Community rallies around two families struck by illness

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By Matt Gunn

The Wiggins and Gillman families have had intersecting lives in the Columbine community.

In the 2006 high school baseball championship, Nick Wiggins’ two-run single tied the game for Columbine High School. C.J. Gillman helped win it in extra innings on a squeeze play in the bottom of the ninth.

Now Nick and C.J. each have a younger sibling who has recently spent significant time in the hospital.

And both families are grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“When you’re in this situation, you’re in so much awe, and you feel like you’re not deserving of so much outpouring and love,” said Correne Wiggins.

Her daughter Maria, 15, is fighting hydrocephalus, a condition caused by the abnormal buildup of spinal fluid in the brain. While she has lived her entire life with hydrocephalus, a recent wave of complications beginning in July kept Maria Wiggins hospitalized until only recently.

Tommy Gillman began feeling sick on a summer baseball trip early in the summer. After he didn’t get better, his parents took him to the hospital for a series of tests that revealed Tommy was suffering from stage 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma, a type of childhood cancer. A month away from finishing chemotherapy, Tommy Gillman is making what some consider a miraculous recovery.

“This is a terrible, life-threatening thing that has happened to Tommy, and it has absolutely turned our family upside-down,” said Mari Gillman, Tommy’s mother.

And while both children and their families have been through unimaginable times, one thing has remained constant: the unrelenting support of those around them.

Tommy Gillman

Tommy Gillman has always been an active boy. Of course, that comes with the territory when your dad is the physical education teacher at Heritage High School and head coach of the champion Columbine Rebels baseball team.

However, during a summer baseball trip to Omaha, Neb., Tommy lost some of his trademark energy.

“In fact, when he got sick he was playing baseball,” said Chuck Gillman, Tommy’s father. “We thought he was getting sore knees from catching, and when he got diagnosed, it was much more than sore knees, that was for sure.”

What was initially thought to be the flu or dehydration or simply sore knees became more of a concern after the Gillman family returned home and Tommy had not yet recovered. After hospital tests, the family learned he had stage 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma.

“When he came into the hospital, he was the sickest with this disease that the oncologist has ever seen,” Mari Gillman said. “And he has responded the best (the doctor) has ever seen. They have not qualified it for us, but they are just astounded.”

Tommy began chemotherapy treatments at the beginning of July, and will be finished with them in December. During that time he has been in and out of the hospital, and has good days and bad.

“He keeps plugging along,” Chuck Gillman said. “He's got another month of treatment. So if everything keeps going like it's going, he'll be able to kick this and go back to being a kid again.”

His cancer and treatment surrounding it haven’t stopped Tommy Gillman’s will to succeed. Tommy has even kept up with his schoolwork with the aid of some tutors and occasional time in the classroom.

“He's done an amazing job keeping up with his work,” Chuck Gillman said. “His teacher says he's pretty much on par with everyone there, so I'm really proud of that.”

As with the Wiggins family, Tommy’s illness was the catalyst for a tremendous amount of community support. Even though the two families didn’t realize the extent of what people were doing for the other, it amounted to more help than both the Wigginses and Gilllmans expected.

A local barbershop held a “Cut-a-thon” for Tommy Gillman. Classmates and community alike showed up, with proceeds going to help the family.

Seeing how much love he has received, and having been through cancer treatment, have given Tommy Gillman inspiration to give back to people once he recovers.

“Tommy said, 'These people have been so generous to me, and because I’ve been so lucky, I would like to give some of it to a family that needs it,’ ” Mari Gillman said.

One more big benefit for Tommy is planned for Nov. 17. Lee Martin, one of Columbine’s assistant baseball coaches, coordinated a luncheon for Tommy at The Draft Sports Bar and Grill.

“All profits and proceeds are going to Tommy and to his family to offset some of the costs involved with Tommy beating it,” Martin said.

The Gillman family, too, says they are grateful for all the support coming from the community. And like the Wiggins family, the Gillmans marvel at what the people around them have done to help.

Dealing with illness has given both families new perspective.

“If everyone could just realize when their car breaks down or they have to replace their brakes or their sprinkler breaks — all these things that would really irritate you — you would take a hundred sprinkler breaks if you didn't have to go through this with your child,” Mari Gillman said. “Or your father, sister, brother, mother.”

Maria Wiggins

Maria Wiggins was born with hydrocephalus. But it was only recently that complications changed her life.

After going in for routine shunts — a procedure in which tubes are placed to drain excess fluid from the brain — Maria’s life began to change. Some of the more visible symptoms of Maria’s condition, including crossed eyes, slurred speech and facial palsy, presented themselves.

She was admitted to Children’s Hospital, where she remained until recently. During that stay, however, people began to hear Maria Wiggins’ story and did everything possible to help.

“Within hours of knowing about it, the baseball team handed us a check and said, ‘Use this for whatever,’ ” Correne Wiggins said.

Maria Wiggins was unable to start her sophomore year at Columbine on time, but that didn’t mean she stopped connecting with its students and faculty.

All four walls of Maria’s hospital room were literally covered with letters and well wishes from the school and beyond. The family saw a tremendous amount of support from the school’s athletic teams, including football, baseball and wrestling.

“The parents have come to the hospital and have supported us and brought Maria gifts,” Correne Wiggins said. “They decorated her whole door with football stuff.”

And after Maria Wiggins was released from the hospital, the Columbine football team made her an honorary captain at her first game of the season.

“It’s so amazing to me — the high school (response) alone — but then when you start to see how this whole community has embraced the situation ee,” Correne Wiggins said.

Neighbors helped by bringing food to Nathan and Megan Wiggins when they were at home while parents Correne and Dan Wiggins were at the hospital.

And beyond that, people from area churches, schools and organizations learned about Maria Wiggins.

“People we don’t even know in the community,” Correne Wiggins said. “Friends of our families who are bringing gifts and cards and well wishes.”

Even classmates from when Dan and Correne Wiggins were Columbine students showed support.

Dan Wiggins, who was himself a Columbine football player, heard from teammates he hadn’t spoken to in years.

“You hear people talk about it all the time,” Dan Wiggins said. “We heard the same thing when we were in football — that we were a team and a family, and we were brothers — and they’re doing the same thing now, just continuing the tradition.”

Through everything, the Wiggins family is grateful for having seen the best of a community that helps its own.

“There’s not even a town center, but there is a definite community around here that continues to rally around it,” Dan Wiggins said.

Shortly after Maria came home last week, the doorbell rang. Correne Wiggins stepped outside to see the front yard was filled with paper hearts. Each heart had a message such as, “You’re totally awesome,” “Good luck,” “Glad ur back,” “Hugs and kisses,” and “With open arms.”

It was a seemingly small and anonymous gesture that went miles for Maria and her family.

“It’s amazing how, when God puts it on people’s hearts, it just continues to go,” Correne Wiggins said.

And as they’ve learned, Columbine High School, and the community surrounding it, has been there.

“If it were just one family that this group of people were rallying around and trying to help,” Correne Wiggins said, “but it’s one group of people who are helping two families and continuing to help.”

Tommy Gillman fund-raiser lunch

Date: Saturday, Nov. 17

Time: Noon to 3 p.m.

Place: The Draft Sports Bar and Grill, 9150 W. Cross Drive

Tickets: $15 for adults and $7 for children. Tickets are on sale before the event.

Contact: Lee Martin, 303-717-3762; Katrina Martin, 303-947-1359; or Columbine High School, 303-982-4400

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.