On the ninth floor
It’s late spring 2013. He stands in left field, perhaps 250 feet from home plate. A pretty standard distance in high school.
A few players fidget and shift, but none more than a few feet.
The catcher signals the pitcher, indicating the preferred pitch. Is the ball likely to tail toward the line? Go dead-up? What’s the count? These things make a difference.
The crack of the bat, the ball lifts toward the outfield.
Thomas Sikkema watches. Two baseballs coming at him. Double vision.
He reaches out and catches the correct one.
Days later, he’ll be diagnosed with brain cancer.
‘Make them laugh’
Fast forward three years.
Sikkema, 21, is working on the ninth floor of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where pediatric hematology and oncology patients receive care.
He is no longer a patient here. He is now a nursing technician, on the very same floor where he underwent treatment.
People notice when you have a gift. It becomes your identity. Sikkema has the gift of compassion. Maybe he received it when he fell ill. Maybe it had always been there.
“What I like to do is get down to the kid, and sees what makes them laugh,” he says. “The smiles are the most addictive thing ever.
“I’m devoted and the floor has turned into my second home.”
Sikkema’s journey to the ninth floor began May 11, 2013. Hudsonville High School’s baseball team played a Sterling Heights team in a fundraising tournament—for cancer awareness, no less.
Sikkema couldn’t have known how poignant that would prove. But then, there had been the double-ball incident. And a shadowing depression. And the headaches.
“There was the feeling that something was not right,” Sikkema remembers.
Four days after that double-vision baseball game, Sikkema met with a psychologist, who told him much the same: “Something’s not right.”
Afterward, Sikkema and his father, T.J., stopped for a bite. His father’s phone rang. Spectrum Health specialists.
“So, we need to tell you something. You’re being immediately admitted.”
The words came as a shock, but the gravity had yet to sink in.
“To be honest, at the time I wasn’t really aware of the degree of severity,” Sikkema said. “I was just going through the motions. “
Cancer. A “germ cell tumor” in a small gland deep within the brain, they said. CNS Germinoma, to be exact.
Germ cell tumors develop in perhaps 3 to 5 percent of childhood brain tumors, primarily in young people ages 11 to 30, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
Doctors would have to act fast.
On June 3, 2013, Sikkema underwent surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital pediatric hematologist-oncologist David Dickens, MD, oversaw his care.
Sikkema has been in remission ever since. It hasn’t been an easy path.
“Pain lets you know you are alive,” Sikkema said. “If I am still sucking air, it lets you know: ‘I am alive.’”
The life-or-death ordeal has changed him profoundly.
Sikkema knew he wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but not just any area. Quite simply, he wanted to work on the ninth floor.
He enrolled in Grand Valley State University’s nursing program and, today, he works part-time on the ninth floor, where he helps care for children.
It’s the same floor where his oncologist works.
“I see him all the time, it’s really cool,” Sikkema said. “We had a really good relationship, still do. He’s really great and we have a great time.”
There are sad days, of course.
“You don’t shut it off,” he said. “It’s still there. You get used to it, sadly.”
But there are other days, too, filled with hope and happiness.
“It’s amazing how these years can completely change their lives,” Sikkema says. “I could be happy here for life.”