Sara Kindler was driving as fast as she could to the hospital while, in the seat next to her, her husband vomited volumes of blood.
“Hurry, hurry!” Zach Kindler urged her.
Sara says she will never forget the fear in her husband’s eyes that evening a year ago Aug 4. From the back seat, the couple’s three children — Taylor, Carter and Tessa, ages 8, 6, and 3 — watched it all unfold as the car bolted down the main streets of Gardner.
“It’s going to be OK,” Sara said, struggling vainly to calm and convince as her mind worked to comprehend how any of this could be happening.
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Migraines. That’s what doctors had long told them afflicted Zach. He was only 35 — tall, fit, a former All-American javelin thrower at Fort Hays State University who for eight years had been an award-winning track and cross-country coach at Baker University.
For three years, he had been plagued by crushing headaches. Sara, a nurse herself, had believed the doctors when they said it was migraines.
But if that was so, what was this?
Zach gasped for breath. Olathe Medical Center was still 10 minutes off.
“I need to call an ambulance,” Sara snapped. The car lurched to a halt in front of a police station where Zach collapsed, unconscious, in the parking lot. Medics performed CPR for 45 minutes.
“Mommy,” one the children asked, “is Daddy going to die?”
“No. He’s going to be fine,” Sara responded, because she wanted it to be true.
The funeral was several days later. A service at the Fellowship Bible Church in Gardner had been packed beyond capacity.
One afternoon this past week, Sara Kindler, 35, sat at her kitchen table. Tessa, now 4, watched cartoons in the living room as her mom talked about what has gone into the planning of Cause for Kindler, the first of what she hopes will be an annual 5-kilometer walk/run on Sept. 12 in honor of her husband.
She also hopes it will raise awareness about the undiagnosed rare adrenal gland tumor known as a pheochromocytoma that grew atop one of Zach’s kidneys and caused the eruption in blood pressure that was really at the root of his headaches and ultimately led to a flood of blood that violently filled his lungs and stopped his heart.
Sara understands the illness is little known and rare, occurring in fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.
“It’s not like it’s going to save a whole bunch of people,” she concedes of her race to raise money and awareness, although she holds that the event will be worth it if helps even one person.
But such events, experts and other say, are saving more than patients. Ever more Americans, out of grief and remembrance, are launching such runs to move forward.
Personalized memorial runs or walks, far from common 25 years ago, have burgeoned to become as much a part of the American fabric after death as roadside memorials and online remembrances.
“The primary function, in addition to fundraising, is not to forget,” said Russell Friedman, a founder of the California-based Grief Recovery Institute. “It has a very important social value.”
Consider that when the first Amy Thompson Run was organized in Kansas City in 1988, it was one of only a handful of such personal events in the area, including memorial golf tournaments.
Thompson was 23 in 1986 when on Halloween night she was shot twice in the head in an attempted robbery. Surviving a six-week coma, she lived for three years before dying on Christmas night 1989. A friend, working with the Thompson family, began the annual Memorial Day run in her honor, which has since raised some $2 million to benefit the Brain Injury Association of Kansas and Greater Kansas City.
Since that time, more than two dozen local memorial runs have been created, most in the last decade.
September and October will see at least 11, including the Run for Purple Peace, founded in 2012 and dedicated to Amanda Brady, who was 13 when she died a year earlier of epilepsy, and Charlie’s House Home Run for Safety, founded in honor of Charlie Horn, who was 2 when he was killed in 2007 trying to climb a 30-inch dresser.
There’s the 5K and family run for Natalie’s A.R.T. Foundation, organized in honor of Natalie Fleischaker, who had yet to turn 9 when she died in 2013 of a rare brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine giloma. The coming John Glaser 5K honors the Shawnee firefighter who died in 2010 during a house fire, while Running with the Angels-The Chad Rogers Memorial Run memorializes Rogers, a father and marathoner who died after he went on a run in July 2013. He had a heart valve ailment.
In Parkville, Ian’s Rainbow Foundation Walking to Fight the Flu honors Ian Moise, who was barely 7 months old when, in a matter of 30 hours, he developed serious flu symptoms and died in December 2003. Two months later, in its grief, the family started the foundation.
“The day Ian died, there was a double rainbow. That’s how we got the name,” said Julie Moise, Ian’s mother.
On Saturday morning, the Paulina Cooper Dot to Dot 10K run and 5K run/walk in Corporate Woods honored Paulina, who died at age 6 of brain cancer.
And at 9 a.m. Sunday, 17-year-old Sophie Hickok, a senior at Pembroke Hill School, will gather with a group of what has grown over four years to 40 to 50 people for an intimate 5K Walk for Reed in Mission Hills on behalf of her dad, Reed Hickok, who died in 2010. It will raise money for the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation. She chose the image of a dragonfly, a symbol of transformation, for the annual walk.
Her family sees dragonflies on warm days. “Someone will say, ‘He’s with us right now,’” Sophie said of her father.
Transformation is what Sara Kindler is hoping for too.
“People have said to me, ‘You know you have to move on. You have to move on,’” she said. “I will never move on. Zach will always be my husband. I may move forward. I’m trying to take steps to move forward, but it’s not a moving on, it’s a moving forward. And this race is a big step in that.”
Getting this far has hardly been easy.
It was not until two weeks after she buried Zach, whom she had met at Fort Hays State — she was a senior nursing student, he was getting his master’s degree in sports management — that the autopsy results revealed the undiagnosed adrenal gland tumor as the underlying cause of death.
The revelation haunted Sara.
She, of course, knew by then it wasn’t migraines. Brain scans years ago had ruled out a stroke or aneurysm as the root of Zach’s headaches. Until the autopsy, she and everyone else had assumed that her young husband had a heart attack, or perhaps a bizarre allergic reaction.
Now she knew, and it shocked her. She took to her computer and Google.
“As soon as I saw all those symptoms, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was clear as day,” Sara said.
Anger flared at the doctors. Had the tumor been properly diagnosed, it could have been removed. Zach would be alive. She blamed herself for not questioning them better or doing more.
“I’m a nurse,” she said. “I have extreme guilt because I feel like I should have known.”
Other race organizers talk about raising awareness about whatever illness or tragedy took the life of their loved one. Like Zach’s tumor, the conditions sometimes are rare.
What becomes clear in conversation is that some people begin memorial races to give back to all the people who helped them through their tragedies.
Steven Fleischaker felt that as he watched the care given to daughter Natalie before she died of cancer.
“There is going to come a time,” he thought, “when we will have to pay it forward.”
In equal measure, people said, they want to save people from feeling any part of the kind of overwhelming grief and suffering that they and other loved ones have endured.
“I was planning my husband’s funeral on our ninth (wedding) anniversary,” Sara said.
Arranging the 5K’s details has been more work than she imagined, getting fliers, sponsors, orange-and-blue stickers (blue being Zach’s favorite color, orange for Baker) and 400 T-shirts. There’s launching a website, arranging food and publicity, and booking the event at the Baldwin City Golf Course, where Zach’s cross-country team used to run its meets. Without volunteers, family and friends, it would be impossible.
People have intimated that maybe Sara has taken on too much, too soon.
Work, even part time now at Children’s Mercy Hospital, can be hard, triggering flashbacks to the moment of Zach’s death.
“I see blood and I’m back in that moment, ” Sara said, snapping her fingers. “ Luckily, I have wonderful nurses with me who have been totally supportive.”
One benefit of the race is that it’s kept her mind busy. Another, she said, is what she hopes her three children see — a mother getting up.
“They have seen me cry a lot,” Sara said, “and I know they will remember that. But I hope they remember this too. Even though we have been handed this horrible thing, we need to keep going because that’s what we should do. And I know that that’s what Zach would want me to do.”
Moments have passed, Sara said, where she receives the confirmation she needs that everything will be OK.
Like that moment in July, strange and ethereal. It was the last day of vacation in Colorado. It had rained. Outside, against the backdrop of mountains, a double rainbow, two great arches, one over the other, spanned the sky from end to end.
“Two weeks, three weeks later,” Sara recalled, she was putting the children to bed back in Gardner. “Carter said, ‘Mom, did you know that when you see a double rainbow that that’s Daddy giving you two kisses?’”
She looked at her 6-year-old boy.
“He said, ‘You know Daddy loves you so much and he is so proud of you.’”
Then he told her.
“And God loves you too, Mom.”
More than anything, because Sara loved Zach and Zach loved their children, she is organizing the race this year and for as many years as she can so the kids will never forget. She has videos of Zach running with the kids, teaching them to ride bikes, fooling around in the yard.
“That is probably the number one thing in my heart,” she said. “I want to do everything I can for them not to forget him. He was a wonderful dad. He was so involved. They are so young. I just want them to know the person he was. They are not going to get that chance. I don’t want them to miss out on what a wonderful father he was.”
Others organizers understand. The point of their own personalized memorial runs is to remind people that this life, although cut short, mattered, with purpose even now beyond their years.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” said Julie Moise of the run for Ian and the flu foundation that she and her husband, Glenn, created. “For Glenn and me, personally, you want to think there is a reason Ian is gone. Maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t, but we want there to be. It makes it easier to get through the day.”
Sara’s Cause of Kindler 5K has so far raised $7,000 and has 200 runners and walkers signed up. Half the money is going to a foundation to help promote awareness about the tumors. The other half is being put into a fund to support a scholarship at Baker University in Zach Kindler’s name.
Sara is having a banner made for the day. Printed alongside a picture of Zach will be a Bible verse Sara chose. It is a version of Hebrews 12:1 that reads, “And let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
“It is not only talking about the race,” Sara said. “It is talking about our life.”