Alison Keim, 10, has something on her bucket list that can’t be checked off for at least eight years.
She wants to be a dancer at the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
Being a dancer at Thon — standing for 46 straight hours — is symbolic of a yearlong effort to support children fighting cancer. It also carries a deeper meaning for Alison, because she knows she didn’t beat cancer alone.
Thousands of Penn State students have helped raise funds for kids like her. Hundreds from Penn State’s Kinesiology Club have treated her like a little sister. And a select few have built lifelong relationships with her.
“If she were a dancer, that would be really surreal,” her mother, Kim Keim, of Reading, said. “That would be her coming full circle. She has been talking about that for about a year now.”
Perfect little kid
“She was always good and happy and fun and smiling,” Kim Keim said. “We had no issues with her at all. She was a parent’s dream. She really was very happy all the time, no trouble. She was the perfect little kid.”
Maybe every child is perfect in their parents’ eyes, and maybe Alison really was.
Then the terrible 2s hit in the summer of 2008 — or so her parents Kim and Dave Keim thought. Her sudden change in attitude was easy to chalk up to a childhood phase. Her swollen throat glands and fever in the late summer, though, did cause some concern.
“We weren’t expecting (anything that bad),” Kim Keim said. “So, there was complete and utter shock. I answered the phone and they told us, and I was hysterical. They kept asking me if there was another adult at home, someone who could talk to them.”
Two-year-old Alison, the doctor said, needed to begin treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia as soon as possible.
The longest, hardest days for Kim were when she had to take Alison to the hospital by herself.
“All day she’d be hooked up to all kinds of different things, and it was hard for me to hold her,” Kim Keim said. “You’d sit there watching them poke and prod her. I remember all the times she cried and didn’t want to be there. I remember all of that.”
Alison doesn’t recall the worst moments.
She instead has only good memories of being in the hospital.
There were the toy cars on the seventh floor of the Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey. Her favorite place was “Melissa’s Dizzy Room,” a spot where nurse Melissa Roslevege has one-on-one time with patients before they are sedated. In there, she said, were her favorite toys.
“I had to sedate her a lot, but, you know, she was always happy to come to Melissa’s Dizzy Room as she called it,” Roslevege said. “She always jumped into my arms. She was very excitable and loved to come to clinic. Some kids are definitely afraid, but she came in with a smile and her doll or another toy.”
Alison’s positivity might have something to do with her parents.
Kim Keim, in a small, but meaningful moment with family friends, had her photograph taken with Alison during their first week in the hospital. Alison, who had a hospital identification band on her wrist and an IV in her arm, looked off to the side. Kim, less than 48 hours after answering the phone and learning Alison’s situation, looked straight into the camera and smiled.
Their first Thon
It’s possible that Alison’s feet never touched the floor at Thon 2010, the family’s first.
At least that’s how some remember it.
“Every time they (the Keim family) could come down on the floor was awesome,” said Emily Turo, a dancer and the Kinesiology Club’s Thon chair that year. “As a dancer, it lifted my spirits when I had them for support, and I don’t think she was put down the entire time. She was always being held, and I probably held her most of the time.”
Turo remembers the Penn State jacket and pink bows Alison wore that weekend. Alison remembers that she got a new game, Pretty Pretty Princess, to play with in the stands.
Alison would be treatment-free within the next year.
“I can’t fathom what they went through and to see their strength wonderful,” Turo said. “It’s the type of love for each other you want to see with every family. Love conquers all. That’s what I learned from the Keims.”
It was a rare quiet moment at Thon 2016.
The Keim and Roslevege families, who became close friends after Alison’s treatments, stood together on the Bryce Jordan Center’s floor. Surrounded by dancers and her younger siblings — William and Lauren — Alison was asked what she wanted to do when she grew up.
The question was meant to elicit an answer about a career — maybe she’d want be a musician, a teacher or a scientist. But she had something else on her mind.
“I want to go to Penn State and be a dancer (at Thon),” Alison said.
Thon has that effect on people, making them forget about the outside world.
Asked again Wednesday, Alison said she still plans to be a dancer. She also knows what she wants to do for a career.
“I want to be a social worker at a hospital for kids like me,” she said. “... I’ve learned that there’s a lot of kids that survived, but even more that didn’t. I want to help them.”