Flashes of Hope provides comfort for families of young cancer patients
A Boone County family is grateful for an unexpected and priceless gift which they received in the midst of their greatest loss.
Mark Watson at Spotlight Photography is in the business of capturing rites of passage like senior picture day. Hair freshly cut, outfit carefully selected, the pictures are seen as a turning point when a young person takes the first steps into adulthood. Some may even take it for granted.
"They always say if your house burns down, you go in to retrieve the photographs. Everybody wants those memories," said Watson, speaking at a photo shoot.
It's that reality that led Watson to give back. He picked up a side project called Flashes of Hope, which provided photos for the Wanser family of Zionsville.
The Wanser photo shoot was less traditional. It was shortly after Thanksgiving weekend they learned their first born, five-year-old Michael, had cancer.
Barry Wanser, Michael's father, said his son was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).
"We just said we are going to fight. Losing was not an option," said Barry.
The Wansers say Michael was brave as he faced chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. They called him Iron Man Mike "because after he got his central line placed in him, he looked at himself and with the clear patch of it he thought, 'I look just like Iron Man,'" said Laurie Wanser, Michael's mother.
The family had already logged more than 120 overnights in the hospital when one afternoon, Laurie learned Flashes of Hope run by Watson was at Riley Hospital taking pictures.
"Anybody that wants to come in, can," Mark explained.
The sessions are free.
"We want to photograph every child with cancer until we cure cancer," said Watson.
Laurie witnessed the studio set-up.
"It was an amazing sight to witness," she said.
"You can see his personality through all of this pictures," she said.
Michael was bald in his favorite pajamas for his impromptu shoot.
"They feel like stars out there. They really do," said Watson.
"The pictures also showed me the incredible bond that Laurie had with Michael," said Barry.
The day of Michael's shoot was filled with hope, but when his cancer came back, it was Mom who eventually tried to prepare Michael for his final moments.
"I said I believe that when you are close to dying, I said your angels will come. I said I don't who that will be," Laurie said. "I know you are not going to feel any pain and that there is going to be this amazing light and it's going to be the light of God and that your Dad and I want you to go to the light and don't look back."
Later when the end was near, the family kept vigil by Michael's bedside.
"I was just talking to him just not expecting a response and I just said, 'hey buddy, are you seeing any angels yet?' and all of a sudden he said without opening his eyes, he just said, 'I see them,'" she recalled.
Michael was six years old.
"We can't describe it. It's beyond description. It's painful," said Barry.
Michael won't grow up to be a man, but he will always be a big brother. Robert, his younger brother, has a pile of pictures to help him remember.
"The dignity that we see in the pictures, the grace, the spirit. It's our Michael. His face is puffy from the steroids but our Michael is behind those eyes, the smile and it's just amazing to us," said Laurie.
So this year for Thanksgiving, the Wansers are grateful, first for six years with Michael, and for 20 treasured minutes with Flashes of Hope volunteers.
"It is a gift that will last forever in our hearts and on our walls and in our minds and it's truly what helps us move on from day to day," said Laurie.
Flashes of Hope now goes to three Indiana hospitals and one summer camp, and is run by volunteers. A $25 donation provides a shoot for one child.