EDWARDSVILLE — Eric Krushinski was barely old enough to walk when dancing helped save his life.
Half way between 2 and 3 years old, Eric developed pain in the groin, fever and other symptoms that left him shuffling through doctors until he landed at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“He stayed overnight,” Eric’s father, Jim, recounted, adding that he returned home to take care of Eric’s older brother. “The next day I went down to meet with the doctors and they brought in a lady from the Four Diamonds Fund, and she started explaining things.”
Jim had never heard of Four Diamonds, or of the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. He knew nothing about the tens of millions raised over the last decades by the organization of thousands of Penn State student volunteers for Four Diamonds through various events.
And he certainly had no notion of the culminating event, the THON, 46 emotionally turbo-charged hours of dancing, swaying, sliding, entertainment and echoing chatter in the Bryce Jordan Center on PSU’s main campus. It gets so jam-packed with participants and spectators they set up an auxiliary venue where events can be watched on screen.
No, at the moment Jim met the Four Diamond representative, all he knew was that his son had cancer; he didn’t know what to do, and this lady seemed ready to help. “You’re just amazed at everything that’s going on,” Jim said. “They explained everything, they had us fill out a lot of paperwork, Hershey took my Blue Cross information.”
And that was it. THON and Four Diamonds did exactly what they are set up to do: Ensure children with cancer and their families can forget about the costs and focus on the treatment.
“I never saw a bill from Hershey Medical Center,” Jim said. Well, he corrected, there was that one time after a check up, but when he asked about it “they said you shouldn’t have gotten that bill, it should have gone to Four Diamonds.”
The support went beyond medical bills. Jim received gasoline vouchers for the trips to Hershey and back for Eric’s treatment. While there, he received vouchers for meals at the hospital cafeteria.
Eric was diagnosed in November 2001. He says he remembers none of it but admits he developed a healthy fear of needles thanks to the years of blood tests and chemotherapy that followed. In 2003, while still in chemo, he and his family attended their first THON.
“What they like to do is have as many children come down as possible so the kids could see who they’re dancing for,” Jim said. “Some of those kids take bus trips down to Hershey to see their work in action.”
They have attended ever since.
THON is more duration than dance, and the organizers — it is completely student run — arrange for enough variety to keep adrenalin going. Along with dances, they have fashion shows, talent contests featuring the families benefiting from the fund, and other activities. At one point they roll out a long foam mat and smother it with baby powder so participants can take a slide followed by a brief massage. It is the only time they are allowed off their feet.
“It’s hard to describe in words the magic that is THON,” said this year’s entertainment director, Kristen Toole, a Wilkes-Barre native who got involved in the THON her freshman year and never stopped. She’s a senior studying communication sciences and disorders, planning a career in audiology.
“We have over 15,000 student volunteers” working year-round at many different events leading up to the THON, she said. “The entertainment director oversees the auditions and selection of dance and singing groups,” she added. “I’m also responsible for the DJs, and on THON weekend events are planned down to the minute and I’m responsible for sticking to that time line.”
Having so heavily immersed herself in the THON universe, Toole concedes she faces withdrawal upon graduation this spring. “Oh, my gosh, I can’t even describe how much I’m going to miss it!” she said. “THON has been such a huge part of my life.”
There are plenty of ways for alumni to help out, and Toole said she certainly intends to stay involved.
As demanding as the 46 hours can become, Jim notes students compete fiercely to be one of the dancers. More than 700 will participate when the event begins Friday evening.
They don’t get to shower, but they do wash up a bit during breaks. “Some of them get a little riper than others,” Jim said with chuckle. And while the whole event “is really something to see,” the best part is near the end.
“The last four hours are my favorite,” Eric said. “I don’t know why, I think it’s just because of all the excitement.”
And what does the young man who survived Leukemia, lost his mother to a heart attack before he was out of chemotherapy and has attended THON weekend for about two-thirds of his life want to do when he grows up?
“Be a doctor, I think,” Eric says.
And might that involve attending Penn State and volunteering to help out at a few THONs?