True romance: A made-for-Hollywood story of a superintendent’s battle with cancer

By |  October 22, 2014 0 Comments

If Matt and Cammie Henkel’s life story were made into a Hollywood movie, it would be a romantic comedy. Jim Carrey, with his big smile, could play the role of Matt. Cammie, the eye-catching brunette, could be played by Courteney Cox.

henkel_familyThe opening moments of comedy would come during the scene of Matt and Cammie’s first date, which took place in Cammie’s parents’ living room. Being a freshman in high school at the time, her parents wouldn’t let her leave the house to go on a date… especially with a boy who was two years older than her.

Happy tears might flow in the scene six years later, when Matt gets on one knee and proposes. This scene takes place as it did in real life, on Chicago’s Navy Pier, with fireworks erupting on the Fourth of July.

But every movie has that moment of despair, that challenge to overcome. For this movie, that moment comes when one of the stars is stricken with an unidentified ailment, so weak he or she can no longer work.

And in this movie, one stands up for the other, and saves their loved one’s life.
 

Scene one

Rewind to the beginning of the movie. Matt Henkel is a farm kid/high school jock growing up in Sublette, Ill., a town of 300 people. He rides the bus seven miles to Amboy, Ill., a town of 3,000 in northern Illinois, and stars at guard on a stacked basketball team. He’s also a talented golfer who thinks Fred Couples is the coolest stick to ever stroll a fairway.

Matt’s little sister, Catharine, introduces him to her friend Cammie. Tragically, Catharine is killed by a drunk driver while in the 8th grade. Soon after, Matt and Cammie become best friends, and fall madly in love.

College comes, and Matt gets an academic scholarship to Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Ill. He transfers to Illinois State University, where he earns a B.S. in agricultural business, with a minor in horticulture. His senior year, a job is posted for an internship at PrairieView Golf Club in Byron, Ill. He decides to give golf maintenance a try, and at the end of the internship, a second assistant’s position is added, allowing him to join the team full-time.

Things go great for the couple until the spring of 2008. That’s when Matt’s fatigue and headaches begin. He’s so tired he has to go home before lunch each day.

“He had been working at the course for eight years, and nothing could slow him down,” says Cammie Henkel. “He could go to work at 3:30 in the morning, and work until late in the evening. But for a week he was home by 11 a.m., so tired he could hardly walk.”

Up until this time, Matt Henkel rarely had a health concern. He barely even had a doctor. That was about to change.

Henkel made a trip to the family practitioner and was told he was having migraines. He never had migraines before, but was willing to accept that answer.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m just worn down, doing too much,’” he recalls. “I told myself that I needed to take it easy.”

But his problems persisted. He went back to the doctor again. “Maybe it’s a virus,” he was told.

It wasn’t a virus.
 

Moment of truth

A week later, Cammie Henkel had had enough.

henkel_clubcar“She said she was taking me to the emergency room, and I didn’t want to go,” Henkel says. “The doctors had already told me there was nothing they could do, that I needed to just get over it. I’m not the type of guy to go back again after being told that. But she dragged me in there.”

They were being shown the door yet again when Cammie Henkel had her stand-up moment of this true romance/drama.

“I just had this feeling… I can’t explain it other than to say I had a feeling,” she recalls. “I said (to the doctor), ‘I’m not leaving here until you do something.’”

The doctor agreed to give Matt a CT scan, but warned the Henkels they were about to ‘waste a couple thousand dollars.’

The radiologist looked at the results and saw something he didn’t like. He called it a lesion. He told Matt they would keep him overnight, then give him an MRI the next morning.

At this time, Henkel still wasn’t concerned.

“I thought it would be something they could give me a few pills for, or it would just go away in time,” Henkel says. “But they did the MRI the next day, and my general physician came in and laid it all out there — he said it was likely a brain tumor.”

Henkel was loaded into an ambulance, and driven 130 miles to the hospital at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
 

Enter: Wee One Foundation

Matt and Cammie Henkel with son Ashton at PrairieView GC, Byron, Ill.

Matt and Cammie Henkel with son Ashton at PrairieView GC, Byron, Ill.

It was brain cancer, but mercifully, the tumor was caught in its early stages. Surgery was performed to remove the tumor, and it was declared a success. It took Henkel a few weeks, but he recovered, and returned to work. The doctor told him to come back every six months so they could monitor his health.

At this same time, Henkel’s cousin, Eric Henkel, superintendent at Shady Oaks CC in Sublette, was talking with a local vendor when the topic of Matt’s cancer came up. The vendor told Eric about the Wee One Foundation (weeone.org), an organization that assists golf course management professionals who incur overwhelming expenses due to medical hardships.

Soon after, Chad Ball, CGCS at Conway Farms GC in Lake Forest, Ill., and a director for the Wee One, was at PrairieView GC to visit with Henkel, who was still an assistant superintendent. They talked, and at the end of the visit, Ball presented Henkel with a check from the foundation for $7,000 to use however he saw fit.

“I told him that we still have insurance, I still have a job. But there were expenses I wasn’t aware of,” Henkel says. “The traveling, the hotels, daycare, the equipment insurance doesn’t pay for.”

Turns out the Wee One came at just the right time.

“We had two kids under the age of two. Matt was just starting out as an assistant, and I was just starting out as a teacher,” Cammie Henkel recalls. “We were hurting. We didn’t know what the right thing to do was. Should we sell our house, or should we not? (The money) hit us at exactly the right time. When we got it, we knew everything was going to be OK.”

Though the Henkels were financially on their feet again, Matt’s health problems weren’t over. A follow-up exam in October of 2010 revealed that his tumor was back, and it was growing.

“They removed what they could see (in 2008), but with brain tissue, there is a lot of sensitive area to navigate,” Matt Henkel says. “They know there are likely to be edges that they are unable to remove.”

The tumor, now upgraded to an anaplastic astrocytoma, was more aggressive. The same basic surgery was performed. Because the tumor tested that it would be unresponsive to chemotherapy, he was directed to undergo 33 radiation treatments.

The 2014 Northwest Illinois GCSA Wee One tournament raised $6,000 for the Wee One Foundation. Henkel is determined to raise more in 2015.

The 2014 Northwest Illinois GCSA Wee One tournament raised $6,000 for the Wee One Foundation. Henkel is determined to raise more in 2015.

Now the superintendent at PrairieView after his predecessor, Steve Storz, retired, the second surgery and radiation were a success. Today, at age 35, Henkel says he feels as good as he has ever felt. After his last checkup in July, the doctor told him he didn’t need to see him again for a year.

The Henkels now have three children: Ashton, age 9; Claire, age 7; and Mara, age 2. Though the thought of his tumor returning is always in the back of his mind, it seems his biggest concern lately has been finding help in the pro shop, where he’s had to put in some hours himself due to staffing problems.

Cammie agrees that Matt seems healthy and happy, aside from the 200 hours he had to work over the last 18 days.

“I always wondered if the golf course was good for him, if the tumor was going to come back because he works so much,” she says. “I went there and looked around. The course is on a forest preserve, there’s all this nature. I think the golf course helps him be healthy. The nature there plays a big role in how well he is doing.”
 

More fireworks

Having two bouts of brain cancer changes one’s perspective.

“I say the luxury of my illness is I truly get to live each day like it’s my last,” Matt Henkel says. “It gives you that perspective to live your life to its fullest.”

Part of that includes giving back. At first, it was sending Bass Pro Shops gift cards to a young boy with the same kind of tumor he had. Then, one day, while lying in bed, he decided he wanted to do something to return the favor to the Wee One.

Cammie Henkel tried to talk him out of it. But unlike the time she convinced him to go to the emergency room, this time she couldn’t change his mind.

“I said, ‘Couldn’t this wait a year?’ and he said, ‘No, now is the time,’” she recalls.

In August, Henkel hosted the first Northwest Illinois GCSA Wee One fundraiser at his course. The tournament included 80 participants, donated raffle prizes, ridiculous pin placements and obstacles in front of greens. There was also, fittingly, a 20-minute fireworks display put on by Matt.

The movie imitates life. Zoom in on Matt and Cammie again sharing a kiss while fireworks erupt, similar to that moment on Navy Pier when Matt proposed. But this time they’re older, Matt has a scar on his temple, and the woman he’s kissing isn’t just the love of his life, but also the woman who saved his life.

The screen fades to black. The credits roll.

Happily ever after

The Henkels are a happy family, and Matt and Cammie’s love story, now going on its 20th year, continues. Cammie says being a 1st grade teacher is her dream job. Matt says there’s nothing like being the first one on the golf course, that there’s no better office in the world.

He looks back at the events of his life in 2008 and marvels at the way it all worked out. It turns out he had mono when doctors first discovered his tumor. What would have happened if they properly diagnosed his mono? How long would it have taken to discover his brain tumor? And what stage would it have been?

“I believe to this day that if Cammie didn’t demand I have that CT scan, I would have recovered from mono and the tumor would have been diagnosed at a much later stage,” he says. “I believe that my wife’s persistence saved my life.”

Along with the overall love story, the underlying message of this film would be to take your health seriously and have someone advocate for you.

“At age 29, when I was feeling the way I was, I didn’t think much of it. I fought with my wife, I told her I didn’t need any more tests,” Henkel says. “I’m glad my wife didn’t give up on me.”

Photos: Ashley Noble Photography | Luke Cella

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