Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Colorado Springs teen's compassion benefits patients

By Stephanie Earls Updated: January 6, 2014 at 11:55 am

As anyone who's written a computer program knows, the most complex-seeming outcome is really only a collection of simple elements - simple prompts, simple acts - that build on one another. Few things seem impossible when you're able to see the world this way.

Michael Gohde sees the world this way.

When he was 7 and confused by the homeless people panhandling and sleeping around the Bijou Street bridge, he asked his mother why.

"He wanted to know, 'Why are they there? Why are they sleeping there and not at their homes?'" said Betsy deVries-Gohde, who explained to her son as best she could. "They need our help," she told him.

Michael saved enough money to buy bottled water, hand wipes and sandwich-style snack crackers to distribute to the needy on and around the bridge.

"He's done that ever since then," Betsy said. "He's very focused."

When a family friend was diagnosed with colon cancer last summer, Michael, Betsy and dad Jim purchased a pre-made care package - a collection of products and comfort items especially tailored for patients going through cancer treatment.

"I thought it was a great idea, and not just for a gift. I should send one to everyone who needs it," said Michael, 16, who saw what his paternal grandmother suffered through as she underwent chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. "A drop of the chemical on her hand made a boil. It's very nasty stuff."

As chemotherapy works to destroy and stop the growth of cancer cells, the drugs can damage healthy cells, too, and cause a decreased immune system and greater sensitivity to cold, among other things. Michael asked his grandmother, now in remission, what things would have made her feel better while she was in treatment. She suggested a soft, warm blanket and socks, sugar-free gum, lip balm, hand sanitizer and a soft toothbrush.

"I had a job and extra money, so figured let's do this," Michael said.

When he was 13 and a scholarship student at Colorado Springs School, Michael set his eye on computer classes at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He wrote letters - 21 of them, to the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science - until he got the special permission needed to attend classes at such a young age. He then landed a part-time job working 20 hours a week in the Vision and Security Technology Lab, helping write android applications. Not a bad gig for a 16-year-old.

Betsy, whose mother died of pancreatic cancer in 1999, was moved by her son's innate compassion.

"These people are so tender now with what they're going through, it feels so good to me to know he cares," she said. "Teenagers have their ups and downs, but Michael, he's pretty steady."

On Dec. 18, Michael finished his last exam at UCCS, wrapped up some work at the lab and headed home to finish assembling the last of about 30 gift bags. The next day, he and his mom visited the infusion center at the Penrose Cancer Center to hand out the care packages.

Michael dressed up, in pressed slacks, a button-down and a neck tie.

"Oh, the Carmex is good stuff. We go through a lot of that," Maggie Walden, of Colorado Springs, said of the lip balm as she excavated the bag's contents. Walden was at the center for her second-to-last chemotherapy treatment, a roughly three -hour session. "What organization are you with?"

"Mine. It's just me," Michael said.

"He's just a nice young man," clarified a nurse, patting Michael's shoulder fondly.

And, at nearby Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, Mary Matykiewicz held her new socks and thanked "the very nice young man" who'd given them to her.

"There are lots of people who come from out of town to receive treatment here. You pack what you think you need, but you always forget something," said Valerie Matykiewicz, of Pueblo West, who accompanied her mother to the Springs for the two-day chemotherapy treatment.

"You don't think kids would recognize the need, but they tend to surprise you," said Jayme Stangier, assistant principal at a Pueblo middle school, in remission and on maintenance chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. "It's so great that he's thinking about other people."

Margaret Svarverud, of Colorado Springs, thanked Michael for her bag and asked what inspired him.

"I've had a lot of cancer in the family," Michael said. "I just hope it helps."

Michael plans to keep the project going, even after he leaves the state to attend college - hopefully at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I plan to send money back home to keep it going," he said. He turned to Betsy, the tone of his voice hopeful: "Right, mom?"

Betsy closed her eyes, took a deep breath and nodded yes.

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