Dean Whalen was sitting on the landing early one morning, checking out Facebook posts on his smartphone while waiting for his first load of logs.
Among the photos of trucks and comments from guys heckling one another over their choice of hood ornaments, was a post about a young girl in Vancouver, Washington who was dying of cancer. It immediately caught his attention.
“I was wrapped up in my own life, and read this deal on Facebook,” Whalen says. “It just broke my heart.”
Hannah Roberts, 15, was diagnosed in 2010 with a pineoblastoma, a rare malignant tumor that arises from the cells of the pineal gland that sits near the center of the head and brain. No more than a few dozen cases appear each year in the United States.
“It was seven months of her getting headaches and throwing up in the morning. She’d feel better after that and off to school she went. We’re talking about a girl who has been a competitive cheerleader and can do 16 back flips in a row,” says her stepfather Jeff Roberts, a longtime member of the logging community. “She was fighting cancer for seven months and nobody, not even her, knew that she had it.
“We kept taking her to the doctor two or three times a month, and they did all the tests, but they didn’t see anything. It was about seven months to the day that her vision started getting bad and her balance was kind of goofy. We took her to the eye doctor and he took one look into her eyes and put his head down on his desk. He said we had to get Hannah to the hospital immediately because something in her head was squishing her optic nerve.
“We took her by ambulance straight to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland. They took an MRI and it showed a tumor on her pineal gland, which is in the exact center of the brain where all the nerve endings are located. It was inoperable and was also blocking the spinal fluid so it was building up in her head. They did an emergency craniotomy and put a drain in there to relieve the pressure. They also took a little sample of the tumor and tested it. That’s when they came back with the diagnosis.”
Continuing her care at OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital, the doctors installed an external shunt that would continue to drain the fluid from Hannah’s head. They also started radiation treatment to shrink the tumor – the treatment would last an hour and a half, five days a week for six weeks.
“The radiation wiped her out,” Roberts says. “They had to do it though, because over the seven months, the cancer had metastasized throughout the lining of her brain and down through the lining of her spine. They tried one dose of chemo and it about killed her – she went from about 100 to 60 pounds; she was just a skeleton.”
After bringing Hannah home, Robert’s wife Tyana explored alternative treatments and brought in naturopaths to help because modern medicine was doing no good. They focused on nutrition and also got Hannah outside in the sunshine as much as she was able. Even in her weakened condition, she was amazingly able to kayak and paddleboard.
“Even as this child was fighting for life itself, she continued engaged in her sportsmanship to win the fight,” says Tyana.
Slowly but surely, over the next year and a half, her health started to return. She gained weight, her hair (that had fallen out during the radiation treatments) grew back, and she returned to school and the normal life of a teenager.
“She was cancer free for six months. The doctors were amazed because they predicted that she would never walk out of the hospital,” Roberts says.
Things were fine until this past April. Hannah suffered a bad headache, and having gone through it before, had a feeling that something was wrong. Roberts was back to work with Cross & Crown Logging and he rushed home after getting the call that Hannah was headed back to the hospital. The doctors performed an MRI on her left frontal brain lobe and discovered a golf ball-size tumor. Surgeons were able to remove most of the mass without much difficulty. Still the prognosis wasn’t positive.
“They gave Hannah four to six months to live because the tumor was expected to come back. It was just two months later we were back in for another scan because she was getting sick, and not only had the mass that they had removed come back, but they counted some 25 tumors in her head.”
“Hannah is very aware of her herself. She’s been through this for three years, and she knows her body pretty well. Her reaction was like, ‘Oh well, here we go again. Don’t worry. I beat it before and we’ll do it again.”
“Hopefully, we will find the science to enable Hannah to survive,” Tyana says. “It’s our greatest hope that she will live to be a feisty old lady.”
“Hannah is well aware of the fight and the odds that she’s up against and that she might not be here another day,” adds Roberts. “She refuses to be afraid to fight.”
Because of the pressure of the tumors on Hannah’s brain, and the build up of fluid, she lost all movement in her right leg, arm and hand, and suffered numbness to the right side of her face. She also lost her ability to speak. Those were Hannah’s symptoms in early July, but within a week or so later, she had regained some of the usage in her arm and leg and could walk again. While her speech was still affected, she could get out “yes” and “no” and make herself understood.
Hannah has remained at home under hospice care where she can be close to family in a comfortable and familiar setting. Even showing a little improvement, the hospice nurses, told the Robertson’s that Hannah would be lucky to survive another couple of weeks. As of the third week in July, she was still hanging on; even continuing to make day-to-day improvements.
While Hannah was still able, Tyana took her on a Make A Wish vacation to Hawaii where they backpacked the beaches of Maui. When they returned Roberts posted a picture on the West Coast Log Truckers Facebook group page of Hannah enjoying the trip. He was simply updating friends on her condition and asking for their prayers.
The message first reached Brandon Davis, a driver for Cross & Crown who knew Roberts from when he’d worked there as a chaser and shovel operator.
“It hit me really hard. I’m only 24 years old and I’ve got a two-year old son, and after reading it and thinking about it, I jut broke down and started crying for like 45 minutes,” Davis says. “It was right before bed, and I sent Jeff a message and asked what Hannah’s favorite color was. He said, ‘Purple. Why?’ I told him that I wanted to put a purple ribbon on my truck for her to show support and let her know that I was thinking of her.”
“I thought it was a great idea,” Roberts says.
Davis shared what he had done for Hannah and asked his friends and fellow log truckers to join in the cause. He even spray painted Hannah’s name surrounded by hearts onto a bunk load of logs and trucked them 200 miles from Gaston, Oregon to Chehalis, Washington, going out of his way to drive right through the heart of Vancouver.
“The scalers at the mill thought it was for a girlfriend,” Davis says with a laugh. “When I explained the story to the scaler, I thought he was going to cry.”
“The next time I looked at Facebook there were all of these pictures of trucks flying purple ribbons,” Davis says. “It spread like wildfire. It was so unreal.”
The unity among the trucking and logging communities and the outpouring of support has been unprecedented, at least as most can recall. Not only did truckers – not just log haulers, but drivers of dump trucks, water trucks, pilot cars, commercial carriers, and equipment operators, from Washington to California tie on purple ribbons, but photos came from truckers as far away as Canada, Hawaii, Ireland, Norway, Australia and Guyana Africa. There are even purple ribbons blowing in the breeze atop the crane at the Georgia Pacific mill in Toledo, Oregon.
“Over the next couple of weeks, I must have gained at least a couple hundred Facebook friends,” Roberts says. “People were coming out of the woodwork wanting to help. I never asked for any of it; they just took it upon themselves.”
Dean Whalen, owner of Dean Whalen Trucking, in Yelm, Washington, had always named his trucks, and was still without a moniker for the new 2014 Kenworth he was driving. By chance, the truck was just the right color.
“I didn’t have a purple ribbon, but I had a purple truck,” Whalen says
Whalen and son Bobby, who drives the other company truck, decided it was only fitting to christen the truck “Hannah”. Whalen called his sign painter and told her the plan, and she said to stop in after his last load and she would volunteer to letter the name onto hood of the truck.
Before learning of Hannah’s story, Whalen didn’t know her or her family in any way, shape or form. But he knew in his heart that he was doing the right thing.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something for these people,’” Whalen states. “I’m just the guy who had a purple truck. There isn’t anybody in our industry who wouldn’t have done the same thing.”
“I’ve saved every picture that’s been posted into a file and I’ve brought Hannah in and showed her the slideshow on the computer,” Roberts says. “She gets a lot of smiles and really feels the people pulling for her.
“A group effort like this is overwhelming. I only know about three percent of the people who wish us well and post photos of their trucks flying purple. The support for Hannah and our family is just unreal.”
More and more ribbons are showing up on trucks everyday, and people within the log hauling community have taken it upon themselves to raise money through T-shirt and purple ribbon window sticker sales. Lisa Holcomb, a former driver who now operates an online chrome and truck accessories business, helped to launch a fundraising website through U. S. Bank.
Roberts’s friend, Todd Stoffel, a log truck owner-operator in Vancouver, even called offering to donate a load of logs to the cause.
“With the rates and the economy, I thought it was way too much,” Roberts says, “But how do you say no to people who want to help you?”
“I’m a giver; I’m not a taker. I’ve never even borrowed ten dollars,” Roberts says. “I’ve worked for everything I’ve got, so for me to accept money from people is very hard.”
“I never wanted any help financially. I just wanted to get Hannah’s story out there.”
That it has. Positive changes are already happening, showing that the message of caring and compassion is truly being heard.
“I’ve gotten messages from people who were driving down the road hauling logs looking at the purple ribbon on their truck and started to rethink their whole life and plan some changes,” Roberts says.
“Hopefully these guys can continue to come together and not just change their lives, but also their livelihood. Maybe they can work together and start getting the haul rates up; I’d like to see everybody get something out of this.”
“When you look at our industry,” Whalen says, “It’s full of hard working people, and sometimes we’re perceived as being rough around the edges. Then you take this little girl, Hannah, who came into this because her dad grew up in the timber industry, and she took all of these hard-nosed people and brought out their soft, compassionate caring side.”
“Ultimately, I’d hope that all these people continue to pull together as one big family,” he adds. “We get so wrapped up in our own problems that we tend to forget to go back to our core values. This was an opportunity to give back and not have to think twice about it.”
For more information and to donate to Hannah’s fund visit www.youcaring.com/WingsofanAngel.
By Darin Burt