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Remembering a boy who lived on purpose

Photos of Hayden Strum keep his dad Bob company. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Photos of Hayden Strum keep his dad Bob company.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

The eight hikers may look like the other backpackers on Olympic Park trails this weekend, but they are distinguished by their purpose.

They walk in memory of Hayden Strum, who died of a brain tumor just before his seventh birthday, and to raise money to help other kids with cancer.

The small band of islanders and North Kitsap residents participating in today’s pledge hike “A Walk In the Park” will cover 50 miles in 24 hours.

Hayden’s mother, Kathleen Strum is among the group walking from North Fork Quinault ranger station to the Elwah Valley ranger station, while father Bob Strum is manning an aid station along the way.

“Through the course of Hayden’s illness we’ve known dozens of kids with brain tumors and we’ve watched them all die,” Bob Strum said. “We decided we had to do something about it.”

Before their son’s illness, the life of Poulsbo residents Bob and Kathleen Strum was on a good track.

Fine Home and Office, the Bainbridge-based general contracting business Bob opened in 1992, was booming; the couple’s marriage was sound, and sons Gunnar and Hayden were thriving.

Then, one afternoon in 1995, two-and-a-half-year old Hayden came in from playing and lay down. The next day, he again retreated from active play, and by that night had a severe headache.

The family pediatrician’s suspected juvenile migraines caused by food allergies; the family had no suspicion of anything more serious.

“Cancer and little kids are two things you don’t associate,” Strum said.

But by the next afternoon, the family was at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where an MRI showed a brain tumor.

For the next four years, Hayden underwent treatments that included three brain surgeries, spinal surgery, and three different rounds of radiation and chemotherapy.

Even older brother Gunnar became involved in Hayden’s care, volunteering to take placebo shots to make the youngster less fearful of the needle.

Big hearts

Hayden formed a strong attachment to his doctor, distinguished oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Institute Jim Olson.

The Strums found support from other families with sick children, and from the Children’s Hospital staff.

“They all have the prerequisite for this work – a heart for children,” Strum said. “Doctors, nursing staff, the janitors – they’re pretty special, right out of the gate.”

The combined treatments seemed to be working, and for Hayden’s cancer went into remission.

“He was cancer-free for two years,” Strum said. “We thought we were home free.”

But when Hayden’s tumor returned, his father says, the youngster knew he was facing mortality.

“There’s a certain maturity that comes to kids who spend a lot of time in cancer wards,” Strum said. “Hayden has been described as a kid who ‘lived on purpose.’”

Hayden Strum died in 1999, just before his seventh birthday.

In the wake of his illness and death, crises that tested the Strum parents’ faith and their marriage, the family emerged with a need to redirect their collective energies.

“For four years you circled the wagons amid battling cancer,” Strum said, “so you need a new focus.”

The family decided that the best way to honor their son was to help other children. To do so, they’ve set out to help fund research targeted to developing more efficacious treatments.

“We said, ‘Let’s raise money, and let’s get serious about it,’” Strum recalled.

Last year, the family established the Strum Endowment for research being conducted by a cancer care alliance consisting of Children’s Hospital, Fred Hutchinson Institute and the University of Washington.

With a targeted goal of just $100,000, Strum says, the endowment functions as “bridge” financing.

“If they’ve found what they think is a worthwhile line of research, the money will help cover the gap while they develop the protocols and apply for grants,” Strum said.

Family friend Julie Snyder organized the endowment’s first fund-raiser, “A Walk in the Park.”

“You have to understand Julie,” Strum said. “She has this infectious enthusiasm. After talking to Julie, it doesn’t occur to you to say ‘no.’”

Hayden left a legacy that includes the endowment, and some other tangible memories as well.

Every year on Hayden’s birthday, the Strums load up their car with presents and drive to an area Ronald McDonald House, where Gunnar takes the lead in passing the gifts out to kids battling cancer.

And Hayden’s framed photograph sits on the Fred Hutchinson Institute desk of Jim Olson, the youngster’s one-time oncologist.

“Hayden’s my boss,” Olson said. “He’s why I show up in the morning.”

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