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Ludwinski to receive posthumous highest honors degrees from Bemidji State University

Erik Ludwinski, who died in February, remained in good spirits throughout his ordeal. "College gave him a focus," Donna Ludwinski said of her son's computer science and information system majors. (Submitted Photo)

Erik Ludwinski, who succumbed to a rare pediatric cancer in February at the age of 24, will be awarded two degrees with highest honors posthumously May 7 at Bemidji State University.

His parents, Paul and Donna, will accept his summa cum laude Bachelor of Science diploma, his majors in computer science and computer information systems.

And this, his "proud mom" notes, was after Erik missed six weeks of school last fall while undergoing "internal" radiation, tests and chemo.

His tenacity and good humor endeared him to hundreds in the course of his disease.

The day he died, Feb. 9, he was talking and working on his computer, Donna recalled. He'd eaten apple pie for breakfast, the doctor teasing him, "Did your mom make that?"

"If she did, it would taste better," Erik deftly replied.

He'd taken a nap in the afternoon, woke up, prayed and then he died, Donna recalled of her son's death at about 9:30 that night.

"In the end, we were prepared," she said. "We were at the point of acceptance last fall."

Erik, who moved to Park Rapids with his family in 1998, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the age of 6, the sarcoma discovered on the right adrenal gland. The doctors' prognosis was grim. The standard treatment did not reduce the primary tumor.

By the age of 7, Erik had been hospitalized 136 days, faced 70 days in the clinic, five surgeries, nine rounds of chemo, 16 doses of radiation, 37 blood transfusions and an autologous bone marrow transplant.

But Erik had beaten incredible odds. And the happy-go-lucky young fellow walked away from the experience ready to re-embrace life.

"His survival shocked everyone," Donna recalled.

First to undergo a TMI

He was in remission for 13 years, but in May 2005, Erik decided to surprise his mother with a trip home for Mother's Day. Donna found her son's pale complexion, pallid lips and persistent pain alarming.

The symptoms struck a familiar chord.

Hospitalized, doctors found Erik's bone marrow completely packed with tumor. Virtually no normal cells were present.

Erik's was one of the latest relapses on record for his cancer.

He was treated at top-tier children's hospitals in five states for the rare cancer, Donna said. Erik was the first person in the world to undergo a total marrow irradiation as part of a stem cell transplant regimen.

Using TMI, the bone marrow was removed from the body and high doses of radiation were focused on every bone's marrow, then replaced.

He was in remission for a year.

But in November 2006, Erik relapsed. He underwent chemotherapy, "but that's like mowing grass," Donna said. "You can't get to the roots."

At one point in 2007, he wanted to quit treatment, his friends convincing him this was the route to take.

But Erik's nurse practitioner at the University of Minnesota, who was monitoring his progress, was appalled by the decision, as was his mother.

"You've got more to do," the nurse counseled, and he acquiesced.

"It was a pivotal time," Donna recalled.

No trauma experienced

In May 2009, a scan showed a spot on his hip; the bone marrow biopsy was positive. The family decided it best, after all Erik had endured, to proceed with a sense of normalcy.

"And no one's looking back," Donna said.

Erik enrolled in summer college courses and headed to Yellowstone National Park with friends.

"He had a great summer," she said.

By August, the relapse was confirmed, doctors finding a new skull lesion and cortical bone destruction in his right hip. The cancer was in his spine and lungs.

But he headed back to class.

"College, staying the course, gave him a focus," Donna explained. "He loved his classes."

By November, he was in the hospital receiving transfusions until the early morning hours, balancing a schedule between classes and treatment.

In December, the family learned he was losing the battle, doctors in Philadelphia said the drugs and radiation were not working.

He headed back to school Jan. 11, the first day of spring semester. But tumors on his spine sent him to the University of Minnesota the next day.

"He never came home."

Erik was given palliative radiation on his spine and brain. He underwent surgery to prevent paralysis. "Everything was functioning until he died," Donna said. He experienced "no trauma up to the last minute" of life.

Happy, lucid to the end

"Erik Ludwinski was an exceptional young man and an excellent student," professors and peers will be reminded Wednesday at the BSU graduation ceremony. "Throughout four years of rigorous treatments for a rare cancer, his drive for knowledge never abated."

Nor did his spirit.

"He was happy, lucid - and thankful to the end," Donna said.

She credits his doctor, Joseph Neglia, who "took on an element of shared suffering."

Donna has been invited to speak to pediatric residents at the U of M on the subject.

When doctors care, embrace the emotional elements, parents are so thankful, she explained. Parents, on the other hand, must place their trust in the physicians, or they will be forever second-guessing themselves if the disease proves fatal.

"I have been terrified of grief," she will tell doctors next week. "Final and total and complete grief..."

But in the end, after a long struggle with sorrow, she found comfort in releasing Erik to God.

"It was an amazing journey..."

I am not the person

I used to be

Erik Ludwinski 2/3/2010

I have been on an epic road trip

Blessed to have friends and family at my side

Built homes for others

And tried to be their Sunshine.

I thought I could support everyone

Be the eternal optimist

Keep everything in my control.

I had plans and expected them to happen.

I didn't need help -

I was the help.

I didn't need others' sympathy or strength -

I wanted to be their strength.

In this whirlwind of cancer I have learned

To be honest with my family and my friends

The value of a shoulder to cry on

That it is humbling to need help

That strength is shared

And that trust and openness grow together

I still want control

I want to be the miracle so many have prayed for

I don't want to dampen their faith.

But it is not my will that matters.

Even Jesus needed friends.

And his death was not the end.

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