Meet the First Four Diamonds Patient: Denise Voloshin

February 12, 2018 at 3:21 pm 1 comment

By Marianne Clay

Middle-aged white woman with blonde hair and glasses holds a photo of herself in 1975.

Denise Voloshin, the first Four Diamonds patient, holds a school photo of herself from 1975, the year she was treated for cancer.

Just days before this year’s Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON) Weekend Feb.16-18 at University Park, cancer survivor Denise Voloshin marvels at the accomplishments of the world’s largest student-run philanthropy and of its sole beneficiary, Four Diamonds. Since the days when Denise was a patient at Penn State Children’s Hospital, THON has raised nearly $150 million for the work of Four Diamonds.

Like it has since 1977, Four Diamonds will use the millions raised during this year’s THON to provide financial support to pediatric cancer patients and their families at Penn State Children’s Hospital and to fund innovative cancer research.

“The incredible ways THON and Four Diamonds help young cancer patients and their families is nothing short of amazing,” Denise says.

She should know. She was the first “Four Diamond” patient. See photos of Denise as a young girl and today on the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Flickr page.

In December 1974, Denise, her sister Brenda, and her parents were experiencing life in Vienna, Austria. Their father, Elizabethtown College history professor Dr. J. Kenneth Kreider, had taken a sabbatical to continue his research with Hungarian refugees living in Vienna. All was going well, and Denise and Brenda were fully immersed in their German-speaking school. That is, until, a mysterious stomach pain rewrote the plan.

At first, Denise and her family thought she had strained a muscle doing gymnastics, but when her pain intensified on Sunday, their concern deepened. Could she have appendicitis? In Vienna at that time, offices and stores closed by midday Saturday, not to reopen until Monday morning. Finding a doctor who was willing to make a house call on a weekend was not easy. Frantically searching for help on Monday morning, Denise’s father spotted a doctor entering his office and persuaded him to come. Upon examining Denise’s stomach area, the doctor shouted, “Mensch!” (German for “Oh my”) and called an ambulance to take Denise to the Emperor Franz Joseph Children’s Hospital in Vienna.

“What an awful ride that was,” Denise remembers, “driving over the cobblestone streets.” Every bump worsened her pain. She was immediately taken to the operating room, where the surgeon made an eight-inch incision down the center of her abdomen to discover a “more than double fist-sized” mass encapsulating her right ovary. She did not have an appendicitis, though they removed her appendix as well as the mass. Denise had cancer, a type of germ cell tumor called dysgerminoma.

Girl with red hair smiles while lying in hospital bed and holding a game on her lap.

Denise smiles while resting after surgery in the Children’s Hospital in Vienna.

The head surgeon recommended radiation therapy and urged the Kreider family to return home promptly to ensure consistency in Denise’s care. “I don’t remember much about the next few weeks,” she says. While she recovered in the Viennese hospital, her father placed a transatlantic telephone call to family friend Charles “Lindy” Millard and asked for his help arranging contacts with Milton S. Hershey Medical Center cancer specialists who had treated the Millards’ son, Chris.

Charles and Irma Millard’s 11-year-old son Chris was diagnosed with cancer in 1970 and died two-and-a-half years later. In 1972, the Millards established Four Diamonds to honor him and assist pediatric cancer patients. They named their fund after a school assignment Chris wrote for English, a tale he created about a knight and the knight’s triumph over evil. Chris called his story “The Four Diamonds.”

“The Millards connected us with the specialty physicians at Hershey Medical Center and encouraged us,” explains Denise’s mother Carroll. “That’s why Charles and Irma have always considered Denise their first ‘Four Diamonds’ patient.”

The Medical Center did not have a pediatric oncology division at that time, so Dr. Rodrigue Mortel, professor emeritus of Gynecology Oncology, reached out to leading specialists to devise a treatment plan. He arranged a conference call with pediatric cancer specialists at two other leading cancer centers and Denise’s Viennese surgeon.

On Jan. 6, 1975, the day after her 12th birthday, Denise began a week of in-hospital testing, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy at the Medical Center. After the testing, she returned to her sixth-grade class in the Elizabethtown School District. Despite the daily illnesses associated with abdominal and sternal irradiation, Denise never missed a day of school and continued to excel academically. She endured social challenges, too. Classmates feared she would “spread her disease” and kept away. Denise persevered.

“During this grueling deal of retching, vomiting and dry heaving,” says her mother, “Denise never, ever complained. She always had a smile.”

Girl with brown hair and glasses holds poodle while standing by fireplace.

Denise holds her dog, Sugar, after returning to the U.S.

Since then, the advances made in pediatric cancer care, research and medical facilities have been significant, and the experiences of pediatric cancer patients have changed tremendously. Despite the fact that Hershey Medical Center had no pediatric oncology department, Denise remembers receiving excellent care from her physicians, Dr. Mortel and Dr. Harold Harvey, who is still a member of the medical staff. Dr. Mortel became a family friend and, after Denise’s childhood cancer experience, he inspired her to become a medical doctor, and became her mentor, too.

Denise graduated from Elizabethtown College and became an infectious disease physician. She married her high school sweetheart, Michael Voloshin, who had noticed this “little red-headed” classmate back in sixth grade. Today, Denise’s husband is also a physician specializing in hematology and oncology.

“By the grace of God and the forethought of my physicians to preserve the viability of my remaining ovary,” says Denise, “Michael and I were blessed with three healthy children, Andrew, Rachel and Matthew.”

Dr. Barbara A. Miller, chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the Children’s Hospital, never saw Denise as a patient but rejoices in Denise’s success and in the continual improvement of pediatric cancer patient outcomes.

“For those of us who work in pediatric oncology,” says Dr. Miller, “this isn’t a job – it’s a mission, a wonderful mission. I include all the people who work with THON and Four Diamonds in this. I work surrounded by like-minded people who share the same goal. We can do our job to the highest level because of the amazing support of Four Diamonds and THON. Thanks to their fundraising efforts, we never have to worry about insurance and whether a treatment, experimental or not, will be covered. Every child can get the therapy they need, and the best treatment available—all right here.”

“So many things have changed for the better for the pediatric cancer patient at Hershey,” says Denise. “The Children’s Hospital offers a bright and cheery environment during a scary time. There is total family wellness incorporated into the care plan of the patient, including social workers, music therapists, nutritionists, psychologists, pastoral care for various religious affiliations, in addition to the medical team of physicians, nurses and other health care professionals.”

Denise applauds THON, too. “The students put in so much effort, and they’re working so hard to help children they don’t even know. I love how many Penn State fraternities and sororities ‘adopt’ a child for the THON dance weekend and visit with the child and the entire family again after the marathon weekend. The dedication of these students is so inspiring.”

For the past 41 years, THON has joined Four Diamonds as a partner in the fight to conquer childhood cancer. “THON’s unwavering support has made it possible for Penn State Children’s Hospital to grow a pediatric oncology division recognized as one of the best in the country,” says Suzanne Graney, Four Diamonds executive director. “They’ve made it possible for every Four Diamonds child to receive the treatment they need without ever seeing a bill for their cancer care, and for a dedicated research team to search for improved treatments and cures to benefit children everywhere. The emotional support they offer families has also made a tremendously positive impact.”

Denise recalls how her sister Brenda soldiered on while so much attention went to her medical needs. “Some perceptive person in Four Diamonds saw the need to include every family member in this tumultuous experience, and that, I think, is a huge help for the health of siblings and the family unit. I hope that, in my small way, I can encourage families to see a success story.”

Denise remembers Chris Millard and what his family endured. She’s awestruck by the eloquent story 13-year-old Chris wrote and by his family’s determination to use his life to make a difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of pediatric cancer patients. “I would urge anyone to read his story, to notice how he named his characters after his loved ones, to marvel at what a natural storyteller he was, and to sit back and look at the impact he and his family have made for so many children and their families. Amazing!”

Family of five pose outdoors in front of a wooded scene. Family includes two boys, a woman in a purple top, a man in a gray shirt and a girl.

Denise poses for a family photo with her husband, Michael, and their sons and daughter in 2014.

Support life-saving research for better treatments and a cure by donating on the Four Diamonds website.

Read more

Dr. Barbara A. Miller, chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at Penn State Children’s Hospital, discusses improvements in the treatment of pediatric cancer over the past four decades.

Entry filed under: Profiles. Tags: , , , , , , .

Pediatric Cancer Treatment Advances Bring New Hope to Children Battling Cancer Just dance: Sweat, tears and stretching goes into two students’ journey to THON

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. mark brandt  |  February 13, 2018 at 10:37 pm

    Nice article about some quality people of which I have fond memories. Mr. Millard, Mike and you, in marching band. Glad to read this update. All my best. Mark Brandt


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Recent Posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to Penn State Medicine and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 477 other followers

Share This Page

Bookmark and Share

Recent Tweets


%d bloggers like this: