MISSION 2014: Giving Dakota’s Family A Helping Hand

IMG_3646A number of you have been following me since my very first posts at Vikings Gab over five years ago.  If you have been, then the nature of this post will not surprise you in the slightest.

Many of you are new to Vikings Territory due to our recently expanded roster of writers, however, and may not be familiar with me or much of our history. In short, every year at about this time we try and use our little corner of the internet to make a little bit of a difference out there in the real world in the form of a fundraising effort for a meaningful cause.

In the past we have supported numerous educational and athletics programs across the country, via the great website DonorsChoose.org. We tried to help a pair of our readers head to Haiti not long after the country was devastated. In general, we will gladly promote great causes throughout the year, as it becomes apparent that a certain fight is something our readers care about as a whole.

As summertime got underway, with VT’s popularity and traffic taking an obvious and substantial leap, I started to wonder what heights our next charity drive might be able to reach. I wondered how our new readers would react to our annual efforts.  I wondered how it might coincide with Arif’s efforts to raise funds so that he can cover the 2014 training camp for us.

One thing I didn’t wonder about, though, is what we were going to be fundraising for.  My mind has been made up on that for quite some time. This year’s fundraising efforts are a lot closer to home for me than I’ve ever attempted in the past, but if you all knew Dakota Schonlau I have no doubt you would understand why I have chosen her and her family.

So, allow me to introduce you.

If you’ve been with us here at VT for a while now, you likely know that I recently transplanted my family from Valdez, Alaska to northwest Ohio.  The move was hard, and the transition has been harder, but any time I start to feel sorry for myself all I have to do is remind myself what Isaac Schonlau is going through. That reminder is always available to me as he is in the office just down the hall from where I spend my days. You see, Isaac and his wife Laura didn’t have a choice but to move away from Colorado, because their little girl’s life depended on it.

At eight months of age,  Dakota was diagnosed with asthma.  Her parents were both born and raised in small mountain town in Colorado and knew the winters presented certain challenges, but they also knew their baby girl’s issues breathing and staying healthy in the winter just wasn’t normal.  After medications, breathing treatments, and oxygen supplementation worked only to limited degrees.

In March of 2011, after a rough winter where Dakota was sick way too often, she was finally starting to feel better and was excited to go to a friend’s birthday party.  About a half hour after being dropped off, Laura was called back to the house by the other parents and found Dakota laying on the ground pale, completely lacking energy, and sensitive to light.

The next day, she was again starting to look better, and Dakota was playing with her animals, her little brother Conrad, and getting ready for dinner with the great-grandparents. It was that evening that Dakota went to her mom and asked her why her shirt was moving, which was an odd question, though innocent enough.

IMG_3656It was the answer that sent her parents into a panic, however.  Dakota’s shirt was indeed moving; it was moving rapidly.  Her little heart was working so furiously her parents could literally see and feel her shirt moving to the beat. The trips to Denver from their little mountain town to see specialists and the soon-to-follow tests would forever change the lives of Dakota and her entire family.

Dakota had holes in her heart. Large holes. The holes didn’t allow enough blood, and therefore oxygen, to make it to her lungs and was causing the problems they thought was asthma all along. Dakota was going to need surgery and soon.

There was about a 3,000 foot elevation difference between their hometown and the facilities in Denver.  That elevation difference, as the specialists explained, was very important and Dakota needed to stay in the City instead of going back to the comforts of home. Laura and Conrad stayed with Dakota for two weeks, with Isaac making the round trip numerous times to provide fresh clothes and try to work as many hours as he could.

When it came time to perform the surgery, Dakota’s family were obviously fearful of the unknown, but hoping and praying for the best. Dakota’s family was gathered and waiting to hear from the doctors, and the procedure was taking longer than they had expected, when finally the doors opened.

“When the doctors finally came out, it was with a few new faces,” Dakota’s mother tells me.  “The next 15 minutes were a blur, but I play it in my head frequently. The doctor was able to gain access to her heart with the catheter. There were actually three holes, one very large and two smaller holes right next to it. It was eligible to be repaired, but upon further exploring it was found Dakota had Pulmonary Hypertension. Closing the holes in her heart would kill her so they remained open.”

The Schonlau family didn’t know what Pulmonary Hypertension (PH) was.

“At the time, I was so confused and didn’t understand any of it,” said Laura.  “Now I can explain it in my sleep.”

“Dakota’s lungs, anyone’s lungs, have arteries that feed into the lung and branch out into smaller veins to oxygenate the blood,” she explained to a completely ignorant football blogger. “With PH, the arteries and veins begin to harden. Over time, if left untreated, they will harden and die killing the lungs themselves. When the lungs begin to harden, it can cause a lot of pressure in the heart. Some children with PH will go into heart failure because of the pressure built up from the right side of the heart pushing so hard to pump blood into the lung. In Dakota’s case, her holes had saved her life. They act as a pressure release valve which saves her right ventricle from becoming over worked and going into heart failure.”

Dakota was placed on three different medications to combat her disease.  Two of them were pills and the other is an inhaled medication that she has to take four times a day. The doctors all agreed that Dakota could not go back to her home at 7,800 feet above sea level.  They also advised Laura and Isaac that finding an even lower elevation than Denver (5,280’ above sea level) would increase Dakota’s quality of life and could increase her long-term health overall.

With the effects of PH being what they are, irreversible and deadly, Dakota’s parents immediately did what they knew they had to do. Isaac began applying for jobs all around the nation, having to make sure he stayed within his same insurance network, while also keeping elevation and access to advanced medical facilities at the top of their priority list. Without knowing where they were going, the Schonlau family put their family’s home and many belongings up for sale, knowing they had a life-changing and expensive relocation ahead of them.

It was time for this family, who had never known anything other than life in their little town, to uproot in order to preserve what is ultimately the most important thing.

In July of 2012, Isaac was offered a position at an electric cooperative in rural Ohio, and the family pounced at the chance to move 1,300 miles away from everything they’d ever known.

“We were off on an adventure,” Laura told me of the situation.

The transition has not been seamless, as I’m sure you can imagine, but the positive impact the elevation change has had on Dakota’s health has been obvious.  She can ride her bike for more than 10 minutes, she can go swimming, and she can just generally be more active than she otherwise could have been.

The positive effects moving has had did not change Dakota’s prognosis, however, but has only slowed the progression of her disease. She is now taking the maximum dosage of her oral medications and has still had to drastically increase her inhaled doses. The next step, and one that is looking a like very real possibility, is to have an IV placed in her so that the needed medication can be administered continuously into her bloodstream.

That would mean more doctor’s visits for the family and it could also mean that Dakota is attached to a backpack at all times that holds the medicine.

If things get to that point and the PH continues to progress and do damage then both a heart and lung transplant could be needed.

From the outside you can’t really notice that Dakota is afflicted with a one-in-a-million disease.  She is a sweet 10 year old that will talk your ear off about turtles and horses, explores outside with her brother and dog, and loves math (okay, that one makes her a little different).  She has a rockin’ fairy garden and an obvious artistic talent that she is eager to show off.

IMG_3660On the inside, however, Dakota is constantly fighting a battle and it isn’t invisible to her.

“I have to take my inhaler four times a day,” she recited to me. “At night I take three pills.  Two are brown and one is pink.  One is an oval and has a ‘10’ on it. At night I also have to do oxygen.”

She told me she has to go the nurse’s office during the day to take her medicine.  I asked her if it was hard to explain to other kids and her answer brought this football blogger, who is used to writing about average yardages and contract details, out of his comfort zone.

“Yes,” she answered. “Most of the other kids are mean to me. They think I lie all the time.”

“Why don’t they believe you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered softly. “It is probably because I’m new.”

I tried to comfort her and told her that her dad and I are in a similar boat at our jobs.

“We’re the new kids, too,” I said with Isaac nodding in agreement across the table. “They never believe us either.”

She says she has made great friends in Ohio, however, and if you met her you would know that people gravitate towards her personality, and went out of her way to tell me how nice her new teachers and principal are.  Still, she teared up when I asked her if it was hard to leave Colorado and didn’t hesitate for a second when asked what she misses most: “Snow.”

I told her that Ohio thought they got a lot of snow this winter.  I asked her if she thought Ohio got a lot of snow.

“Nah,” she said.  Then she paused, in thought for a second, and made sure to let me know that it is actually her grandparents that she misses most about being at home.

“I especially miss great-grandpa and great-grandma,” she said. “Because they can’t visit us here.”

She also rattled off how much she missed their house, being able to go to sleepovers with the other girls, seeing all her friends, and being able to run around with everyone else.

While the Schonlau family has landed in a place better suited for slowing down the damage they still have to take the time, and bear the enormous expense, of travelling to see specialists throughout the year.  Twice a year they have to get Dakota back to Denver to see her specialist, Dr. Ivy. Additionally, they have to make two trips a year to specialists located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is where I think the readers of Vikings Territory can really come together and make a big impact for a family in need of some help. The hardship presented by these travel requirements equates to no leftover vacation time, no disposable income, and a whole ton of stress (this last time, Laura had to drive to Denver on her own, as Isaac’s work demands couldn’t allow him to leave).

I am proposing that this year we bring our annual fundraising effort to a height we have yet to reach: One thousand dollars.

Dakota told me that the Broncos are her favorite football team, for obvious reasons.  She told me her favorite player is “Number 18” because her Grandma has a crush on him.

I asked her what it would take to get her to be a Vikings fan from here on out and she opened the negotiations with “three turtles.”

I countered with a jersey and proceeded to give her the hard-sell on the Vikings and the awesomeness of their logo.

“It’s a big guy with a big moustache,” she said looking the Vikings cap I was wearing. “He’s got a braid and a helmet.”

I propose that we make Dakota, and her four year old brother Conrad, honorary Vikings fans by getting them a pair of customized youth Vikings jerseys with the first $100 raised in our fundraiser.

The remaining $900 (or more if we exceed our goal) will go to the family to help cover medical and travel expenses resulting from Dakota’s P.H.

For more information on Pulmonary Hypertension please visit www.phassociation.org. The Schonlau Family has asked me to use our website not to raise money for them, but to promote awareness for a disease that remains incurable.  The money and jerseys will be a surprise.

If you came here to read about football and this isn’t your thing, I get that.  Please feel free to move on to one of our other great articles available right now.

If you are interested in helping Dakota and her family, however, then please CLICK HERE and consider donating to a cause that I know (first hand) will make a huge difference to a loving, caring family that deserves it.