Patti Reinhardt: Survivor's Tale

By Sally Anne Flecker | Fall 2014

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It was Thanksgiving whenPatti Reinhardt’s brother-in-law asked her to feel a lump on his throat. It was the funniest thing, he told her. Sometimes it’s big; sometimes it’s small. Reinhardt’s heart sank. She had just been to a cancer conference through her work with Relay for Life where she had seen a videotape of a cancer patient describing the exact same thing. She begged her brother-in-law to go get it checked. It was stage four throat cancer. “He’s in remission now,” Reinhardt says. “When he tells that story, he always says he wouldn’t be here without me.”

Making a difference was one of the reasons Reinhardt, program assistant for the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship had become active with Relay for Life—although she hadn’t expected to make a difference in exactly this way. Reinhardt was in a terrible car accident in 2002. She had significant trauma—several damaged vertebrae, facial wounds, a broken nose. She even suffered a stroke. She shouldn’t have survived, she says. The fact that she did left her feeling there was a reason she was still here. When she recovered, she went back to school, found a more satisfying job and got involved with a meaningful cause.

Reinhardt is currently the event lead for the Mishawaka/South Bend Relay for Life and is the Indiana Territory Lead for the Relay Leadership Team. But in the past 8 years, you name it, she’s done it—she’s been the survivorship chair, mentored event chairs, led her own team and now supervises her daughter’s team.

In 2012, cancer struck a member of Reinhardt’s family once again—this time her dad, who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Again, because of her involvement in Relay for Life, she knew how to find the right doctors and what questions to ask. Her father went through chemo and radiation, but the cancer returned. In May 2013, he underwent surgery to remove his esophagus, returning home after 10 days in the hospital. The homecoming was a scant two days before that year’s relay, which he very much intended to participate in. He wanted to walk the very first lap—the one reserved for survivors.

In the end, he wasn’t able to walk the course. But Reinhardt’s daughter Kaylee pushed him in a wheelchair, flanked by Reinhardt and her mother. He wore a white survivor’s sash across his chest and a Notre Dame ball cap on his head. As he crossed the finish line, he raised both arms in triumph. No matter how many times she tells the story, Reinhardt chokes up. “This is what it’s about,” says Reinhardt. “This is why we relay—so we do have survivors. Cancers will continue to come. But we’re looking for a cure. If you don’t see survivors around that track, what are you relaying for?”