The Official Student Newspaper of Calvin College Since 1907
September 14, 2007
Volume 102, Issue 3
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Holwerda’s fight on and off the field
  Enlarge Photo by Annalise Vanhuizen
Michael Holwerda scored two goals and one assist in his first game back.
  Enlarge Photo courtesy of Michael Holwerda
Holwerda was in intensive care for two days after a successful surgery.

Michael Holwerda was gearing up for his second season as a Knight. Playing alongside his older brother Dave, things were going smoothly; in fact, about as well as they could have. In his freshman season, Holwerda was fourth on the team in goals and third on the team in assists, starting all but two games on a team that nearly reached the NCAA quarterfinals.

“I had high expectations for [my sophomore season],” he said. “I was hoping to improve on [my freshman] season and lead the team further into the tournament.” He was most looking forward to sharing the midfield for the final season with his brother Dave, a senior.

But things took an unexpected turn.

Holwerda was blindsided. In August, just when the Knights were starting summer workouts to defend their MIAA Championship, an X-ray revealed that he had some sort of mass in his back.

What caused even more of a scare was that his family had a history with cancer. Dave had come back from Hodgkin’s disease his freshman year at Calvin. Holwerda’s mom overcame the same illness when she was pregnant with Mike in 1986.

Further tests revealed that Holwerda would have to undergo surgery to remove what was most likely a benign, non-cancerous tumor. His season was over.

That night Holwerda was driving to his brother’s. No one outside the family really knew about his condition and “Howie,” a nickname “Mowie” wasn’t allowed to share with his older brother, was the only person he really wanted to see.

He turned on the radio and the words “Every blessing you pour out I’ll turn back to praise, when darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say blessed be the name of the Lord” rang out in his Taurus.

It’s a quote that has stuck with Holwerda even today and something he loves to share. It’s from Chris Tomlin’s “Blessed be your name,” a song he has kept on his iPod. His friends see those encouraging words under his “favorite quotes” whenever they visit his Facebook page.

It’s not the only time God’s guiding hand would reach out to him, although darkness would close in several times over the ensuing months.

In September, Holwerda was set for embolization at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, a pre surgical procedure to block off blood from his lower back where the believed tumor was, when things took another unexpected turn.

The neurologist canceled surgery, believing that the mass in his back wasn’t a tumor, but rather an AVM, a clump of blood vessels. It was not more or less serious than a benign tumor, but it would only further complicate the process.

“I don’t know how detailed of a story this is going to be, but there is a lot of stuff,” Holwerda joked as I interviewed him.

From there began a major search for answers.

In October, as the soccer team was preparing to face rival Hope, Holwerda and his dad, Jim, who had already seen his wife as well as his oldest son overcome serious medical conditions, traveled to the University of Chicago and the Cleveland Clinic on a two day trip to find the answers they needed. Holwerda wouldn’t be on the sidelines for the biggest game of the season.

In Chicago, the doctors confirmed what the neurologist in Grand Rapids had suspected; it was in fact a clump of blood vessels.

“When I was leaving Chicago, I felt really good about the situation. I even joked to my dad that we don’t even need to go to anywhere else … because I thought we had this figured out.”

But the puzzle to solving his illness was still far from a solution, as he would find out in Cleveland. The family was taken back a step when the doctor said he was 70 percent sure the mass in Holwerda’s back was in fact a tumor.

“That was a pretty depressing day, because it brought cancer back into the scenario. This was a little over a month after we were convinced it was an AVM, so this whole time it was relieving to know that cancer was ruled out. To have cancer bounced around was frightening for not only me, but my family as well.”

Back in Michigan, rain flooded the soccer field in Holland, postponing Calvin’s big game, allowing Holwerda to return in time from Cleveland to be on the sidelines.

Despite the pieces to solving that puzzle bouncing every which way there was one constant- God’s guiding hand.

“Before we left Cleveland Clinic, my dad asked the doctor, ‘If you had to have this procedure done, where would you go?’ He threw out Dr. Gokaslan’s name at John Hopkins in Baltimore. But he told us he’s usually a really busy guy, usually booked.”

“It was definitely a time of giving control over to God. A small prayer I used hundreds of times was ‘it’s on you.’ It was one of those times I didn’t really know what was going on most of the time. It taught me a lot about dependence on God and that everything happens in God’s time.”

Holwerda’s dad, Jim, contacted Dr. Gokaslan. Gokaslan was very interested in his son’s case and after several meetings, both parties decided to go through with the necessary surgery.

Holwerda flew to Baltimore Sunday night, December 4th after what he called “a powerful” church service in which the elders of his second family, Eastern Avenue CRC, conducted a prayer service for his safety and successful surgery.

“That was huge to have their support and prayers,” Holwerda said.

Despite still another doctor convinced the mass in Holwerda’s lower back was an AVM, he and his family, along with Dr. Gokaslan, decided to go through with the surgery. After an all day surgery in which Gokaslan had to remove the tumor, fuse his vertebrae back together and insert two steel rods and five screws, the doctor announced to the entire Holwerda family, who all made the trip and were waiting outside, that the surgery was a perfect ten.

“As for how we ended up at John’s Hopkins I’ll never know. To get to the Cleveland clinic first of all was through something like my aunt’s neighbor’s friend’s family member who worked in the Cleveland Clinic. And then we got down there and to have my dad ask the doctor where would you go? And them giving me Dr. Gokaslan’s name. It’s a chain of events that seemed way too random to be just random.”

The one constant, God’s guiding hand.

Last weekend in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Holwerda, now a junior, stepped back onto the field for the first time since his freshman year. Holwerda’s family made the trip to watch the final chapter in his comeback.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect the first game. Obviously I wanted to play well, but at the same time I was just happy to be out there, happy my family was down there.”

Apparently he wasn’t too satisfied.

Holwerda entered in the 25th minute. Not ten minutes later, he collided with a defender for a Nick Capisiolto cross. The defender hit the ground; the player who only eight months prior was laying on a hospital bed in John Hopkin’s intensive care unit didn’t budge. Holwerda rocked the ball into the back of the net, the first of his two goal and one assist day.

Walking off the field after leading his team to its first win of the season, Holwerda realized not much had changed since his freshman season. Only now when he looked up and said, “It’s on you,” it took on a whole new meaning.

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