Last November, a 12-year-old La Pine boy thought all he was sick with was mono. But as his fever progressed for weeks, Collin Ellingson's doctors discovered it was actually a rare form of lymphoma cancer he was battling.
Collin, his mom Susan Lott and his sisters were in Seattle this past weekend for the 2013 Scott Firefighter Stairclimb. It's a huge fund-raiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Collin was this year's inspiration for the 14 Bend Firefighters who, over several months, raised over $25,000 from community donations.
The 1,500 firefighters from around the world wear their 50 pounds of gear, breathe compressed air, and race up 69 floors of stairs in the Columbia Tower, the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi.
There's stiff competition for the best time, with the fastest this year from a Missoula, Montana firefighter at 10 minutes 48 seconds.
All day, firefighters go in heats through the building. As they prepare at the start line, some of the Bend competitors shared their thoughts with us.
"I think I'm just going through some last minute strategy, some pacing strategy more than anything because it's easy to go out too hard, got a lot of adrenaline going," said Bend Fire Engineer Scott Seaton.
"My strategy is not to blow up really early, like I did last year," said Bend Fire Capt. Mike King. "Last year, I got all excited and went out too fast and blew sky high. This year, I'm going to go out slow, and finish strong."
There to watch all the pomp and circumstance, from the bagpipes to the big climb, was Collin Ellingson, who is very new to all this attention, both from the firefighters and his doctors at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland.
"In November, he was just tired all the time," mom Susan Lott explained of her son's symptoms. "Constantly tired, didn't want to get up. He started getting a 101-degree fever, so I took him in and they said he had mono."
Lott says he had mono, and was out of school for about a month. But his fever kept going, reaching a consistent 103 degrees, when she took him back to the doctor. They found a lump in Collin's throat that wasn't there the previous visit. More tests went by, and one day Lott got a frantic call that she needed to get Collin to Doernbecher immediately, that they believed he had cancer.
"Collin's diagnosis is rare. His is HBB driven infused B cell Hodgkins Lymphoma," explained Lott. "So he comes up to Doernbecher every two weeks to get spinal taps. We just got decreased, we used to come up here for week-long chemo treatments and we just got decreased to two days, so that's good. We're hoping by April we'll be done."
As the firefighters continue up each flight, on the landings there are posters and photos of people battling some form of blood cancer as an inspiration to keep going -- and volunteers urging them on, reminding them what it's all about.
On the 40th floor of the Columbia Tower is where they can switch out their compressed air tank to a fresh one, or even take a break before continuing on to the finish line.
"It's as usual, the first 40 floors just fly on by, but you get to those last 10 and it seems like it takes forever," said King. "You're just counting off the floors one by one."
At the finish line, it's an emotional ending. "I love immersing myself in this firefighter culture and raising money and awareness for blood cancer," said Seaton.
"Having the families here is so important and so special," said King. "It drives home what this is all about, and it makes our little bit of suffering seem pretty small."
"It was amazing to see all the firefighters from all around," said Lott. "It's so inspiring for Collin just to watch them go up and pull off their gear and see Collin, and they're like, 'Yay!'"
"It's great to be able to have them up here and make it special for them," Bend Fire Capt. Scott Wyman at the end. "Just to let them know we have their pictures on our helmets. The pain while running is pretty trivia,l compared to them."
The Bend Fire Department was the sixth-highest ranked team for money raised. Wyman was the fastest Bend guy, and came in 19th overall, with a time of 13:20.