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«Spring 2008

Ryan Vodicka: A Life Interrupted

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Ryan Vodicka, a 27-year-old cancer patient, volunteers at a daycare center. Treatment prevents him from getting a job.

A Typical Life

Upon graduation, with his future squarely in front of him, Ryan earned an associate’s degree in Graphic Design from Metro Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. He continued his education by pursuing another associate’s degree, this time in Digital Arts & Design from Full Sail in Winter Park, Florida. He wanted to follow other graduates from this program who had made names for themselves working on films, video games and other design projects. The program is intense, and Ryan was totally submerged, spending most of his day in class or lab learning the latest in technology to enhance his passion for art.

Ryan made plans for his future. Plans that if he worked hard would take him anywhere he wanted to go. Whether that meant being on white, sandy beaches in the Caribbean or in the Czechoslovakian hills exploring his family’s heritage, as long as he had a computer and internet access he could work when and where he wanted. Ryan set his sights on New York City. He wanted to get out of the middle of the country and begin his dream in a place known for taking chances on new talent. Because, you know, if you can make it there…

Ryan had dreams. Ryan made plans. Ryan was a typical all-American boy from Omaha, Nebraska, who dreamed of something bigger than himself. But life would soon no longer be typical for Ryan or his family.

A Diagnosis
In true college student fashion, Ryan communicated with his parents with the obligatory “fine,” when asked how things were going. So even though his stomach began to get larger, he was often tired, lower back pain made it difficult for him to sit through class, and he had night sweats so severe he’d have to change his sheets at 3 a.m., he said and truly believed he was “fine.”

I JUST HIT THE FLOOR. MY SON DIDN'T LOOK LIKE MY SON.
- MISSY VODICKA

A few of his classmates thought he was on drugs because he looked so gaunt and bony…except for his stomach. But it wasn’t until a friend said “Dude, you just don’t look good,” that he went to a walk-in clinic. After blood work and an ultrasound revealed nothing, he was sent to the ER for an X-ray, followed by a week-long stay in the hospital for tests. He didn’t tell his parents.

On his phone calls home, he asked his mom if there was a history of high-blood pressure or cancer in the family. Because of his light tone of voice and conversational manner, these questions didn’t alarm her. Ryan wasn’t too overly concerned until he heard the word “biopsy.” Then his obligatory “fine” became “help.” And he was immediately scheduled on a flight home to Omaha.

At the gate to pick up their son, Dan and Missy Vodicka hardly recognized him. Their son, who left for Florida weighing 220 pounds and sporting a strong muscular build, came back a much smaller version of himself. Extremely emaciated, Missy described him as a “walking skeleton that looked nine months pregnant;” his distended stomach protruding way beyond his frame. “I just hit the floor,” said Missy. “My son didn’t look like my son.”

On Wednesday, May 5, 2004, at the age of 24, Ryan and his parents were told he had cancer. On Thursday, May 6, Ryan and his mother and father were on a flight to New York City.

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Missy Vodicka (left) stands with her son, Ryan Vodicka (right).

More Than Business As Usual


Since its first bag of flour was sold in 1867, ConAgra Foods has grown from a small Nebraska company into one of America’s largest packaged food companies, employing more than 25,000 in hundreds of locations throughout the United States. The company serves retail and foodservice consumers and customers with popular brands like Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hunts, Orville Redenbacher’s and many others.

IT JUST MAKES SENSETO MAKE THE EMPTY SEATS AVAILABLE TO INDIVIDUALS IN THE CORPORATE ANGEL NETWORK.
- JIM HOLLENBECK, CONAGRA VP OF AVIATION

ConAgra Foods fosters a culture of giving back by encouraging its employees to make the communities in which they live and work better by volunteering their time and talents to different organizations. The company sets an example for its employees by seeking ways to positively impact lives through the work of the ConAgra Foods Foundation and sustainable development program initiatives.

For more than 15 years, ConAgra Foods also has also been positively impacting the lives of others as a member of the Corporate Angel Network, the only charitable organization in the United States whose sole mission is to ease the emotional stress, physical discomfort and financial burden of travel for cancer patients by arranging free flights to treatment centers, using the empty seats on corporate aircraft flying on routine business.

Jim Hollenbeck, ConAgra Foods’ vice president of aviation is proud of his employer’s participation in the Corporate Angel Network.

“We conduct business all across the nation on a daily basis,” Hollenbeck says. “It just makes sense to make the empty seats available to individuals in the Corporate Angel Network. This program enables us to conduct business as usual, but allows us to help others at a time when things are uncertain for them.”

When Two Worlds Collide
On May 6, 2004, ConAgra Foods provided more than just delicious products to dinner tables and restaurants across the country, the company provided a glimmer of hope to a family beginning down the unknown road of cancer. Ryan and Missy were met at the company’s hangar by Barb Moffett, a long-time employee and scheduler for the Flight Department who has since retired. “She welcomed us with a smile that said, ‘We understand and we’ll take care of you.’ ”

THE HOPE THAT HE WOULD GET TO GO HOME KEPT HIM MOVING FORWARD.
- MISSY VODICKA

Ryan’s chance of recovery is 20%, and those diagnosed with his type of cancer have a typical survival rate of 24 months after diagnosis. During that first flight, they met a ConAgra executive whose wife had cancer that had spread to her liver. He told them a mantra, which they’ve lived by ever since: “‘Don’t believe in the statistics because they don’t know God and they don’t know you.”

Over the next 11 months, Ryan was a frequent ConAgra Foods passenger to and from Teterboro, New Jersey. Missy credits ConAgra Foods through the Corporate Angel Network for Ryan’s very life. “Honestly. I don’t think he would have made it. In New York City, we were so isolated in unfamiliar surroundings and didn’t know anyone. During those first six weeks, Ryan was so sick and highly medicated, he became very depressed. The hope that he would get to go home kept him moving forward.”

Peace, Hope and A Home
ConAgra Foods provided Ryan and his family with much more than an empty seat; the company gave them a sense of peace amid turmoil. With so much to worry about and consider, the family was not faced with some of the difficult financial decisions that often accompany a serious illness. The freedom from having to worry about transportation costs allowed them to focus their attention on what was needed. “I was worrying about surgeries, chemo and how I was feeling,” Ryan said. “Knowing that my trip home to Nebraska could be made with one phone call was a huge relief.”

HIS DOCTORS WERE AMAZED HOW MUCH HE WOULD REBOUND AFTER RETURNING FROM NEBRASKA.
- MISSY VODICKA

When a cancer patient flies, they need to take along many items that are now banned by commercial flights. “They were not always gracious and understanding of Ryan’s needs when he would try to board with needles and other questionable items,” Missy said. “We would have to show up several hours ahead of departure in order to get through security.” In addition to the delays, commercial flights with their circulated air environments were particularly dangerous for Ryan. The sniffles of a first-class passenger could result in Ryan spending many days in the hospital fighting an infection. Besides being safer, corporate travel offered greater flexibility. It was a rare occasion when Ryan was given more than just a few days’ notice before he was released from the hospital and able to travel. “My trips home were very important to me. I wanted to get to Nebraska as quickly as I could because I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would have to come back. I was such a frequent flyer with ConAgra, my flight arrangements were usually made by one simple phone call to Corporate Angel or Barb directly.”

Over time, the pilots for ConAgra Foods became a symbol of hope for Ryan and his family. Missy recalls that every time she saw their faces at the airport, she was able to let out a sigh of relief because she knew they were taking them home. “Home was so important to Ryan. His doctors were amazed how much he would rebound after returning from Nebraska.”

Missy hates to think of what would have happened had Ryan’s oncologist not made the arrangements through Corporate Angel to get Ryan to New York City. Without a moment’s hesitation, they were prepared to sell the family home, close Missy’s daycare business and do what was necessary to make sure that Ryan was able to get to the care he needed, when he needed it. This huge financial burden upon the family would have resulted in Ryan having to stay in New York for longer periods of time. “It’s not like I could go and do whatever I wanted. I would have been stuck in a hospital bed for five to six months with a bad view of rooftops towards upstate New York.” Not exactly the dream accommodations he once had for his future career in New York City.

Ryan’s Future
For three years, Ryan has lived with Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor or DSRCT, a pediatric cancer most commonly found in boys from ages 14 to 24. Although Ryan has hopes for the future, he does not plan beyond 30 days. “Every month my scans bring a new set of emotions. They dictate my schedule. If they are clear then I have 30 days to work with. If they are not, I may have to undergo intense chemo and stay in the hospital. I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment by having to cancel.” Ryan’s closest friends understand. When they look at him, they don’t see cancer. They see a friend who has been dealt a crummy set of circumstances and is living life the way he needs to, one day at a time.

I COULD SPEND MY DAYS IN BED, BUT KNOW THAT I CAN’T. THESE KIDS HELP ME TO LAUGHAND KEEP BUSY.
- RYAN VODICKA

Ryan has experienced a rollercoaster of emotions but is not bitter. He says he had a moment of clarity sitting in his room in New York City when he realized it was out of his hands. “God has control. I will do what I can to better my circumstances but if I pass away in six months, then that is the way it was supposed to be. But I’ll be damned if I go lightly. I’m going to fight every step of the way.” Ryan’s turning point came when he stopped trying to control his cancer and just let it be. “You can’t control cancer. It is a beast upon itself. You can’t stop it. You hope to contain it. And if you do get rid of it, God bless you.”

For now, he fills his days by being company to a group of kids in an after school program. They enjoy playing basketball with Ryan and watching him draw on his sketch pad. Some know about Ryan’s cancer and understand. Others do not. “I enjoy playing with these kids because there is an energy that radiates from them. I could spend my days in bed, but know that I can’t. These kids help me to laugh and keep busy.”

Ryan, now 27, is still that all-American boy from the middle of the United States, now a young man. He still has dreams, but for now they are put on hold while he focuses on his monthly scans, daily chemotherapy and constant fatigue. He keeps himself busy by volunteering to play with kids in an after-school program. He still gets together with his friends on occasion for a game of flag football or an evening out. And when he wants to escape for a while, his sketch pad is still not very far away.

The Vodicka family is still very close. They talk daily and gather together often. When his mother asks how he is doing, Ryan still answers “fine.” To Missy, “fine” is enough. She will take “fine.”

The Story Continues
Ryan is currently being treated at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Read more online at: www.caringbridge.org/ne/ryan/.