Leukemia patient experiences stair climb

Nothing prepared Ryan Kiggins for the rush of feelings he experienced at the top of Seattle’s Columbia Tower March 22 when he saw his wife Jennifer, 6-year-old daughter Madison and friends and family waiting for him.

Ryan Kiggins pins an entry number on his daughter

Ryan Kiggins pins an entry number on his daughter

Nothing prepared Ryan Kiggins for the rush of feelings he experienced at the top of Seattle’s Columbia Tower March 22 when he saw his wife Jennifer, 6-year-old daughter Madison and friends and family waiting for him.

“It was far more emotional than I expected it to be,” the 31-year-old Buckley resident said of the hike to the 69th floor of one of Seattle’s tallest buildings.

Especially to see Madison, wearing her oversized Team Apple T-shirt and a baseball cap emblazoned with “I wear orange for my dad: Support Leukemia Research,” busting with pride from her accomplishment and his.

It was one year ago to the day that Kiggins, who grew up in Bonney Lake and graduated from Sumner High, was diagnosed with leukemia. It was eight months ago he received a stem cell transplant. And, just a few weeks ago he heard about the event and decided to take each of the 1,311 steps just like he’d been tackling his disease – one step at a time.

A record 6,000 climbers ages 8 to 98 from 17 states and Canada participated in the event that raises money and awareness for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Each participant with their own reason or story, but none like Ryan Kiggins.

It started with an aching back and neck, a sore throat and a cough he couldn’t shake.

With treatment, the symptoms disappeared and then returned. He sought out another opinion, and this time, he requested blood tests, more for his own curiosity than anything else.

That one small request was the catalyst for a storm of activity in the year to follow.

Kiggins was diagnosed with leukemia, acute undifferentiated leukemia which is an aggressive and rare form with not enough research available to know how to treat it and little chance of survival.

As part of the treatment, at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Kiggins underwent chemotherapy, radiation and in July a stem cell transplant.

Kiggins, a software engineer, worked from his hospital bed for months during his treatment. He’d walk around the hospital floor introducing himself and supporting other patients. With his sunny disposition and humor, he was a nurse favorite. By mid-September he was feeling good and ready to come home.

His mother-in-law Beth Marker calls him an inspiration.

“He’s doing great,” she said. “It’s just been incredible. My sister said one day, ‘to know Ryan is to love him.’”

“I’ve just been blessed,” Kiggins said. “I’ve had very few issues.”

He has dealt with some graft-versus-host issues, common, he said for someone who’s gone through a transplant.

It was Marker, or more accurately Apple Physical Therapy where she works, that brought the Big Climb to light.

“They asked me if Ryan and I would like to co-chair a team and we were thrilled to be a part of this,” she said. “Even though neither one of us has any experience in chairing a fundraiser this has a special meaning for our family. I am grateful that the company has been so supportive and knows how much this means to me.” 

Co-chair didn’t originally equal climb for Kiggins.

When Kiggins first broached the climb to his doctor he was met with hesitation. He said the doctor wanted to make sure his expectations were not too high and he wouldn’t race.

Better yet, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society waived the 8-year-old participant limit for Madison, who had been training with Team Apple, so she could climb with her dad. Two-year-old daughter Haley was too young to participate. Kiggins said he kept pace with Madison for about 20 flights and then he turned her loose.

“She was excited and energetic. She was a trooper,” Kiggins said. “I’m telling you it will be tough next year to beat her.”

He tapered back and spent time resting and visiting with other climbers. He reached the top about 15 minutes behind the rest of the group.

Along the way, he kept an eye out for the poster with his face. The society lines the walls with loved ones as encouragement and he’d heard his was above the 40th floor.

Jennifer and Madison missed it on the way up. After they made it to the top, they took the elevator back to the 40th floor and retraced their steps to the top again, finding Kiggins’ poster along the way and taking a photograph of it.

“It was a really great event,” he said and plans to use the climb as motivation for he and the family to stay in shape. “We plan to make it a yearly thing. I can’t wait to race next year.”

Kiggins expects to be there. He knows the chances of a relapse are high and possible, but he said in addition to his improved physical state, he now has an amazing perspective he didn’t have before his battle with leukemia.

“Sometimes it feels like forever and at other times it seems like yesterday,” he said. “I feel great. There are a lot of people praying for me. Should it come back, I won’t be devastated, but I would be surprised. I feel cured, healed.”

Reach Brenda Sexton at bsexton@courierherald.com or 360-802-8206.

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