You write, and it's new again."

That writing process began with an unexpected question from Tim's daughter Sarah, then in her first year of medical school.  Realizing her father rarely spoke about Eric, Sarah asked how old her uncle was when he died, and about the quality of care he received in Buffalo.

"Between the lines," Tim wrote, "I realized that Sarah was asking if Eric would have been better off at a big-city hospital in New York or Boston."

Tim told her what he believed, that Eric had been fortunate to live near Roswell. His daughter contemplated his response, then made the point that became the thesis of the book:

When tests first showed Eric had the disease, the news was essentially relayed as a death sentence. But the doctors focused on defeating childhood leukemia – with many of the key contributors working from Buffalo – eventually succeeded in their mission.

Today, 90 percent of children with that disease survive.

Tim spoke of how former Vice President Joe Biden has called for a national "cancer moonshot," for a communal, indomitable quest for a cure.

It is easy to forget, Tim said, that one such "moonshot" already happened in Buffalo.

Through Eric's medical records and other documents, Tim began a search for Drs. James Holland, Donald Pinkel, Lucius Sinks, Arnold Freeman and Jerry Yates, all of whom practiced at Roswell. At the time, they embraced a disparaging nickname used by a skeptical medicine community. They were called the "cancer cowboys," doctors who devoted their careers to saving children from leukemia at a time when many in medicine saw it as impossible.

If there is one message that Tim hopes Western New York takes from the book, it is this: Historically, this region is often insecure about its standing among the great cities of the nation.

Yet a group of doctors in the 1960s, thrown together in Buffalo by fate and passion, played a major role in taming a disease that had been a merciless killer of children.

What civic legacy, Tim wonders, could climb higher than that?

The book is also the reflection of a brother coping with great loss. Tim writes about his father's love for sailing, and how family sailboat rides from Olcott became both escape and therapy. There is a passage in which Jane pulls out a small box of Eric's things that Tim did not realize she kept – including a wallet holding a photo of a little girl from third grade, a photo Eric quietly slipped into a compartment, not long before he died.

Eric Wendel, in the third grade. (Family photo)

Friday, Tim - who lives in Virginia - did a reading from the book in Rochester. He is back in Western New York for Tuesday's 7:30 p.m. reading and signing at Just Buffalo Literary Center, before he appears Wednesday morning on Facebook Live with some oncologists from Roswell. While none of it will be easy, the most intense reading of all may be Sunday.

He will stand before his mother's book club, including women he has known since childhood. They will listen to Tim while they share in lemon meringue pie that Jane will put out because she knows it was Eric's favorite.

Even at 85, she said she steels herself to confront the memories. "You are making up your mind you're going to deal with it," she said, "and you come around a corner or you see something in the back of a drawer and it hits."

In the book, Tim recalls a Christmas Eve, shortly before Eric died, when Jane pushed the child in his wheelchair through the quiet halls of Roswell. The other children, for the most part, had the chance to go home. Mother and son, understanding the truth, drew strength from each other.

"I think he knew," Jane said of Eric.

Jane and Peter find comfort in the idea that Eric's courage and resolve – coupled with every lesson the doctors learned while treating him – helped accelerate the journey toward lives being saved today.

Near the end of the book, in a passage Tim still has trouble reading out loud, he asked each of his brothers and sisters – Susan, Chris, Bryan and Amy – what they thought Eric would be doing now, if he had lived. Every answer was different, reflecting the intimacy of those relationships.

As for Jane, asked the same question, she has no doubt.

In the ways that matter most, he'd be now as he was then.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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