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Authors: Pat LaFontaine,Ernie Valutis,Chas Griffin,Larry Weisman

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BOOK: Companions in Courage
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Later, driving home from one of my visits with Robert, it occurred to me that we could designate a private box at The Aud,
the Sabres’ former home, just for sick kids. We could provide a private, safe place for kids and their parents. They could
enjoy time together with family and experience the excitement of a Sabres game. My first step: Purchase and design a box that
would meet these needs.

With the help of my agent, Donnie Meehan, Kenny Martin, the Sabres’ director of community relations, and Deidre Daniels, the
box soon became a reality.

Robert continued to be an inspiration to me. My family and I were making plans to go to our summer retreat when I got a call
from him. He wanted to share some news: On a vacation trip to San Diego he had gone fishing and caught the biggest fish. So
before we left on our trip, I went to Robert’s house and watched a video of his feat. I told him that he may have reeled in
the biggest fish on the West Coast, but I was going to catch the biggest fish on the East Coast.

The evening before we were going to go fishing, my family and I were watching a movie when the phone rang. It was Robert’s
father. Robert had died earlier that day. I hung up the phone, silently and sadly, and sat for a moment, praying for his family
and saying good-bye to my companion. I thanked him for the contribution his short and fragile life had made to mine and my
family’s. In that moment I realized how close we had become.

The next day, I caught a huge striped bass. I knew Robert was with me. And even today the picture of that bass hangs in our
summer retreat and reminds me of Robert and what a wonderful friend he was and continues to be. His happy spirit and the determination
he showed in fighting a deadly disease still sustains me when I feel down.

His death stung me, but while I was thinking about Robert, it occurred to me that physical death is not the end of a person.
Robert continues to live in my heart and in the hearts of all the people he touched.

In my work with challenged children in hospital wards I have felt life’s joys and sorrows. I have learned that we are all
companions learning to be courageous, learning to transcend and overcome life’s obstacles in order to live out our unique
story. I am grateful to all the children who touched my life. They are truly my Companions in Courage and the inspiring co-authors
of this book.

The Dreams of Youth

. J. Osika and I were good friends. We were twelve years old and we loved competing against each other. But when we both signed
up to run in a summer track meet, I would learn about more than sprinting. Even though P. J. was a runner I figured I could
give him a race or maybe even beat him. When we got to the starting blocks for the 220-yard dash, my heart was doing its normal
racing before a competition, but I couldn’t believe how much I was struggling to catch my breath. The starter’s gun cracked
and we took off.

For the first hundred yards I was out in front, then I started to gasp for air. P. J. won. I barely made it across the finish
line before collapsing on the track. P. J., the other competitors, and the coach ran over and saw that I couldn’t breathe.
It didn’t take long for the ambulance to get there and rush me to the hospital.

About halfway there I started to feel better. They gave me a shot of adrenaline and told me that my mom would meet me in the
emergency room. The doctor examined me thoroughly and then delivered the news to me and my mom: I had exercise-induced asthma.
I’ll never forget his words: “Well, Pat, you might as well hit the books. Your athletic days are over.”

I loved sports, particularly hockey. Now this doctor was telling me that I’d never participate in competitive sports again.
I remember saying over and over again, “Oh no! No! No! This can’t be.” And I remember my parents talking to me and telling
me, “Things happen for a reason.” But right then I could not see the reason, nor did I want to.

I spent that whole summer watching my friends compete in track, baseball, and basketball. I was depressed and lethargic. Every
time I exerted myself I started to wheeze, so I watched and hung around the rink and the summer parks. It damn near killed
me. I was living a nightmare for a twelve-year-old kid.

My dad and mom began talking to me about courage and perseverance, so I tried my best to suck it up, but I couldn’t imagine
not playing sports, particularly skating and hockey. Learn to love books and reading more than I loved sports? No way! I couldn’t
imagine how I would be accepted. I knew that my friendships would have to change because they were based on the acceptance
an athlete gets.

The summer was about over when someone suggested to my parents that I see an allergist. Before school started I went to the
doctor, took a battery of tests, and found out that I was allergic to just about everything—grass, pollen, mold, ragweed,
dust, a variety of foods. The doctor started me on allergy shots and I was back in action before the school year began.

I felt like I had my life back. My whole identity as a young person had been wrapped up in sports and competing. I didn’t
know any other way. I felt grateful to be back with my friends as “myself” again, doing what I loved to do.

Mike Vaughn and I used to dream together as kids. We talked a lot about what we hoped would happen to us. I used to dream
about owning a go-cart, which I thought was the neatest thing, and playing hockey at either Michigan or Michigan State. I
worked on my paper route, caddied at the local country club during the summer, and was a rink rat at the Lakeland Arena during
the winter. I hoped to make enough money to buy a go-cart and to eventually play college hockey.

My dad would drop my brother and me off and we would caddie for the day. We did that for about five years between the ages
of eleven and sixteen. After caddying I delivered my newspapers. When golf season ended, I would work at the Lakeland Arena.
I sharpened skates in the pro shop, sold equipment, and swept out locker rooms at the rink. I was a true rink rat. We were
always around the rink trying to get extra ice time.

Mike Vaughn was about two or three years older than me. One day I told Mike my dream—how I hoped to get a college scholarship
and that one day I wouldn’t be sharpening skates and selling equipment, I would be playing hockey at the University of Michigan
or Michigan State. We talked about how dreams are achieved and how they come true. We talked about success and individual
differences and how important it was for us to be true to our dreams and ourselves.

Another time Mike and I were at the rink and I was sharpening a pair of skates while he worked on a goaltender’s glove. He
was repairing it, stitching it up and getting it ready to use, when out of the blue he said to me, “Pat, you want to play
hockey but I would love to own my own company and make my own hockey equipment.”

At the time, Mike was a goalie. He loved playing goal and he loved to work on his equipment to make it better. I said, “Yeah,
sure, Mike. And I’ll be a professional hockey player.” Well, we laughed, thought nothing of it, but both of us, in our own
way, kept dreaming and talking about our dreams.

After that last year at Lakeland Arena, Mike and I lost contact with each other. I turned sixteen and he went off to college.
Well, my dream came true—I went on to play professional hockey. One day, as I was getting ready to take the ice with the New
York Islanders, I noticed the name Vaughn on a goaltender’s pads and gloves that were on the floor across from my cubicle.
I thought, “Nah, it can’t be the same Vaughn, my friend who said he was going to have his own equipment company.”

I flashed back to the dreams and talks Mike and I had as young hockey players. I had been realizing my dream for a year and
a half as a New York Islander. Could it be that Mike was fulfilling his dream as well?

After the game, I began to inquire about the Vaughn equipment. I was told that the company specialized in goaltending equipment
and it was based in Michigan. I asked who the president of the company was. The voice on the other end of the phone said,
“My name is Mike Vaughn.”

I couldn’t believe it. I told Mike who was calling and we laughed and reminisced. To this day, he runs one of the best hockey
equipment companies out there. He has branched out into players’ equipment.

Mike and I helped each other imagine the kinds of futures we wanted. We didn’t know if we’d ultimately get to where we wanted
to be, but we set our goals and made up our minds to achieve them. It truly doesn’t hurt to dream.


A Mother’s

Dawn Anna

hroughout my career I’ve had many coaches, and every one of them passed along something valuable. But I learned the most from
my dad, John LaFontaine. He coached me on the lake in front of our house in Michigan, he coached me in bantam hockey, and
he has coached and advised me at every level at which I have competed. I’m indebted to my dad for what he taught me on and
off the ice.

The relationship between an athlete and his coach is special, particularly when the coach is your father. Our relationship
continues to be a source of strength and encouragement. There’s a bond built through and around the sport but encompassing
so much more and running so much deeper.

It is what helps me appreciate this next story.

About a year ago I was watching the ARETE Awards, given to those who have shown courage in life and athletic competition.
A volleyball coach from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, was being honored for her personal and professional
courage. I had heard of Dave Sanders, the coach from the same school who gave his life saving kids during that terrible tragedy,
but I had never heard of Dawn Anna. When she came to the podium to receive her award, she was accompanied by three of her
children. I wondered where her youngest daughter was, because the person who introduced her mentioned that she had four kids.
I was stunned to learn that her daughter Lauren was one of the kids who had been shot to death.

I sat in hushed silence, tears welling up in my eyes, as she received her recognition. I thought of my three children, Sarah,
Brianna, and Daniel, and how unimaginable it would be for Marybeth and me to lose one of them. I thought of my relationship
with my father and mother and what it would be like for us to lose one another. My admiration for this diminutive woman of
courage soared when she stood to speak.

I learned that this mother of four had a cerebral malfunction in her brain and had narrowly escaped death herself during two
surgeries. I learned that she had coached her team during one period of her life with an IV bag dripping medication and nutrients
into her traumatized body. I learned that there were days when getting out of bed to face her day was challenge enough because
she could hardly gain her equilibrium, let alone keep her food down.

Then she spoke of April 20, 1999, a day we all remember for its fear and sickening horror. A day when she learned that her
daughter, the captain of her volleyball team and Columbine valedictorian with a perfect 4.0 grade average, had been killed
while studying in the library. Most of us only saw the terrible spectacle on television; Dawn Anna lives with the results
of that massacre and shares that excruciating pain. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

When Dawn was pregnant with Lauren, she had to fight valiantly to bring her into the world. Twice the doctors thought she
had miscarried. During the delivery the hemorrhaging in Dawn’s body threatened Lauren’s fetal existence. With Dawn’s great
determination they both survived.

In 1993 doctors found a twisted mass of blood vessels in Dawn’s cerebellum. She battled massive bleeding in order to stay
alive. Because of the nature of her surgery, she had to learn to walk again. Her kids, primarily Lauren, taught her as she
had taught them. Instead of “Come to Mommy,” it was “Mommy, come to me.”

They were a team, giving support, encouragement, and understanding. Dawn did learn to walk. She couldn’t know she would lose
her youngest daughter and once more have to find a way to learn to live.

Now Dawn Anna fights to make libraries safe for kids who want to study. Her daughter became the inspiration for helping kids
to make the most of their lives and their potential. A college scholarship has been established and will be given to a Columbine
student each year. It is not Lauren’s death but Lauren’s life that has become her mother’s rallying cry as she seeks a way
to control the use of guns so that kids can walk the halls of their schools without fearing for their safety.

Dawn Anna’s courage touches me each day as I take my kids to school, play games with them, and tuck them into bed at night.
Marybeth and I thank God each day for the gift to us that is their precious lives. We also thank God for coaches and parents
like my father and Dawn Anna who don’t confuse “hard times” with “bad times” by letting their circumstances bury their loving,
tenacious spirit.

Dawn Anna is the toughest, most courageous coach I’ve ever listened to. She knows about winning. She understands loss.

Joey Simonick

he wonderful, inspirational time I spent with the kids at Children’s Hospital during my playing days in Buffalo are the motivation
behind my desire to share the rich stories of so many Companions in Courage. My heart was touched so many times, and each
time it was the result of God’s little children expressing mature and adult perceptions about life and death. But no list
of heroes would be complete without including the parents and other caretakers, who must find a balance between medical facts
and the power of the human spirit.

Where do they find this strength, this reserve of grace and will? When I first heard about seven-year-old Joey Simonick, I
really wondered about the source of his family’s courage. Was it already available to him to draw upon at six weeks old, when
his tiny body endured the trauma of an organ transplant? Did it grow and strengthen from its roots in the love and support
of Tracy and Joe, his mom and dad, and shape Joey’s attitude about life? Was it confidence in the skill of the doctors and
nurses who perform the countless mini-miracles that, through transplants, yield new life? Is it, perhaps, in all of us, hidden
but available for when we need to tap this deep reservoir to overcome life’s obstacles?

BOOK: Companions in Courage
12.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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