By: Lauren Huneycutt
While awaiting their mother Janine Winkelmaier to return home for dinner time, Garrett Winkelmaier, 21, and Drew Winkelmaier, 17, decided to play a practical joke on her and hide an unopened, Costco size bag of Halloween candy. Not only did they hide the candy, they scattered the bag and multiple wrappers all over the staircase. Upon walking through the door, Janine apologized for being late, explained the awful traffic and began asking about dinner, when she stopped mid-sentence. The expression on her face went from flustered to concerned in less than a second. Questioning her boys on what had happened, she instantly looked at the dogs.
“How did they get to the candy? That’s your dog too, Garrett, aren’t you worried?”
The boys could not hold their poker faces long before they burst out in laughter. This lighthearted joke is one of many welcomed, happy moments in the daily life of the Winklemaier household. When meeting this family there are no noticeable scars of the nightmare that was once their reality.
The Winkelmaier family planted its roots in Reno, Nevada, over 20 years ago. George Winkelmaier loved coaching both of his boys’ baseball teams as they were growing up. Garrett and Drew Winkelmaier’s neighborhood was filled with other kids the same age, kids that would turn into lifelong friends and whose parents would become close friends as well.
“I didn’t want to come here,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “But thank god we did. We would have never gotten through all this otherwise.”
Originally living in Seattle, Janine and George Winkelmaier decided to make the move to Reno. This location change would prove to be one of the best choices they made together.
Seven years back, as a freshman in high school, Garrett Winkelmaier began watching his father battle with illness. George Winkelmaier was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. At the time, Drew Winkelmaier was only in sixth grade, so the decision was made not to worry him about his dad’s health until necessary.
“The autoimmune disease made him more susceptible to cancer and they warned us of that, but as time goes on and they get better, you get less and less concerned, so we were kind of blindsided,” Janine Winkelmaier said.
One year after his autoimmune diagnosis, George Winkelmaier was tested, then diagnosed with advanced bile duct cancer and given six months to live. He fought and survived the next three and a half years.
“My dad fought for so long, our lives almost got back to normal,” Garrett Winkelmaier said. “He was tired and exhausted, but he would always come to our baseball games, even if it was the only thing he did that day.”
George Winkelmaier’s quality of life did not waver in his years of sickness. His tall slender frame, white smile, goatee and gray hair depicted a healthy man.
“George was so humble,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “He was quiet and hardworking, but man did he have a sense of humor. It was a hidden one, but once you saw it, it was unforgettable.”
He always completed his work at the office, even with his boss telling him to go home and rest. He saw Garrett Winkelmaier graduate high school and go to Western Oregon with his best friend, Dylan Smith, to play baseball. He even found time to visit the boys in Oregon between his consistent chemotherapy treatments, which he tolerated gracefully. He also saw Drew Winkelmaier begin his high school career.
“George survived 99 percent as long as he did because of the boys,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “Maybe one percent me.”
Janine and George Winkelmaier met and began their relationship while they were living in two separate states. After two months of dating, they were engaged. After nine months of being together, they were married.
“I purposefully tried to pick a fight with George once just to see if he would even fight back,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “He wouldn’t. It was just the kind of guy he was, lighthearted and easygoing.”
From the beginning, they knew they were right for each other. They were a match, wanted the same things and had a solid foundation to build a family on.
“George and I were soul mates,” Janine said. “Our family was strong from the beginning, but got stronger after everything we went through. We are more open with each other now because you never know when it’s going to be too late to say something.”
Toward the end of Garrett Winkelmaier’s first college baseball season, he began having a hard time with his pitching shoulder. After games, it would swell an abnormal amount and on occasion, turn blue. Winkelmaier had it checked and was told not to worry, so he rested his arm until it felt better. Upon returning to Reno for the summer, he did his best to play summer ball. However, the pain returned and bothered him enough to go and get his shoulder checked.
“You know you’re screwed when the guy doing your scan leaves and says he has to go find a doctor,” Garrett Winkelmaier said.
There was a blood clot in his subclavian vein. So Garrett Winkelmaier checked himself into the ER as instructed, where he spent the night in cardiac care. If the clot were to breakup and move on its own, it would have gone straight to his brain. The original goal was to remove the clot. But after 24 hours of poking and prodding the clot, as well as injecting medicine into it, it still did not break or loosen. The clot had scarred over and become a permanent part of his vein, blocking three inches of it and constantly restricting blood flow. The doctors called it a career ending injury. He is still living with the after affects of this injury today.
George Winkelmaier’s decline was rapid. The doctors and the family knew his time was drawing to a close.
“I didn’t ask the doctor how much time he had, I just asked whether or not his son should move home,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “His answer was yes.”
Garrett Winkelmaier headed home from Oregon at the beginning of December during his sophomore year of college for his Christmas break, knowing it would be a permanent move. He had enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno and was prepared to start classes in January. Drew Winkelmaier then became aware of the seriousness of his father’s health.
“You don’t realize it’s the end,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “You just don’t get it until it happens.”
Two days after a Christmas with the family George Winkelmaier passed. With the support and help of family and friends, a funeral was quickly planned.
Mackenzie Hunter, Winkelmaier’s long-time girlfriend flew in from Oregon to be with him and to offer her support. Around the same time and through the commotion, Garrett Winkelmaier had begun to notice a lump forming on his collarbone next to the location of his blood clot. A family friend and doctor inspected the lump in their home. Believing the lump was a form of drainage from the clot, he advised them not to worry, but to get it checked as soon as they could get an appointment.
“My first thought was, ‘I cannot tell my mom,’” Garrett Winkelmaier said. “How can I tell her something like this.”
He did call and she came down to the doctor’s office to hear the results of the biopsied lump. When talking to one of the oncologists, Janine Winkelmaier stood her ground and was very firm. She wanted the doctor to be 100 percent sure of the diagnosis before telling her son that he had cancer.
“We were all still in a fog almost. We just had the funeral a couple days before and then we got this diagnosis,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “I was just thinking, ‘no. No. It had to be a dream. Well not a dream, a nightmare.’”
Garrett Winkelmaier had a full body scan that day, along with multiple other tests.
“His chest lit up like a Christmas tree,” Janine Winkelmaier said.
Two weeks after his father passed away, at the age of 18, Garrett Winkelmaier was diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The blood clot in his shoulder was a small warning of this diagnosis. Blood clotting and fatigue were the two symptoms Winkelmaier displayed, but over all his signs were minimal. The full body scan showed a tumor roughly the size of a brick in his chest. A rigorous treatment plan was being arranged by the doctors for Winkelmaier. He had to put his education on hold to take care of himself. His treatment plan consisted of chemotherapy once a week, on occasion twice a week, every week, for three months, followed by radiation every day for a month after that. Because of the location of the tumor, it would have been a dangerous and grueling surgery to remove it. It was underneath his lungs, which would have required doctors to break his ribs in order to reach the area, so the plan was to shrink the tumor with the therapies.
Winkelmaier’s girlfriend was being kept in the loop via phone calls at this point. The strains of a long distance relationship just increased tenfold.
The Winkelmaier family was no stranger to chemotherapy. Both Garrett and Janine knew they wanted to return to Reno Oncology, the same treatment center George Winkelmaier had attended for years.
“These two nurses just fell in love with George,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “One day I went with him to his treatment, and instead of calling his name, they stuck a foam finger out the door because he was their number one patient. They started doing all these same silly things to Garrett too, and did their best to make something ugly, happy.”
Garrett Winkelmaier’s support system was huge. He had his mother, brother, girlfriend and extended family, as well as friends and an entire community.
“Just knowing we could pretty much call anyone in our phone book for something was really comforting,” Garrett said.
Janine Winkelmaier’s friends however, would not wait for a call like that. They could not stand to watch their friend struggle to support her boys. They wanted to be more than emotional support. They wanted to find a way to take action.
“The Winkelmaiers are a strong and humble family,” said Lynette Schweigert, 10-year friend of Janine Winkelmaier. “They would have never asked for help. That’s why this group of women and myself created this account on their behalf.”
The fundraiser Schweigert spearheaded for Garrett Winkelmaier became titled “$19 for Garrett.” A small group of Janine Winkelmaier’s friends worked closely with Schweigert to create a donation database to help the family pay for the looming medical bills, compensate for one parent’s income and help Garrett pay for college once he was finished with treatments.
Garrett spent his 19th birthday having a chemo treatment. Any donation was appreciated, but with Garrett’s 19th birthday and baseball background in mind, a donation of $19 to his GoFundMe account was considered a “first base” donation, $190 was a “home run” and $1900 was a “grand slam.”
“To me it was a no-brainer,” Schweigert said. “Everyone felt helpless after George and Garrett got sick. This fundraiser was a way for people to feel hope and find a way to help.”
The GoFundMe account was wildly successful thanks to facebook and donations from around the nation. It took away a number of the stresses that the Winkelmaiers had been facing for years. While they were thankful to have some of their worries alleviated, Garrett Winkelmaier was still in the midst of treatments.
“My doctor was on top of the anti-nausea medicine,” Garrett Winkelmaier said, “so chemo wasn’t too awful. Radiation was worse. I was so tired and useless, it really messed with me mentally. I just wanted to be able to do things again.”
Mackenzie Hunter, Winkelmaier’s girlfriend, was there for him emotionally through everything.
On the day of George Winkelmaier’s death she flew directly to Reno and stayed for two weeks. She was with Garrett Winkelmaier for the biopsy of his tumor, but was not in town to hear the results of his diagnosis.
“Distance is hard as it is,” Hunter said, “but then constantly not knowing about his health and having to hear about it over the phone was torture.”
During Garrett’s treatments Hunter would fly into Reno every three weeks and stay as long as her schedule would allow.
“I would go to chemo with him every time I came into town,” Hunter said. “The first time I ran out crying, but that’s what I did. I would go to work and school in Oregon and then come back here.”
Garrett Winkelmaier’s treatments were all occurring during the college spring semester. Hunter still had to attend school in Oregon, even though her heart was in Reno.
“We always joke that there’s not a whole lot that could come along now and wreck us,” Hunter said.
The couple began dating their freshman year of college. Their relationship grew and strengthened through trauma and trying times.
“I couldn’t leave him,” Hunter said. “We had only been together maybe eight months, but I knew I loved him and I knew he loved me, so I did what I thought was right as a supportive girlfriend.”
Hunter now lives in Reno. She is ready for her May graduation as an education major and works nearly full time to support herself living here. Her parents were supportive of her move to Reno to be closer to Winkelmaier and his life here.
“I just knew it was what I had to do,” Hunter said, “and I wanted to be where he was.”
Throughout his treatments, Garrett could not just relax. After seeing his father battle sickness for years and still go to work everyday, Winkelmaier was inspired to find a job and something to look forward to.
“During my treatment I was coaching,” Winkelmaier said. “I was actually coaching Drew [his younger brother], so I got to see him every day outside of being tired and sick. It was good for both of us I think.”
Winkelmaier had found a reason to get up. With his dad as a guide, he found a purpose to do something every day besides not feel good. He found his outlet for dealing with the grief in his life.
“Garrett gained a maturity from watching his dad,” Smith said. “I don’t know if he even realized it, but they were so much alike, and they were both insanely tough through chemo.”
Smith had also moved back to Reno from Oregon. Before Garrett Winkelmaier was diagnosed, the two boys planned on living together in their hometown. They had picked out a one story, two-bedroom house, directly behind Bibo Coffee Co. near campus. Winkelmaier did not have enough time to settle his things into their new house before he had to begin treatments. He spent his time at his mother’s for the duration of his chemo and radiation therapies.
“Towards the end of his treatments, he started staying with me in the Ninth Street house again,” Smith said. “He was the strongest guy ever. You could tell he was feeling like shit, but he was still him. He was funny, and we would mess around like always.”
After four grueling months of treatment, the Winkelmaier family had to wait three more months before any tests could be done to see if Winkelmaier had beat his cancer. During that time he worked to regain his strength, his energy and his hair. He was happy to have eyebrows again, but the hair on his head grew back in curly.
“Man, that was hilarious,” Smith said. “Our friend Scotty has really curly hair, so I would tease him and call him Scotty all the time. We both thought it was pretty funny.”
Garrett Winkelmaier finally entered remission, but the cancer battle does not necessarily have an end. For the next five years, Winkelmaier will be checked and tested every six months to make sure there are continually no cancer markers in his body.
“They don’t actually ever say you’re cancer free,” Janine Winkelmaier said. “They don’t say those words. They just say there is no cancer lighting up in the tests.”
As a family they made it through the unthinkable together. They survived what most people could not imagine enduring, and their individual strengths contributed to their success as a whole.
“Drew is a bit of a clown,” Janine Winkelmaier said, “and thank god he is. He could just come around any corner and diffuse whatever tension was in the room. We would talk about George a lot too. Usually just tell a happy story and that would make us all feel good.”
Garrett Winkelmaier has been done with treatments for over a year now. His tests and scans thus far have been clean. With a positive outlook on life, Winkelmaier is taking 17 credits at UNR, working toward his electrical engineering degree and cannot wait to start coaching baseball again, as long as his schedule permits it.
He lives with a new roommate in a town home complex near his mother and brother, close enough to make it to all Sunday dinners. On Sundays the family, along with Hunter and Drew Winkelmaier’s girlfriend, gather to eat, play games and catch up on the details of the past week.
“If you can make it through something like that, then the rest is just small potatoes,” Winkelmaier said.