Body and Soul: The Haley Fischman Story

by Eva Dean Folkert

Fischman in the discus circle, competing on spring break in March.

There inside an eight-foot, concrete circle with a discus white-knuckle-gripped in her right hand, it was not readily apparent that Hope College’s Haley Fischman ’18 was coping with cancer. The senior student-athlete struck the pose of a skilled thrower ready to propel two pounds of wood and metal and carbon fiber ridiculously far through the air and seemed much the same as she had hundreds, maybe thousands, of throws before. Well, maybe there was one exception, one new item added to her usual orange-and-blue Hope uniform that betrayed her new reality: this time, on the first day of the 2018 Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Track and Field Championships in early May, Fischman wore an unassuming cream-colored bandana over thinning brunette hair.

Finally, Fischman inhaled deeply, began to twirl as discus throwers do, and then, by power and faith, rendered a ferocious heave and let both go ­­— the disc in her hand, that breath from her chest. Discus and exhalation, they flew and flew.

After the first was fully and forcefully ejected, it landed 124-feet, 6-inches away with a solid thud on new May grass. When the second was equally expelled, it made an adament noise, too, the sound of effort and relief penetrating the crisp spring air. It all was a feat that few, except those on the Hope team and in her family, understood as inspiring and even miraculous.

And not just at that moment but also a day later. Fischman’s all-out effort and that fourth-place-resulting discus throw accounted for five points, just enough for the Hope women’s track team to defeat Calvin College by four and a half points (179 – 174.5) over the course of the two-day meet and thus win the MIAA championship.

Here’s the added kicker (as if knowing she has cancer isn’t a gut-punch enough): Haley Fischman was not even supposed to be there. Two surgeries and chemotherapy initially, understandably discouraged her from going.

Here’s the added kicker (as if knowing she has cancer isn’t a gut-punch enough): Haley Fischman was not even supposed to be there. Two surgeries and chemotherapy initially, understandably discouraged her from going. But go she did, pulling off a championship-difference-maker after her third infusion of sickening and weakening chemo nine days prior. Fischman has been receiving a hopefully-curative-but-potent concoction for Hodgkin’s lymphoma every other week since late March. She also has a chemo port on the left side of her chest. But what she mostly has is an indomitable spirit and a deep Christian faith, and her fortitude and charismatic, infectious smile signals a young woman at peace in the fight of her life.

“I was raised in a faithful Catholic home by amazing parents (Renee and Paul). Just loving God and knowing Jesus and just having that strong foundation,” Fischman begins. “But when I was first faced with this, I was terrified. When I had that first lymph node diagnosed (as cancerous), I spent an hour in my room just crying. But then I was like, ‘Haley, this is God’s plan.’ And I think I just slowly started to kind of realize, ‘Hey, there is suffering in the world, but God is in control. He’s going to give you all of this love. This is temporary. This is temporary.’ And so that’s what I keep reminding myself.”

Cancer’s timing and presence are always an inconvenient truth. Fischman was diagnosed with the hateful disease in February, just after the indoor track season, one week before outdoor season and two-and-a-half months from graduation. The driven and goal-oriented 22-year-old had plans, and plenty of them: to win the MIAA in discus during the outdoor season, to qualify for the NCAA championships, to travel to Zambia and serve as a missionary with Pōětĭce International for the summer of 2018, and then to enroll in graduate school in genetic counseling in the fall.

Lymphoma bullied its way into those plans. Fischman was able to delay her chemotherapy for just a bit so she could travel on spring break with the track and field team and compete for what she believed would be one last time. After that, she hunkered down every other week at home in Grand Ledge, Michigan, for her treatments at Sparrow Cancer Center in Lansing. She would return to Hope’s campus on her off-chemo weeks to do what she first had only strength enough to do: finish her classes. “Chemo really knocks it out of you,” she says. “I am hurting a lot (during treatment weeks).”

“When she sets her mind after a goal, it’s ‘damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.’ You gotta love it.”

But Fischman just could not forget or give up on her first dream of the season — to win a MIAA championship in discus. The thought of literally throwing one early success in cancer’s face was a huge motivator for a young woman who has an uncanny knack for exhibiting confident moxie and compassion all at the same time.

“When she sets her mind after a goal,” says her father, Paul, “it’s ‘Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.’ You gotta love it.” But first, she had to get clearance from her doctors to blast her own personal torpedo.

“My oncologist is actually from Bosnia, and he’s hilarious. A very straightforward guy,” Fischman chuckles at the recollection of the conversation. “I was like, ‘Hey, I throw discus,’ and he says, ‘Oh, I know discus.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I kinda want to do this in our conference meet. This is my goal.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘If you think you can do it and you can throw it far, go right ahead.’”

The matter-of-fact conversation was all the green light Fischman needed. Practicing only 20 throws just three days before the MIAA Championships held at Adrian College, she suited up with that new and needed bandana, buoyed by being back with the team but weighed down by anxiety.

The Flying Dutch and Dutchmen dubbed themselves Team Haley on spring break.

“Honestly, I was nervous. I’ve been having a lot of trouble with panic attacks, just really bad anxiety and that week was actually an all-time high,” Fischman confides. “And I think it was just because it’s my last week of college, I’m graduating, it’s conference. I had all kinds of crazy things going on so my anxiety was really rough. I was obviously trying not to go into (the league meet) with expectations, but I’m a very competitive person and I was like, ‘Hey, I want to win. I want to do well because that’s been my goal.’ I knew I was not going to be that good, but I still really wanted to do well and not be a weak link. Not just for myself but for my team because we were so close to winning.”

Fischman’s presence did not weaken the team; in fact, it helped make them champions.

Indeed, the Flying Dutch won the 2018 title in one of the closest meets in MIAA history. It could be argued that, out of all the points the Hope women’s team accumulated, the five points that Fischman secured from her first-day, discus performance (she also finished 10th and scoreless in both shot put and javelin on the second day “and I was not too happy about that!”) were the jolt the Flying Dutch needed to claim the league crown. Her presence did not weaken the team; it helped make them champions.

“Having Haley there meant more than the points she scored,” says teammate Alison Rich ’18. “It really boosted our morale. Seeing her give her all fires you up to do the same. She was just a huge inspiration for us all season long.”

Fischman, left center, holds the MIAA trophy with teammate Alison Rich, right center.

The feeling was mutual. Her team uplifted Fischman, too. Throws coach Paul Markel texted weekly; her teammates constantly sent cards, flowers and called. When it came time to be back among them, Fischman continued feeling the love.

“When you get back in a competitive situation, you just do it because you love everyone you’re competing with,” Fischman explains. “(The team) has been a huge support the entire time and just having them there next to me, cheering me, just meant so much. And it felt good to feel normal again.”

Fischman hopes to finish chemotherapy soon, with radiation to come, and in that as well she’ll continue to embrace the mantra she adopted early in her cancer journey: “to be faithful, not fearful” taken from Isaiah 41:10. Many in the Hope community also have that tenet wrapped around their wrists. On the April night of the annual HOPEYs Awards that honor outstanding and inspiring performances by Hope teams and student-athletes, Fischman received the Karen Page Courage Award given in honor of Hope’s long-time women’s tennis coach who ended her brave, five-year battle with breast cancer in the summer of 2009. In a gesture of solidarity, 400 orange-and-blue “Faithful Not Fearful” wristbands were offered to those in attendance. Every single one was taken; more had to be ordered to satisfy demand.

“Having so many people supporting me has been amazing,” she says. “It would be so hard to do this without them.”

Like a trip to the NCAA championships, Fischman’s summer excursion to Africa will not occur either, but the funds she raised for her summer experience are now helping to support three local Zambian interns instead. Even in her absence, more faithful expressions are moving the kingdom of God a continent away.

One last Fischman goal will not be sidelined, however. The self-proclaimed biology nerd who graduated with honors (and a 3.68 GPA) has every intention of enrolling at University of North Carolina-Greensboro this fall for a master’s degree in genetic counseling. Her doctor has again cleared the way and Fischman again is ready to go.

If Haley Fischman has taught us anything, it is this: Always admire the visible and invisible. Appreciate the strength and faith found in both body and soul.

“A genetic counselor is to a geneticist as a nurse practitioner is to your primary-care doctor,” she explains. “We talk about how your genetics and the history of your family’s diseases are affected by genes. The area I want to go into, ironically enough, is cancer genetics, but I had made up my mind about that way before this happened. Now I guess it makes sense.”

So, the next time you marvel at athletes’ physical talents, consider too the state of their spirits. If Haley Fischman has taught us anything, it is this: Always admire the visible and invisible. Appreciate the strength and faith found in both body and soul.

 

Translative Lessons From Athletics to Career: The Alexis Thompson Story

By Eva Dean Folkert

Alexis Thompson ‘17 would not quit. It was not even a consideration. Sure, her interview process was arduous — 11 interviews in all for Stryker Corporation, a leader in medical and surgical equipment and supplies — but she was used to hard work, to tenacity, to playing until the final whistle. Those were lessons, Thompson says, she learned well after four years earning her degree and playing a varsity sport at Hope College.

Alexis Thompson, former Hope volleyball player and recent graduate

So for three months of interviews that ranged from the traditional sit-down question-and-answer sessions with potential bosses, to meetings in hospitals with potential clients, to taking a Gallup® StrengthsQuest test, to writing an essay about perseverance, to delivering a mock sales call, Thompson never gave up. And because she did, she is now a trauma sales associate for Stryker — named on Fortune magazine’s Top 100 Best Places to Work at #16 — and her sales territory is the east side of the state of Michigan.

Sports, it’s often been said, build character. But they do even more than that.

“Stryker is very adamant about maintaining a high-performing culture,” says Austin Brancheau ’12, also a Hope graduate and Thompson’s direct report. “I don’t think it’s a secret that our interview process is very selective and lengthy. It’s about finding the right people to fit in on the right team.

“That said, Alexis showed a lot of grit when she interviewed and grit is something that I think stems from her athletics experience playing volleyball at Hope. Whereas I think a lot of other people may have thrown in the towel after maybe the fifth step, Alexis went the extra mile to continue to pursue the next follow-up interview. She clearly demonstrated the tenacity to keep on pursuing this position with passion. And I think playing volleyball for Hope had a lot to do with that.”

Sports, it’s often been said, build character. But they do even more than that. Playing a sport, especially at the college level, builds a strong and dogged work ethic for those who wish to pursue excellence. While Thompson may have come to Hope with some understanding of that work ethic, she believes it was clarified and embodied further in Hope volleyball.

“Playing on a nationally ranked volleyball team for all four years, I knew I was playing with the best of the best,” explains Thompson, who was the Flying Dutch’s libero. “With Coach (Becky) Schmidt, you never settle. It’s always go, go, go. I knew if I didn’t come in (to practice) early or stay late to get extra reps, I wasn’t going get any better. Quitting was never an option. Having that engraved in my head all four years in volleyball and in my classes, I think, transferred into my mindset for my career. So I study hard for my cases. I prepare hard for my sales calls. I know I can’t wing it and hope it goes well.”

As a trauma sales associate, Thompson not only makes sales calls to introduce surgeons and medical staff to the latest medical device innovations offered by Stryker to better treat patients, she also supports those medical personnel who use Stryker products when they are in the operating room. As surgeons repair broken bones or replace hips and knees, Thompson is with them in surgery to provide technical support. If there are any questions regarding Stryker instrumentation, she provides operating-room-ready solutions during surgeries that can be as short as 40 minutes or as long as six hours.

“I study hard for my cases. I prepare hard for my sales calls. I know I can’t wing it and hope it goes well.”

Though she first came to Hope to be a nursing major, Thompson changed her mind as a sophomore and majored in business instead. Her goal from then on was to work in a business in a health-related field. And that is why she persisted to become a Stryker employee. The former volleyball player felt it was the best place to use all of her Hope-taught talents and skills.

“The variety of classes I was able to take at Hope made me well-rounded for this job,” Thompson says. “I might not have had the anatomy knowledge but through business classes and communication classes, I was able to be a better communicator. Hope is a challenging place, both academically and athletically. I think when you’re surrounded by so many people who are succeeding and want to do well in life, that pushes you to be better, too. Being surrounded by that in my Hope classes, in Hope athletics definitely prepared me for this job at Stryker.”

And, no doubt, in life.

 

Life Lessons on Base

By Eva Dean Folkert

As their bus pulled into Grissom Air Force Base, through the fence barrier and approved at the guard post, members of the Hope College baseball team could not help but feel a sense of real wonder. Before them, upon acres and acres of practical Midwest land, stood an operational military base with miles of runways and dozens of no-frills buildings. Airmen saluted and marked military vehicles whizzed by. Large aircraft stood in august readiness in the distance.

If it wasn’t blatantly clear to 31 Hope baseball players on board that bus prior to entering the base, it was now: This was not a typical team trip.

Hope baseball at Grissom Air Force Base, with a KC-135 Stratotanker

The stopover at Grissom was unique, yes, but not unexpected. It was an excursion arranged weeks earlier by Hope Coach Stu Fritz and Hope alum, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Garvelink ‘96. The Flying Dutchmen were on their way to play Hanover College on the second Saturday of March, and Grissom AFB is on the way, right off US31 in Peru, Indiana. For the past two years, Garvelink has invited the Hope team to stop in and visit the place where he’s been stationed since 2015. Together with Garvelink and other military personnel on base, the baseball players eat a meal in the dining hall, then sit a spell and learn how a national team practices tenacity, commitment, accountability, trust, loyalty, and leadership for the sake of others.

Is there a better place to hear about large-scale dedication to tenacity, commitment, accountability, trust, loyalty, and leadership?

Is there a better place to hear about large-scale dedication to those values? With each visit the Hope baseball team has made to Grissom, transformational lessons unfold into a transformational experience.

“For me, being on base reminds me that a lot of times in life, there are things so much bigger than baseball,” says senior captain Danny Carrasco, a business major from Grandville, Michigan (Calvin Christian HS). “Right now, I think the biggest thing in a lot of our lives is baseball, and we have this commitment to it and we all work really hard at it. But then we see what Lieutenant Colonel Garvelink does, what his team does, and how they are committed to a bigger, greater cause. I would say that we can translate that idea to playing baseball, but better than that, we can translate that into our lives in general.”

Like Carrasco, senior captain Landon Brower of Holland, Michigan (Holland Christian HS), has learned Grissom lessons for baseball and life. A biochemistry/molecular chemistry major, Brower has plans to enter dental school after graduation. He admits his life trajectory has been singularly focused; he’s never considered any other educational or career path. “But then I hear Lieutenant Colonel Garvelink’s story and I’m impacted by being with people who take different pathways and have so much success in different life experiences,” Brower reflects.

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Garvelink ’96 in St. Mere, France, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day

Garvelink’s story is a compelling one, a tale of following a calling to a military career only after obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Hope in biology with secondary education certification. Garvelink, who grew up in Holland, Michigan, taught for a year as a substitute teacher after graduation, but he felt a new nudge toward a totally different direction. So he enrolled in and graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in criminal justice and then entered Air Force Officer Training School in 2002, graduating as a second lieutenant. Airborne School came next at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Since then, Garvelink has trained with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Great Britain, worked contingency response ops out of Germany, been deployed to Iraq five times since 2004, and served in every country in NATO.

“If you had asked me when I was at Hope if I was going to end up in the Air Force, I would have told you it was not even on my radar,” he says without a hint of irony directed at his metaphorical language. “It has been a fulfilling career.”

“Coach Fritz was an early example for me of a leader who really cared for his people. He treated me as an equal part of the team.”

Garvelink and Fritz’s longtime friendship started during the head coach’s first two seasons and the alum’s last two springs at Hope. The-now lieutenant colonel served as the student manager for Hope baseball team, and the coach and officer have remained in contact ever since, as much as they could anyway when Garvelink was off serving overseas. When he returned closer to home at Grissom, “Stu and I connected and talked about the team stopping by the base,” Garvelink explains. “My two years with the team are highlights of my time at Hope. Coach Fritz was an early example for me of a leader who really cared for his people. He treated me as an equal part of the team.”

Garvelink’s leadership style is one for interpersonal priorities, too. “You aren’t a good leader,” he says, “if you can’t tell if your team members have, or have not, brushed their teeth.” He doesn’t mean that he gets all up in their business, though; he means that good leadership happens face-to-face and with relational intention. As he oversees a squadron of 150 full-time and reservist airmen and women as the commander of the base’s defense unit, he stands by the credo that good teams must consist equally of good leaders and good followers. “I’ve seen it ultimately save lives,” he reasons.

“Being able to see the people on that base has been really great, and it’s open my eyes to a dedication to something bigger.”

Lt. Col. Garvelink, center, shows Jack Sojka, right, and Cal Barrett, left, pneumatic-powered weapons training simulators.

Garvelink passes on this and other pieces of their leadership philosophy to the Hope baseball team every time they stop by Grissom. He’s happy to take the time to not only impart his hard-earned thoughts on leadership but also to show the team  technologies of the modern military. It’s a way of giving back and moving forward.

“I think it’s important for our kids to see leadership in a different environment and to see trust and loyalty and love and cohesiveness there,” says Fritz, now in his 25th season coaching at Hope. “One of the things I tell our guys all the time is that being a student-athlete is a privilege, not a right. And those privileges that they have are given to them because people are willing to do what Matt Garvelink does.”

“Across Division III, there cannot be very many college athletes who get to see an Air Force base in real life,” Brower relates. “When we’re in Holland, Michigan, we don’t really think about who’s out there making careers out of protecting our freedoms and keeping us safe. Being able to see the people on that base has been really great, and it’s opened my eyes to a dedication to something bigger. I’m definitely more appreciative because of it.”