Today, we celebrate somebody who represents hope, determination and never giving up.
The voice in the dugout who refuses to lose.
“Fight like hell!”
Today, we celebrate Thomas Sikkema, a Hudsonville High senior who kicked the crap out of cancer and is now using baseball to raise awareness about pediatric cancer.
This is about everything that is great about sports, high school athletes and the true meaning of a team.
In one year, Sikkema has gone from being a teenager fighting brain cancer to somebody who is trying to help others.
From a victim to an activist.
From a kid fighting cancer in his own body to somebody trying to save others.
Story started bleak
This story has a happy ending, but it started out looking bleak and depressing. Sikkema was playing leftfield in a breast cancer awareness game against Sterling Heights Stevenson on May 10, 2013.
Sikkema was just happy to be playing for the Hudsonville Eagles. He was a role player, the kid who stood in the dugout in the same lucky spot by the bats and cheered until he went hoarse.
And now, he was getting some rare game action, running down a shallow fly ball, but he was having trouble seeing it because his vision became blurry.
Days later, doctors discovered a tumor deep in his brain. Inflammation and swelling around the tumor was causing the vision problems. To make it worse, the tumor was blocking the flow of cranial fluid. Without surgery, Sikkema was told he had four weeks to live.
After the tumor was discovered, Sikkema tried to attend games to support his teammates, but the tumor was growing. His head was throbbing with pain behind his eyes.
When Sikkema missed a game because of the pain, his teammates hung his jersey in the dugout, where he used to stand and scream encouragement.
Hudsonville is a small, tight, deeply religious community on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. After one game, there was an impromptu prayer vigil on the field. Several hundred people came together, circling Sikkema, praying for him. They released lighted balloons to the heavens, carrying messages and prayers.
Sikkema was so beloved by his teammates that his fight seemed to pull the entire team together on the field and off. Hudsonville won a conference title, a district title and lost in a regional final to Rockford. “Last year, Tom’s situation was a catalyst to our team being more collective,” coach Dave VanNoord said. “I don’t think we would have played as well as we did without what happened to Tom.”
Sikkema underwent brain surgery June 3.
“Going into the brain surgery, I thought I was going to die … to be completely honest,” Sikkema said. “There was a lot of risk. But if I didn’t do it, I would have died anyway.”
Here’s the strange twist. Yes, he thought he was going to die, but he wasn’t afraid. He had a surprising peace. “I was never really scared … for some reason,” Sikkema said. “I just kind of accepted it.”
The surgery was a success, and he started four rounds of chemotherapy. “That was awful,” he said. “It kind of burns, it’s a weird feeling. You are really weak. You don’t want to do anything. I didn’t eat for days. I didn’t feel like eating. A lot of throwing up.”
Then, he had five weeks of radiation.
Sikkema stayed on the pediatric cancer floor at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. He was 17 at the time, the oldest one on the floor, where many of the children were younger than 10.
Thomas, being Thomas, tried to make the best of it. He talked to the other kids and would hang out with them, trying to lift everybody’s spirits. Just like he did in the dugout. Trying to encourage everybody. Trying to make it fun. Refusing to lose. Refusing to give up hope.
“One time we had a shark robot balloon that I drove around with them,” he said, “and sometimes I would just go hang out with them.”
A few of the children died, which Sikkema still has a hard time reconciling.
Why did they die and he is still here? “I never really understood it,” he said.
His teammates visited him in the hospital, trying to keep him upbeat, trying to show him that he was loved. “They mean the world to me,” Sikkema said. “I wouldn’t want to have another team. They were there for me every step of the way. When I felt down, they would come up to the hospital. I know, without them, I wouldn’t have the drive to keep going. I’d be in a totally different situation now.”
In the fall, Sikkema was invited to a Tigers game at Comerica Park. His name appeared on the scoreboard, and he met outfielder Torii Hunter, his hero. “I looked forward to that game the whole summer,” Sikkema said. “That’s another thing that kept me staying positive.”
He’s back playing
Last fall, Sikkema returned to school for his senior year, and he was named homecoming king.
In November, doctors said the cancer was gone.
And now, he is back playing for Hudsonville.
“We visited Tom in the hospital a couple of times when all of it was going on,” VanNoord said, “and I was thinking, man, I hope you make it through this and I hope you can start school. To think he not only started school, he will graduate with his class and, to top it off, he gets to play baseball with his buddies. You can’t put it into words.”
Every year before the season, the Hudsonville team takes a spring break trip to Florida. This year, Sikkema was given an award during the trip. “We made an award in honor of him, for future teams that go to Florida,” VanNoord said. “It’s the battle, grind-it-out award. We named it after Tom and, naturally, he won the first one. Hopefully, we can carry on his legacy in our program that way.”
“You always know he’s going to fight through something.”
And now, he’s trying to fight for others.
On May 17, one year to the day he was diagnosed, Hudsonville will host a baseball tournament to raise money for Milan’s Miracle Fund, which is named after Milan Capobianco, who died of cancer in 2009.
To bring this full circle, Sterling Heights Stevenson will play in this tournament, too.
“It was actually Tom’s idea to put on a high school baseball tournament to raise money for that organization,” VanNoord said. “He’s the one who came up with the idea, he pushed for it. We met with his dad, and we started working on it. It should be pretty cool. We have some good teams coming in.”
All the teams will wear matching uniforms with the Milan Miracle logo on the front. Every player will wear No. 8, the age of Milan when she died of cancer. “I want to try to make a difference and hopefully find a cure,” Sikkema said. “We are trying to make the day really fun. We are trying to raise awareness about pediatric cancer.”
Sikkema is working behind the scenes, planning events, trying to get donations and organize volunteers. He is trying to give back to the kids still fighting this battle.
“I knew everything happens for a reason,” he said. “If God didn’t think I was going to get through this, he wouldn’t put me through it. He wanted to change my life. My old life wasn’t meant for me; my life now is what I was meant to have.”
Still an inspiration
Hudsonville is ranked No. 9 in this week’s state rankings conducted by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association. Granted, the team’s success starts with Keegan Baar, one of the top pitchers in the state.
But VanNoord gives some credit to Sikkema. He is so optimistic, so positive, that others seem to feed off him. “It’s hard to put into words,” VanNoord said. “It’s hard to explain the influence it has. He’s just a remarkable young man.”
Sikkema is playing more than last year because one of the starting outfielders has been injured. Last Friday, Sikkema executed a suicide squeeze for an RBI and later scored the winning run in a victory over Muskegon Mona Shores. On Saturday, he pitched against Saline and hit an RBI single. “His role has increased as our season has gone on,” VanNoord said.
Sikkema has decided to study nursing at Grand Valley State in Allendale. He wants to become a pediatric oncology nurse. “I love the floor because no matter how bleak the outlook is for some of the kids, they still smile,” he said. “That’s what kept me smiling. If you were up there looking at them, you wouldn’t think they were dying or in pain from chemo. The only thing that made them look like a cancer patient was not having hair. It’s something pretty special when a whole floor is dedicated to helping kids that are dying and it still be the happiest floor in the hospital. That’s why I want to be a pediatric oncology nurse.”
Still inspiring. Still uplifting. Still full of hope.
Thomas Sikkema is the voice in the dugout who refuses to lose.
“Fight like hell!”