Wyandotte goalie takes on the fight of his life, battles cancer and returns to the ice
Wyandotte – Jennifer Timmerman didn’t think anything of her two sons, Jake and Garrett playing basketball in the driveway last Easter Sunday. That is, not until Jake began to develop a cough.
It was a cough that didn’t appear after a few hours of shooting hoops. The cough had been with Jake for much longer than that.
“I always had a bad cough since last hockey season,” Timmerman said. “So I didn’t think anything of it at first.”
Timmerman, 16, is a two-sport athlete at Wyandotte Roosevelt (baseball and hockey). He’s always loved not only playing games, but attending them as well. A few days later after watching the Detroit Red Wings play their last home game of the regular season, Timmerman’s cough worsened.
The cough was so bad that he kept waking up in the middle of the night, complaining of not his cough, but his inability to breathe. He moved from his bedroom, and made his way to his parent’s couch in the living room where he sat there trying to wait the cough out.
The next morning, April 8, Timmerman had an appointment to see a doctor because his mom feared that her son had pneumonia.
“I had my husband take (Jake) to the doctors,” she explained. “I told him to make sure they give Jake an x-ray because I thought he had pneumonia. I thought it was something bad.”
What the doctor found wasn’t just something bad. It was considerably worse.
After the examination at a local family clinic, the doctors noticed something suspicious. After a brief discussion, the doctors wanted a second opinion to confirm their suspicions.
“My husband called me and he said they were going to (hospital) because they saw something on the chest x-ray and they weren’t sure what it was,” Jennifer Timmerman said. “Then he whispered into the phone ‘you need to call them. They know something.’”
That’s when Timmerman and his father, Tim, hurried to Ann Arbor to Mott’s Children Hospital where more tests and x-rays were administered.
“I called the doctor’s office and they told me it looks like a tumor on the x-ray,” Jennifer said. “They said that it was so big, and they were pretty sure. They did another x-ray, and the doctor said they were confident he had a mass in his chest.
“I’m an ICU nurse and I know what a chest x-ray is supposed to look like, and this was one of the worst chest x-rays I’ve ever seen, and it was on my son. I was in shock, and there were a lot tears. I tried to pull it together, but you never know.
“The first thing you think of is you might lose your kid.”
The test revealed that her son had stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that began to grow during the season. The difference between stage one and stage two is that Hodgkin Lymphoma in the latter is in two or more groups of lymph nodes or an organ, and one or more group of lymph nodes.
In Jake’s case, the tumor was pressing on his trachea and his right lower lymph nodes were collapsed. The tumor was also around his superior vena cava, his pulmonary artery, and his heart. The silver lining was that the negative pressure from Timmerman’s breathing prevented the tumor from collapsing his trachea completely.
The tests also revealed that the tumor weighed nine pounds but, due to its location, treatment would have to be done without anesthesia out of fear that if Timmerman’s breathing became too shallow the tumor may also collapse his lungs.
“When I was in the hospital, the doctors wanted to do some tests to see what stage it was,” he said. “They wanted to check my bone marrow, give me a biopsy (turned out to be three) and a spinal tap.
“They told me that couldn’t put me under any anesthesia because if I went under, my lungs could have collapsed from the tumor. That whole time, I was kind of out of it, but I was still aware. It was just painful. I just wanted to get it over with because of how painful it was.”
As he dealt with the pain, Timmerman was unaware of just how exhaustive the treatment plan would be and that he might never play a game that he loved since he was seven.
During his hospital stay, and after many meetings with doctors, Timmerman was given a piece of paper that explained what his life would consist of in regards to treatments and side-effects. While Timmerman read the sheet his biggest fear was realized.
The treatment plan consisted of eight cycles of chemotherapy (two rounds within each cycle) that would last nine months to a year.
“As I was reading it, I immediately threw the paper across the room, because I knew that meant that I’d miss the season,” Timmerman said.
“My mom was crying and asked what was wrong? I told her I’m not missing a year of hockey, and she kept telling me how that wasn’t important. But it was important. How is it not?
“I just wanted to play.”
The world Timmerman knew was going through a seismic shift. But the physical and mental healing began immediately thanks to Wyandotte hockey coach Mike Quint. After Quint visited the Timmermans in the hospital, he assured them they wouldn’t have to worry about a thing because they weren’t members of the same community; they were a family.
Quint helped re-do a room at the Timmerman’s home to ensure Jake had a special clean sanctuary when he returned. The room is painted in the school colors, blue, white and gold, and has a painting of a bear (Wyandotte’s nickname and mascot) looking over Timmerman’s bed.
As word spread the rest of the Wyandotte community started to help in their own way. The hockey team organized a dinner and a golf outing to support the Timmermans. Other athletic teams held fundraisers including a bake sale to help as well.
“All through the support, it seemed like all of downriver was reaching out to me. You don’t really see that side of people or that sense of community until something like this happens,” Timmerman said.
“I was taken back by it.”
Timmerman went through his first round of chemotherapy three days after his diagnosis. Even though he was able to eat, and play Call of Duty with a friend that stopped by, the road Jake had to take wouldn’t be easy.
When he started his second cycle, which included rounds three and four of his therapy, the process became more challenging.
“I started to get sick, and couldn’t hold anything down,” he said. “I wanted to eat so badly. After that, I got so mad at the situation. I couldn’t even look at the nurse as she was administering the dosage.
“If I tried to eat, my body would start to reject it. It was really tough. In your head, you know what is getting pushed through your body. It’s a lot to take in, but it was for a reason. You had to focus on the why.”
The cancer treatment and his attempts to live a normal life took its toll on Timmerman but he found ways to fight back. His treatment was breaking down his white blood cells, which inhibits his body’s ability to fight simple diseases.
“I remember I had to wear a mask around my face when I went outside,” Timmerman said.
“I couldn’t eat fast food anymore. That wasn’t my favorite changes. But I had people that always came to the house to visit with me. My teachers stopped by to see how I was doing and to make sure I could keep up with my schoolwork.
“I only went back to school for a day, it was a half day, just to see my friends. It’s a big change, and it takes some time to get used to. After about a month I was used to everything and it wasn’t so bad.”
Timmerman finish his sophomore year of school and was also able to lace up his skates, and rejoin his teammates for a session of spring workouts. He also attended games where he could feel like he was still part of the team.
“I remember the first hockey game I went to after my diagnosis, and (I) was relaxing,” he said. “It was the one thing I had. I think most people who experience a life-changing event always go back to something they enjoy, and hockey was that for me. I wanted to be around it.
“It helped a lot. Just seeing the team made it worth it. They’d cheer for me when they saw me, and I would still sit on the bench. After every game, we’d take a picture of me and the guys with my jersey in the background.
“You see 17, 19 guys working, and they see you working right there with them. They know what I was going through, so I wanted to push my teammates as well as myself. It helped all of us.
“I talked to the team as much as could. At one point I couldn’t really skate anymore because I had issues with my feet. But we’d text and talk or play call of duty together at my house. Whatever I could do, we did.”
Physically, the cancer was starting to eat at Timmerman physically. His long curly hair gave way to a military buzz cut. And the chemotherapy made his skin super sensitive.
After a skate his feet would get irritated and begin to bleed because of the irritation of him pushing out from side to side as he navigated the ice. Timmerman started to line the inside of his skates with gauze pads to give an extra layer of comfort before switching to an extra wide skate to lessen the irritation as best as it could.
His feet started to hurt so bad that he had to stop skating. Timmerman admitted that his body wasn’t ready for the ice but he still worked out with the team. Throughout his treatment, Timmerman only a couple of workouts.
When he wasn’t with his team or at home, Timmerman was back at the hospital progressing through his cycles of chemotherapy. After his fourth cycle (out of six), all of Timmerman’s hard work and suffering had turned the corner.
“Then after the fourth cycle, we could have completed the scheduled six or go through radiation,” Timmerman said. “We had to make a decision to either complete the chemotherapy or go through radiation because the doctors believed there were no active cancer cells.”
The doctors did periodic scans of Timmerman’s chest and concluded that the cancer had retreated after the first cycle. The treatments continued to keep it at bay because it was in remission.
“We didn’t want to talk about that word, to be honest,” Timmerman said. “But the nurses said the cancer was in remission. We elected to go through radiation because everyone was worried about the affects the chemo had on my heart. The radiation would help destroy and lasting cancer cells and help get rid of any scar tissue as well.”
Timmerman went through 21 grays of radiation lasting three weeks. The radiation treatment ended on August 21, a month before his sixteenth birthday.
As the 2015-16 hockey season rolled around, the Bears began what would be the 71st year as a program. However, the team wanted to honor their bond, and their commitment to Timmerman, and the team referred to themselves as team 35, Timmerman’s number.
“We were going to be behind Jake no matter what,” Quint said. “It was fitting that last year was year 70, and half of that is 35. We wanted to dedicate the season to him and his family.”
The season started pretty much without a hitch. The Bears skated out to a 7-0-1 record before losing two straight games. Timmerman would warm up with team, but the coaches weren’t sure if he was game ready.
After a 4-1 victory over Riverview on Dec 29, Timmerman’s number would not only be seen on the bench, it would be called upon to start. Quint decided Timmerman was ready to get his legs underneath him and lead the Bears against one of the top teams in Division 2, Berkley.
“I was nervous,” Timmerman said. “Berkley isn’t a walk-over team. They are a tough team. When coaches told me, I thought maybe I’m more ready than I think I am. I was calm and relaxed. I know what it was like to have hockey taken away from me and I pushed myself so hard to get back to this point.
“When you hear your name come over the PA, and it hits you that this is where you want to be. You’re almost back to normal, but you’re back on the ice with your guys. You hit the ice for warm-ups, and it doesn’t hit you. It didn’t really hit me until after the second period. The saves I made, and what we did through two periods of hockey, that’s when it felt real. I was sitting in the chair in a hospital, and now I’m doing this a few short weeks later.
“It still hasn’t hit me. I don’t know if it will.”
Timmerman played the game like a goalie possessed. He was loose and he was right where he wanted to be. He helped the Bears skate out to a 5-0 lead playing two periods of flawless hockey. As the third period went on, the game and his conditioning began to catch up to him. Berkley started to battle back and got two goals to cut into the lead 6-2, before a moment that most goaltenders would find embarrassing.
“The first goal wasn’t the greatest goal I’ve given up, and the second one was on a 5-on-3. The third one though I — uh — misplayed,” Jake said sheepishly.
Timmerman said that when he reflects on what he went through to come back to hockey, he doesn’t know if it’s ever going to sink in. There were moments during his recovery that were a complete blur. But he does see the world a little differently.
“It helps you see the world in a different perspective. There isn’t any real way to describe it, though. You can say ‘thank you’ all you want, but it doesn’t cover the feeling you have or the appreciation you have for everything everyone has done for you,” he said.
“It’s just humbling.”
As he continues to mature, Timmerman will not only be saddled with the memories of his junior season, but he’ll still carry the mass inside his chest. His body will accommodate for it as well. His lungs will lower, and some of it will dissolve completely rejoining other cells in the body and working toward their normal functions.
Things will never be normal for Timmerman and his family. But every time he sets his blades on the ice or wears his goalie pads, he’ll be right at home playing hockey with his hockey family and hopefully helping Team 35 play for a state championship.