Bonner resident’s 1,000-mile mission staying close to home
Tom Clarke describes himself as a man on a mission.
The leukemia survivor plans to walk a total of 1,000 miles through the streets of Bonner Springs this summer by Sept. 23, the date of this year’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society “Light the Night” walk, and hopes to raise $10,000 while doing it.
Clarke, 59, already has come a long way since his cancer diagnosis in 2007 — his doctors at one time even guaranteed his death. So he has several motivations for his mission.
He is walking to show the disease he battled for two years that he has overcome it. He’s walking to thank those who supported him and to pay it forward. He’s walking to honor the memory of a young friend who recently lost his battle with lymphoma, another type of blood cancer.
And he’s walking to give hope to others who are currently facing their own battles with cancer.
“My contention is if a patient can see that somebody came from where they are at right now, and was able to do what I’m doing, maybe it will inspire them to trust a little, and have some hope,” he said.
‘Knocked for a loop’
Clarke was working as a director of a distribution center for Sprint in 2007 when he noticed his first symptoms.
In charge of the late shift, he often would help the other employees clean up at the end of the shift.
“I started noticing more and more as the week went by that I was getting weaker,” he said. “Just pushing a broom around would make me tired.”
One night, he got home from work and couldn’t make it halfway up the stairs. After visiting an urgent care facility the next day, doctors told him it was pneumonia. But his health continued to get worse, so his daughter, who is a nurse, made him an appointment at Olathe Medical Center.
This time the doctor had Clarke come back for bloodwork in the morning. By the afternoon, the doctor called him requesting he come out immediately, and he received the diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia.
While his father had died of colon cancer in 1977, Clarke said he always considered himself healthy.
“This one just knocked me for a loop,” he said. “It’s just something you’re not prepared for and scares the heck out of you.”
After going through chemotherapy, it seemed Clarke had the cancer beat, but six months later, it was back.
“At that point, it turned into a much more urgent situation, because then I had to go test for a bone-marrow transplant,” he said.
He did another round of chemotherapy until a donor was found in September of 2008, and after a long transplant recovery, feeling sick for about six months, Clarke eventually started feeling better. But two days after his doctors took him off one of his recovery drugs in June 2009, Clarke began feeling ill again. Unable to make it up the stairs one night and in serious pain, he went back to the hospital, and it was determined he had graft versus host disease — his body was rejecting his transplant.
“I went into ICU at KU; my lungs didn’t work, my energy was gone, and I couldn’t stand on my own,” he said. “This was all in a matter of minutes that this happened.”
After two weeks in the ICU, Clarke was put back into the bone marrow transplant unit for a week, but doctors soon told him to expect the worst.
“They told me I wasn’t going home; they said, ‘You’re dying; notify your family,’” he said.
Though he and his family took all the steps to prepare for death, Clarke soon proved his doctors wrong.
“A week-and-a-half later, I was still breathing somehow, so they started changing their tune,” he said. “I’d had an oncologist, a cardiologist and a pulmonary physician tell me that it was done — I was done, no way out.”
The doctors then said he may survive, but if he lived, he would require oxygen for the rest of his life and a walker. He left the hospital on June 31, 2009, completely unable to walk.
Light the Night
But Clarke had a goal. He had learned of the Light the Night walk while in the hospital in 2008, and he wanted to participate in the event, which would take place two months later. He was told there was no way he’d be able walk in it, but after two months of physical therapy, he made it, completing all of the event’s walk but the last hill.
“I had my oxygen on my back, and a group of friends there to help me get through it, and the rest is pretty much history,” he said. “My reason for doing all this now is to kind of give back, because there was a lot of people that helped me and a lot of people that were super awesome, and if there’s something I can do to help them, it’s just paying it back, paying it forward.”
His mission for this summer first took root when he began getting ready for the 2010 Light the Night in July of last year. He started walking the Bonner Springs High School track for five or six weeks.
“I got bored going in circles, and so I decided to start on the street and see how far I could get,” he said. “By the time the Light the Night walk came, I was doing five miles.”
After walking 300 miles just in two months last year — some of the hottest months of the summer — he figured 1,000 miles this summer would be a piece of cake as long as he did five or six miles every day. He used his car to figure out 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-mile routes through town.
He most often walks in the early mornings and late evenings, and he said Bonner residents may recognize him by his bright orange shirts.
Though he has several reasons for his mission, there was one event that solidified his commitment to walk 1,000 miles.
Before undergoing his bone marrow transplant, a nurse introduced Clarke to a young man named Brandon, then a lymphoma patient at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Brandon invited Clarke to his home to discuss what going through a transplant was like.
“I went out and had a long conversation with them, and the instant bond there — just a great, great family,” Clarke said. “Brandon lost his battle just a month ago; he died at 20 years old. It hit home; it hit home hard. Because this kid was an amazing talent, he was fearless, and everybody that knew him was just thrilled with him. I knew I had to do something, because he died at the point where he was trying to get something going for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.”
Those interested in contributing to Clarke’s effort and following his progress can visit his Light the Night fundraising page, pages.lightthenight.org/mid/KSCity11/TC1000, or visit his Facebook page by searching for "1000 miles for Leukemia" on facebook.com.