A Glen Allen, VA, boy and his father put blood and sweat (but no tears) into an effort to memorialize a loved one and support the Oral Cancer Foundation in the process: They hiked 110 miles of the Appalachian Trail and gave the donations they raised to the California-based Foundation.
“It was tough,” said Robbie Schwieder, 15, who came up with the idea of doing the trek through the Shenandoah National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail, and later asked his father to join him. “It was really brutal, physically, mentally, in every way.” But despite the 40 pound backpacks, grueling terrain, stifling heat, and blisters upon blisters, Robbie and his father, Wylie, persevered and never complained. After all, they were walking in memory of Robbie’s maternal grandmother, Elaine Hegarty, who’d undergone immense suffering of a graver kind—oral cancer.
Hegarty was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1993. The dignified, independent Milwaukee resident was initially told she’d have to have a radical, disfiguring surgery. After a second opinion, she underwent a procedure during which doctors accessed the tumor from inside her mouth and removed it completely. She healed, and life returned to normal—at least for a few years.
“About 6 years later she developed a second tumor inside her mouth,” said Hegarty’s daughter Katie Schwieder. “They removed that one, and then she was never the same. She wore dentures that never fit properly. She was having pain a fair bit.”
By the summer of 2002, Hegarty’s pain was becoming difficult to bear, and doctors discovered another tumor. “In January of 2003, they did another surgery and realized they couldn’t get all of it without taking the jaw bone, and doing radical radiation and chemotherapy,” Katie explained. Her mother decided against that surgery. “She was a very classy and dignified lady. She had made up her mind. She was 73 years old; she didn’t want to overdo the treatments and she didn’t want to live with a lot of scars. We brought her to Virginia and got her settled with doctors out here, then quickly learned the cancer had gone into her bone.”
Elaine Hegarty had Easter dinner that year with her daughter’s family. “Three days later, she went into the hospital, into the hospice unit,” Katie said. “And the Sunday after Easter, she passed away.”
The experience rocked the entire family, each of them dealing with loss together and in their own individual ways. Meanwhile, for Robbie and his siblings, school responsibilities continued. Robbie, who takes part in the International Baccalaureate Program at an area high school, had a required project to complete. He was to focus on a passion in his life, research it, pursue it, and later write a report and give a presentation. Students completing these “personal projects,” as they are called, are encouraged to incorporate community service into their efforts. For Robbie, who’d lost his grandmother to cancer, finding a topic to focus on was not difficult.
“He came home from school one day back in May and said ‘I think I’d like to hike the Appalachian Trail.’” Katie said. “Then he added ‘I think I’d like to raise some money for mouth cancer research.’”
Robbie’s parents were surprised and delighted. And a bit taken aback—this was no small endeavor their son was proposing. But Robbie was not concerned:
“Ever since I went to elementary school, they taught us about the Appalachian Trail because it’s one of our historical landmarks,” he said. “And in Boy Scouts, we did a lot of hiking, camping and outdoor things. Donating to the Oral Cancer Foundation … I just took the two ideas and put them together.”
Robbie proposed to walk 110 miles of the Appalachian Trail over eight days during summer vacation. He needed a partner and Robbie looked to his father, who looked around in mock panic.
“It was sort of like: How did I get roped into this?” joked Wylie, a banker. “Seriously, what was tremendous to me was that it was all his idea. I thought ‘Holy Crow, where’d that come from?’ But the AT is a big part of Virginia, so I thought ‘That sounds cool. My kid is old enough to dream up something like that, and is still interested in having me participate.’ It’s also cool that he related the community service aspect of the project to something that ultimately killed his grandmother. ”
So despite neither Robbie nor his father ever having walked so long or so arduous a trail, the pair began to plan. Robbie began researching charitable organizations devoted to oral cancer research, education, and patient and caregiver support.
“He got online and said ‘Mom, there’s a mouth cancer foundation!’” Katie recalled. “So he wrote letters to his family and friends asking them to sponsor him and to send checks in care of the Mouth Cancer Foundation. Later, I found out that the Mouth Cancer Foundation is actually based in the U.K. I quickly did some research to find a U.S. foundation, and I found Brian Hill.”
Hill, two-time oral cancer survivor and founder of the California-based Oral Cancer Foundation, was impressed to hear about the Schwieders’ plans. “Robbie is an exceptional individual. Early in his life he has realized the value of living part of your life in service to others, even strangers. His decisions and efforts reflect the thinking of someone far more evolved than his years would indicate. His idea, and the impact that it will have on others, not only in the form of the donation he has raised for a foundation like ours, but as an example to others of what can be done when your focus isn’t centered on your own gains, is far reaching. He’s an amazing young man.” Said Hill.
Robbie’s efforts began paying off. “Most, if not all of the people I sent letters to sent pledges —and I got really large donations from some,” he said.
But there was still the walk to do—and those pledges were based on the number of miles Robbie and his father were to trek. You might think that two people planning to traverse more than 100 miles on the mountainous Appalachian Trail would do a little pre-trip conditioning. In this case, you’d be wrong. The Schwieder family keeps active and often hikes for fun—so they decided against a concerted ramp-up effort.
“There’s not much you can do to get ready unless you devote all of your time to hiking,” Robbie explained. “We went out on the trail cold. It took us a couple of days to get in shape and my dad’s feet were covered with blisters. He hiked the last half of the trail in sandals.”
For Wylie, the walk became the toughest endeavor he’d ever undertaken. “The first day, there was a heat index temperature of 105,” he said. “We climbed 5,000 vertical feet that day with all of our camping gear, food and water strapped to our backs. I was drenched. … We drank six liters of water, and it all came out in sweat.”
To make things worse, Wylie had bought waterproof hiking boots, to keep water from getting in if they hiked through streams. Problem was, the boots wouldn’t let water out, either. When he took his boots off after the first grueling day’s hike, it looked like he’d been in a bathtub for hours.
“There were blisters, and they’d ripped,” Wylie said. “My feet were a mess. It was very painful. Robbie’s back was bugging him from carrying his pack.”
Still, as the days went by, blisters mounted, and muscles grew stuff, both Schwieders kept their discomfort to themselves. “Neither one of us was going to quit, and neither one of us was going to complain,” Wylie said. “We were bound and determined that we’d fulfill the commitment we’d made, and earn the full financial commitment Robbie’s sponsors had made. That was always our motivator. Three quarters of a day through, when we were feeling crummy, we just didn’t talk about it. We just kept going because this was for people suffering from cancer”
Eight days after they began, after 110 miles of rough, hilly terrain, after six black bear sightings, seven nights under the stars, and endless pack and shoe adjustments, Robbie and Wylie achieved their goal. Katie and her two other sons, 13-year-old twins Will and Andrew, joined the pair on the last leg of the well-orchestrated journey.
“There’s something else I’m proud of Robbie for,” his father said. “He did all the planning. He got maps from the Potomac Appalachian Club and decided ‘Here’s where we start, here’s how far we’ll go each day, here’s where we’ll stay, here’s where springs are so we can get water.’ We referenced that plan each day of the hike. And it worked! We weren’t religious about it; we didn’t stick 100 percent to plan. But having the structure allowed us to be flexible and have something to fall back on when we needed it.”
Along the trail, Wylie realized in a visceral way that his son was growing up—that he could have a dream, formulate a complex plan, and give of himself to help ease the suffering of others.
“The trip was demanding, but gratifying,” he said, “to see my son grow and do something for others. It was a very powerful way to spend a week’s vacation, I’ll tell you that. This’ll be something we’ll talk about for a long time–we’ll be irritating people for decades with this story.”
Robbie sent $3,345 to the Oral Cancer Foundation. He’ll write his report, and give his presentation—complete with photographs and excerpts from his trip diary. But it all comes down to one thing: easing the suffering of others and memorializing someone whom he knew too briefly. “I’ll always remember my grandma,” Robbie said. “Whenever we spent time together, it was fun.”