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Brothers and Champions



Three-year-old Zachary Gunderson throws his arms around his big brother.

“I’m tough! I’m ready to wrestle,” the smaller boy says, running around the room with a new toy, a Ghostbusters gun and backpack found in a box of his father’s old childhood things.

Their parents, Tami and Doug, just shake their heads. The two boys share the same blond hair and curious eyes, but they are about as different in personality as it’s possible to be. One is laid back. One is always on the go.

But the Gunderson family is thankful that both boys share one thing. Sanford Children’s Hospital was there when they needed it. Introducing our 2012 South Dakota Children’s Miracle Network champions.

Finding the tumor

When Zach was only two months old his mother brought him in for a well baby check. She had a sense that something just wasn’t right with her newborn son. Since her maternity leave was going to be over in just days, her doctor suggested that they check him over thoroughly just to ease her mind, she said.

“They put him in the ultrasound machine and they couldn’t see anything on his stomach,” Tami says. “It was totally black.”

Soon Tami was on her way to Sanford Children’s Hospital with the two boys, for additional tests that would show that her tiny baby had cancer. Large tumors had developed, likely while he was still in the womb, throughout his abdomen winding around his organs.

With surgery impossible, the only option to save his life would be chemotherapy. But he was so tiny that even figuring out how much of the chemicals his body needed was tricky, his father said. His mother would sometimes hold him during his treatments.

“It was a spooky experience,” says Doug. “You watch them pumping these chemicals into your kid, but you know that’s what you have to do to save his life.”

Months later, scans showed that Zachary’s tumors were shrinking. His cancer is now totally in remission. By December 2010, Sanford doctors gave the family the news that Zach was now so healthy that he only needed to come back in for yearly checks.

Chase’s turn

Just a month later, the family was back in the hospital, but it was big brother Chase’s turn. Chase had been swimming with his classmates at a hotel pool. The next day he developed a small red rash on his face and was running a fever.

His pediatrician prescribed a strong antibiotic and made an appointment to check Chase the next day. By that time, the rash had spread to his neck and covered his entire face, causing his eyes to swell shut.

An MRI and blood work showed that the boy had cellulitus and he needed immediate in-patient treatment to keep the infection from entering his blood stream. For three days, he stayed at Sanford Children’s Hospital, his parents and younger brother at his side.

“Zach was so protective,” says his mother. “Every time the nurses came into the room, he was the one asking what they would be doing to Chase.”

The smaller brother, experienced with blood draws and intravenous lines, helped his big brother make it through, telling him not to be scared, the parents said. With the antibiotics working to help defeat the spreading bacterial infection, Chase was able to go home and show off his “war wounds” to all his friends at school.

Helping others

The family feels fortunate that both boys are feeling healthy and happy today, Doug and Tami say. They know that many families are not as fortunate as theirs, they say, so they’re happy to help out the Children’s Miracle Network in anyway they can.

The brothers look forward each year to the CMN Dance Marathon at South Dakota State University. They meet people, play with the college students and most of all, dance for hours.

Both boys say they want to help other kids who have to go the hospital. The Castle is a good place where people take care of you, says Chase.

“I want all the kids who have to have IVs to feel better,” says little Zach, showing his dirty fingers from digging in the sandbox. “I used to have IVs too.”

“We want to help them,” his big brother adds, before wiggling off to wrestle once again.

For the Gundersons, Sanford Children’s Hospital is a place where heroes work, says Tami. She considers both of her sons to be heroes too – they faced their illnesses with bravery.

“When you deal with something like this, you have to put your faith in the people who are treating your children,” Tami said. “I had no doubt that they could do it – with either Chase or Zach.”

Congratulations to Zachary and Chase, brothers, friends and heroes!

Posted Date: May 2012

Brothers and Champions

Zachary Gunderson started life with his abdomen full of tumors. His big brother Chase would be hospitalized with a life-threatening bacterial infection. Today these brave, healthy brothers take the stage as 2012 South Dakota Children’s Miracle Network champions.