The lions of Owatonna
Cancer has no mercy. It has no dignity. It has no preference as to age, race, nationality or religious persuasion. It’s deceptive, tireless, has an insatiable work ethic and it’s persistent. To defeat it, one must possess not only the heart of a lion, but also must have a pride of lions surrounding. And even then, to underestimate it, would be foolish.
The battle for a life is one of the most intense wars that a person, a family and a community can fight.
Cancer is relentless.
There lives a young man in Owatonna with the heart of a lion and a family with a devastating roar. At first glance, cancer may not fear them, but it should. This family does not know how to run from a conflict and they do NOT know how to give up.
Matt Ratzloff, 21 years old, a 2013 OHS graduate and a recent graduate of Winona State University was diagnosed with mono Jan. 12, 2017. By the end of that month the mask came off the actual disease and this young man was toe to toe with leukemia.
The illness which had cloaked itself in mono and pneumonia, finally made a desperate attempt to take Ratzloff out before the truth came forth. In the Owatonna urgent care, his fever spiked to 107 which puts most human beings somewhere between life and death.
While in ICU, the morning of Jan. 26, the correct diagnosis was finally revealed. “Jeff and I weren’t even there,” Kelly Ratzloff, Matt’s mom spoke through tears. “We had gone home to get some clothes and my mom called and said we needed to get back there right away, and so we did.”
Jeff and Kelly Ratzloff walked into the room to the diagnosis while their son lay almost comatose in a deteriorating condition. Still, now four months later, they find it hard to be away from their son for any period of time.
As the doctor came in and the news came forth, Kelly said, “I just put my hands over my face and I thought I was going to pass out and wasn’t sure if I was going to get sick.”
Shortly thereafter the ambulance arrived and they had decided to take him to Rochester. “The ambulance passed us on (highway) 14,” she said. “That was a difficult moment too, because we could see Matt in the ambulance and he was so sick.”
Jeff Ratzloff a seargent with the Bloomington Police Department said while wiping tears from his eyes, “I’ll be honest. I can still picture it in my head. I looked at him and I saw fear and I saw shock there, but I knew that as a parent, you need to be the strong one at that point, that’s your kid.”
He looked at his wife in that moment and told her that they needed to be strong for him. He also vowed from that point on that it was time to think positive. From the side effects from the chemo to the obstacles in the testing, the family has had plenty of chances to question and complain and give up, but they have not.
“It’s been quite a journey since January already,” Jeff said. “but to be able to sit here and see how well he’s doing, it’s just phenomenal.”
The road trip to Rochester that day was described by both Jeff and Kelly as quiet. They were not only trying to process the new diagnosis, but were already making plans as to their next steps. Matt, as sick as he was, managed to tell his mom to call his girlfriend, Sami Leininger, who is currently a student at Winona State.
“I don’t like to remember the ride to Rochester,” Kelly said. “I can remember getting there and just begging and pleading for this to be me.” Do not get between a lioness and her cub.
There is a well-known quote that says, “The hardest part of being a parent is that you can’t stop the world from hurting your child. You can only be there to ease the pain.”
When they had finally made it to Rochester and got to Matt’s room, there was already a team of doctors surrounding his bed and it made the family begin to feel some relief as the team assigned to Matt was efficient, they had a plan in place and they began to execute the plan.
“I knew,” Jeff said, “that we were in the right place at the right time. I kept thinking that this was the place to be to make him better.”
Even at Rochester Methodist with all the medical attention, nobody had yet given a positive confirmation as to the diagnosis of leukemia. More testing and a biopsy had finally confirmed within 48 hours that it, in fact, was Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
“When I found out Matt’s subtype (of leukemia), it came back as a 5,” Kelly said. “That was Matt’s number. He was a “5” in every sport he’s played in. Subtypes don’t mean anything to us, but that number just stood out to us.”
Matt’s older brother, Joshua began to speak about how and when he heard the news. At first, he broke down and could hardly speak, but as he recovered, he said, “It doesn’t all really set in until you’re there, and you see everyone and you realize… it’s real. It all happened so quick.”
Joshua who at the time was interviewing for a new position at the company he works for, took a week off to be with his brother and make a life-changing choice that a promotion wasn’t as important as his little brother. Another young lion backing up the roar.
In a role model to other siblings who may be facing this, Joshua offers this advice, “You can’ let your emotions or the emotions of others get in the way of the one who’s in trouble. Everyone has to band together and be there for each other.”
Matt’s little sister, Maya, who is in the eighth grade spoke up loudly as Kelly was describing Matt as the strong one who always ate right and exercised fiercely. “He’s ripped,” Maya said with admiration that made you know, without a doubt that he was her hero. Even the little lions roar.
“When this happened, we all looked at each other and said, he’s the strongest of all of us. He’s up for challenges as we all have, but Matt takes it to a further extent,” Kelly said.
Little brother Ben was the one who thought it was an honor to be a runner at the hospital going for this and getting that, taking clothes back and forth for cleaning and seeing to Matt’s every need. And Sami who lived in the recliner beside his hospital bed and although not married, lived the vow of loving him in sickness and in health even when she didn’t have to. The roaring must have become intimidating to this sickness.
“I just graduated college in December,” Matt said. “In January I was planning on starting my police academy in Rochester because I graduated with a law enforcement degree. I thought I had strep throat at Christmas, but that test came back negative and like my mom said, we were back and forth to the urgent care six times.”
Within a month from the initial onset of the sickness to the end of January, the sickness progressed unchecked and it seemed as if his future of following in his dad’s footsteps were in jeopardy.
“My dad and I are super close,” Matt said. “He coached me in all my sports growing up and I followed in his footsteps. He instilled in me that you don’t stop fighting until a battle’s done which is kind of the mindset you have to have as a cop too, because in an instant you could be in a shootout for your life.
“So that has been my mindset throughout this whole cancer journey is don’t quit until I’m finally cured.”
Matt is fortunate to have the pride of Ratzloff (and Leininger) lions supporting him and cheering him on to victory which is what they did last Saturday at the For The Heart Run/Walk in Owatonna. Matt, lying in a bed in January walked the 5K with his entire family. The roar was deafening – especially when the group crossed that finish line.
“My whole family being there for me in just the simple things gets me through it,” Matt said. “From doing my laundry to simple texts to sitting up late watching TV. I’m very fortunate to have a very loving family through this and I couldn’t have done it without them. It’s been a journey, but hopefully we’re almost done.”
Matt still has quite a bit of this journey ahead of him with radiation therapy and a stem cell/bone marrow transplant on the schedule. There has been a donor accepted from Germany and Matt is eagerly anticipating a healthy recovery and then back to finish up at the police academy.
And of course, continuing to live in this fierce pride of lions, protecting their own and hungry for life.