COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Seeing a child suffer is gut-wrenching.
When it’s your child, it feels unbearable. And when it’s a rare disease that ravages a once healthy little body, the helplessness is debilitating.
When doctors deliver that kind of news, heartbreak isn’t some abstract feeling; it’s a suffocating reality. Some days, just managing a smile feels like an insurmountable challenge.
About the only thing that allows parents like Monica and Jeff Johansen to feel capable of helping their 9-year-old son Zach battle a rare form of leukemia is the love and support of other people.
And when that love and support helps your sick son feel like a normal little boy, even for just a single evening, gratitude helps you see perfection in the most unlikely place. For the Johansens that place was Brighton High’s lacrosse game Friday night. Wearing a jersey the players acquired for him, the elementary school student who will undergo a bone marrow transplant in July served as an honorary team captain.
For just a few hours, Zach Johansen was one of the guys. He shook hands, handed out high-fives, and celebrated the team’s tournament victory.
And on the sidelines, his parents smiled through tears.
“Seeing him smile for the first time in four days,” Jeff Johansen told KSL after the game, “it just boosted his spirits.”
Added Monica: “They were so loving and caring towards him; it was so neat.”
Like most families, the Johansens were blindsided by Zach’s diagnosis on April 1.
“Life changed overnight for him,” Monica told KSL. “It’s one of those things where it always happens to someone else. It never happens to you. ... I can’t believe the amount of people that have just come out of the woodwork to love our family and to love our son. It’s amazing.”
Zach has two cousins that play for the Brighton lacrosse junior varsity and varsity squads.
They asked the team’s head varsity coach, Brandon Horba, if they could find ways to sustain and support Zach as he dealt with weekly chemotherapy.
“They visited (Zach) in the hospital and took him some Brighton gear,” Horba said. “And it made him happy for a day when he is struggling on a lot of days.”
The teenage players reached out to Zach repeatedly these last few weeks. They invited him to a team dinner and turned Friday’s game into a fundraiser for the family’s mounting medical bills.
Saturday, the Bengals won the lacrosse championship. In the midst of their celebration, they presented the Johansens with a check for almost $4,000 — the proceeds from Friday’s fundraiser.
They cheered, they danced, they posed for pictures. There in the middle of the team is that little boy in Bengal blue and orange.
Sometimes those who are struggling feel overwhelmed and unsure about accepting the help offered to them. But watching the relationship between the Johansens and the Bengal lacrosse team, it’s easy to see that those who give are as transformed as those who receive.
Zach gave them perspective.
The players gave him a reason to smile.
He gave them an opportunity to serve someone else.
They gave him a distraction from the difficult reality that pollutes most of his days.
He gave them inspiration and purpose that extends beyond sports.
They gave him and his family comfort and hope.
The team and their newest captain are examples to anyone willing to see the potential in reaching out to those who suffer. Those who’ve played team sports understand that any load is lighter when it’s lifted by many hands.
The problem is that not all suffering is easy to see. Sometimes the Zachs of the world are easy to identify. Sometimes they require more effort, more awareness.
The key is to reach out. Because whether the challenge is a vicious disease like leukemia or a more common problem like loneliness, the salve of friendship heals the same.
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