WDC teachers fight cancer, teach us all lessons
Craig Klawitter and Mike Ortmann are both teachers who consider teaching to be more than a job. It’s a calling.
So when both teachers were diagnosed with cancer this past school year, that commitment in the classroom didn’t waiver. In fact, these Wadena-Deer Creek Middle/High School teachers are battling cancer like champions and teaching us poignant life lessons.
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Wearing one of his trademark flowery shirts, Craig Klawitter is in command of his 4th-hour study hall. “Are you texting?” he asks a student. “Because if you are, you better be texting me!”
That’s Mr. Klawitter and his spitfire sense of humor. You wouldn’t know he was battling cancer just by watching him in his science classroom. But there are visible signs – the portable chemo pack strapped around his shoulder and the 5-inch long scar from the brain tumor surgery.
Klawitter’s cancer story began about four years ago, when during a colonoscopy, an irregular polyp was found. “It was cancerous,” said Klawitter, who turned 59 years old on May 17.
Another colonoscopy followed. They scraped and biopsied the area again. “We thought we had taken care of things. The scan was clear. There was no cancer that they could detect,” recalled Klawitter.
Jump ahead to this past Christmas, when Klawitter began experiencing what he called “unsteadiness.”
“I was walking funny. I fell down a couple times at home,” he said.
He went to the doctor. A brain scan determined that Klawitter had a “brain bleed” or what’s also known as a stroke. He spent the next three days in a St. Cloud hospital, where he underwent a battery of tests. It was determined that he was fine and was sent home with orders for physical therapy.
After returning to school after Christmas break, Klawitter received a dose of honesty from his colleagues. “My co-workers so kindly told me I wasn’t doing very good. They said, ‘You go back to the doctor.’ So I went back.”
Doctors ordered another brain scan and immediately sent him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. There, Klawitter would find out the real reason behind his unsteadiness: a tumor the size of an avocado pushing on his brain. Klawitter would undergo a grueling 12 hours of surgery to remove the tumor. He had no idea the surgery would last that long, he said.
Then, the devastating news. Besides the brain tumor, he was told the cancer had spread to his liver and his lungs. It was like a one-two punch to the gut. “When the oncologist came in and told me that, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I thought I had a brain issue, now I’ve got an everywhere issue?,” recalled Klawitter.
His oncologist explained that the cancer would respond “very well” to treatment, but it was not curable.
“The treatment only buys you some time. It’s extending your life, however many years. And there’s no way of knowing that,” said Klawitter.
But ever the optimist with a strong streak of stubbornness, which he’ll readily admit to, Klawitter began his brain cancer treatment. He opted to go with a fairly new treatment called CyberKnife radiation at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. The CyberKnife system allows doctors to achieve a high level of accuracy in a non-invasive manner and allows patients to be treated on an outpatient basis. CyberKnife can pinpoint a tumor’s exact location in real time using X-ray images taken during the brain cancer treatment. Klawitter needed just one session for one hour.
“I was happy about that because you can have up to five hours and they told me I only needed one.”
Next, he would need 12 sessions of chemotherapy every other week for his lungs and liver administered at Tri-County Hospital in Wadena. For 46 hours, he wears a portable chemo pack that feeds into a port.
How does he feel? “Great -- except on days I have poison (what he calls chemo) going in me.” Those first three to four days of chemo are not pleasant. He has issues with tired legs, cold sensitivity, a bad taste in his mouth, feeling weak and nauseous, and poor sleeping patterns. But it doesn’t stop him from showing up for school.
“People say, ‘Take it easy, don’t do too much.’ But I love to teach. Most days are pretty dang good. You get to pick on people,” jokes Klawitter.
He continues, “I’m not happy that I have cancer. Because I don’t know what’s out there for me. But I can’t dwell on that. There are things I’ve got to do. I want to go fishing. I want to do stuff. I don’t wanna have people doing stuff for me all the time. Because then I have to wait for it. And I’m not very patient,” said Klawitter, whose wife, Tammie, a registered nurse, keeps good care of him at home.
After 36 years of teaching hundreds of kids physics, chemistry and science, Klawitter decided to retire. But he’s not saying goodbye just yet. He plans to come back next year to teach chemistry -- four classes the first semester and three classes the second. “I’ll stay on until I screw up,” jokes Klawitter.
Klawitter decided to hang up his softball cleats and clipboard, too, and retire from coaching. It was a tough decision that he made on May 20.
“Because of this season, I wasn’t a 100-percent with them. I had to miss every other Monday because of chemo… I had to miss the first and last game of Sections. I’m hoping by next spring, I am in perfect health, that I don’t have anything I have to worry about. But I don’t know that. It’s not fair to the kids to have a part-time coach. It bothered me not to be there.”
This summer, Klawitter will spend as much time as he can at his camper by Nisswa, where he enjoys fishing and watching wildlife, like deer, turkeys, the occasional bear and “wild” chickens (you’ll have to ask him about that). Every two weeks he will return to Wadena for his chemo. That’s when he’ll help WDC’s Technology Director Shane Snyder on technology projects. (Technology is another talent of Klawitter’s). When he’s home, he will tinker in the yard. However, this all hinges on how well his immune system holds up as he gets further along into his chemo treatment. He will wait and hope for the best, he said. In June, he will have another brain scan.
Klawitter talks about how unfortunate the school has been hit this year with two teachers battling cancer. He said he kept in contact via text messages with Ortmann while his colleague underwent cancer treatment in Sioux Falls.
Then there’s the support from the school and the community. He pauses, searching for the right words to sum up his emotions.
“It’s absolutely amazing … There are no words to describe the feeling of so many people who care. I know Ort is in the same world I’m in. I am amazed at the outpouring of kindness …support … and worry.”
He pauses again. “Unbelievable.”
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It was a routine physical for WDC Vocal Teacher Mike Ortmann, 48, that started his cancer journey.
“After my physical, Dr. [Steve] Davis told me, ‘You’ve earned yourself a colonoscopy,” recalls Ortmann with a hearty chuckle. If you know Mr. Ortmann, his 6-foot, 7-inch stature is equal to his big heart and gregarious sense of humor.
On Feb. 19, 2014, Ortmann went in for the procedure. That’s when they found a cancerous tumor. From there, he went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where they performed more tests and determined it was rectal cancer.
But his oncologist at Mayo was confident with Ortmann’s prognosis. He made Ortmann feel at ease by cracking jokes and assuring him his cancer would be cured with treatment and surgery.
“He said, I’m joking around with you for one reason: this case is a piece of cake. You’re going to be fine, he said. If this case was serious, we wouldn’t be joking around,” recalls Ortmann.
He was told his course of treatment would be radiation, chemo, surgery and then more chemo. For his first phase of treatment, he could choose between three medical facilities in Rochester, Fargo, N.D., or Sioux Falls, S.D. He didn’t want to be driving back and forth on weekends from Rochester or Fargo, so Sioux Falls was a logical choice. His sisters, Ann and Jeanine, and their families, lived there.
“It was like staying at home,” said Ortmann, who is the youngest in a family of four brothers and two sisters. His 80-year-old mother still resides in his hometown of Windom, Minn.
In April, he started his radiation and chemo for 25 days, Monday through Friday, in Sioux Falls. Ortmann opted to go with oral chemotherapy. It is a pill that has special instructions, precautions and side effects -- much like chemotherapy given through a vein.
“I was able to do chemo by pill form. I took five pills in the morning and five pills at night. To me, it was a whole lot easier to do the pills than the port. Less invasive.”
Ortmann’s treatment went “very well” and he didn’t get sick. “But there were certain foods I didn’t want to eat anymore. But sweets always tasted good,” he adds with a laugh.
He returned to school on Monday, May 5 and worked half-days the first week. In a little over a week, the annual Pops Concert was to be held – the last high school music program of the school year. His choir students were prepared, thanks, he says, to his sub, Gary Stennes. The concert typically features entertaining, high-energy performances from the choir and band. It’s also known for the graduating seniors pulling pranks on Mr. Ortmann. But not this year.
“The seniors at the Pops Concert … yeah, that was emotional. The group hug … the bouquet of candy and mug. It was just neat,” recalls Ortmann.
He admits returning to teaching after his treatment has been exhausting, but he wouldn’t do it any other way.
“It’s great to be back, to be doing what you’re supposed to do,” said Ortmann, adding, “School is my release.”
Did he miss teaching while he was away receiving cancer treatment? “Oh yeah, I thought about it all the time, thinking, right now they’re doing this, right now they’re doing that.”
Now, he must wait six weeks for the radiation and chemo to work its way through his system. Then, surgery at Mayo is June 11, where they will remove the section of his rectal wall that’s cancerous. He is not sure how long after that he will undergo chemo again.
“We’ll play that by ear,” he said.
Normally, Ortmann would be teaching anxiety-filled teen-agers Behind-the-Wheel classes starting in June, but with his upcoming surgery on June 11, he will be recuperating this summer. “[Drivers’ training] is in good hands,” he said.
The outpouring of support he’s received, much like his fellow teaching colleague, Craig Klawitter, makes him shake his head with overwhelming appreciation. The student council’s fundraiser dedicated to Ortmann called, “Don’t Stop Believin’ in Our Music Man,” raised an astonishing $3,100 in one day of fundraising. Donations poured in not only from students bringing in their coins and dollars, or checks from their parents, but from the community as well.
“The support is unbelievable. The staff is amazing. The kids are amazing -- the fundraiser they did, oh my gosh, it’s so humbling.”
During treatment, Ortmann received oodles of cards, notes and well wishes from staff, from parents, and from his church. But what touched his heart so deeply were the hand-written letters from WDC sixth-graders in his music class.
“The sixth grade letters were awesome! That was an absolute day-brightener when those came during my treatment,” who’s been teaching music at WDC since 1990.
While both teachers are teaching us how to handle adversity with dignity and grace, Ortmann admits he has a new-found appreciation for generosity.
“I think to myself, wow, all these people are so generous. I need to be better at that kind of stuff,” said Ortmann.
The school and community are planning a benefit to help Klawitter and Ortmann with medical expenses. It’s an opportunity for people to help these beloved teachers. Ortmann is looking forward to the event to somehow thank people.
“It’s going to be a huge night. My whole family is going to be there. Mom too. They’re all coming up. They’ll be the ones wearing the matching -shirts. I think it says, ‘Mike’s Mob,’ ” says Ortmann with a smile.
Ortmann cannot thank WDC enough, especially Tyler Church, grades 5-12 principal, and Lee Westrum, superintendent, for their support. He believes he is doing fine and that his cancer is “very curable.”
“I’m assuming I will need to go in for regular check-ups. I see a future of colonoscopies,” laughs Ortmann, adding, “That’s what found it. That screening is important… It’s all good.”
Klawitter & Ortmann Benefit
Saturday, May 31
Wadena Elks Lodge
4 to 8 p.m.
Serving ham dinner from 4 to 7 p.m.
Freewill offering, silent auction, raffle and more!
Proceeds to help offset medical expenses for these two longtime WDC teachers undergoing treatment and battling cancer.