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Community, Family team up to share Love for Labri

by: Vern Uyetake, Labri Dirkse, a Lake Oswego girl who has a terminal brain tumor, hugs her mom, Heidi Dirkse-Graw.

Nothing can truly prepare a mother for the moment when her child becomes so sick that she begins to see double and can't keep her balance to walk.

And certainly nothing - not even a strong premonition - can truly prepare a mother for the moment when, days later, the doctor tells her that her child is dying.

But it may be a different story for Lake Oswego mother Heidi Dirkse-Graw, who has a 19-year counseling career guiding and encouraging people with head trauma.

Today, she finds herself once again in the counseling role, with her daughter Labri as the patient.

It's almost as if the job readied her to face the future with Labri, a Forest Hills Elementary School sixth grader who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in May.

'I deal with grief and loss issues and … here I am,' Heidi said. 'My world has become every day with her. I don't want to do anything else … I can't do anything else.'

Heidi considers her counseling experience - a job she left to dedicate her energy to Labri - a 'huge asset' in understanding the medical and emotional impact of Labri's condition.

It has also given Heidi insight into the unpredictable nature of brain tumors, walking her daughter through a terminal illness and simply knowing when to seek help for herself.

Getting through each day, however, also requires faith and friends.

'I have a good ability to weather things and cope with crisis, but it's through God that I get my strength,' Heidi said. 'The people in the community are holding me up right now.'

She estimates that there are now 1,000 or more people, including many strangers, praying for Labri. Heidi's husband, Rick Graw, believes that Labri's positive response to radiation and regular chemotherapy is due, in part, to those prayers.

Although the initial treatment made her tired, Labri was able to visit her friends at Forest Hills and attend her sixth grade graduation.

'It makes me know how much God loves me and cares for me,' Labri said of her support system. 'He wants me to have as much love as I can.'

At Forest Hills, Labri's illness came as a sudden surprise and caused serious concern among students and staff.

Principal Gwen Hill sent home a letter to parents and counselors were made available to talk with the classmates of Labri and her younger brother, Clay.

While Labri missed school, students and teachers came to the Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Dorenbecher Children's Hospital to visit and bring her gifts.

They posted comments on Labri's Caring Bridge Web site, read her online journal and sent her cards.

Since then, there has been an overwhelming outpouring of love for the whole family, which also includes Labri's dad Russ Dirkes, two step-siblings Bryce and Brianna, brother Josh and sister-in-law Laura.

First, congregations at Rolling Hills Community Church and Meadow Springs Community Church coordinated meal drives with the help of the Lake Oswego Soccer Club.

People donated money to have the Dirkse-Graw house cleaned regularly. And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Glass Butterfly boutique in Lake Oswego gave Labri and her friends a paid shopping spree.

'When this gets really horrible you feel so loved,' Heidi said. 'It's a bright light in the darkness.'

Additionally, the Love for Labri Fund was set up to assist the family with loss of income, medical bills and to help Labri achieve her dreams - which includes designing a house and traveling around the world (in August, she's going to Hawaii).

'Everybody wants to know what they can do,' Rick Graw said. 'It has been mind-blowing, really. We kind of knew what a great place this was before we moved here (three years ago) but a situation like this really brings out the best in a community.'

Last week, family friends Kim Ponds and Kim Krause teamed up to host a benefit party for Labri at Krause's home, which included food, drink and a jewelry sale with all profits benefiting the family fund.

'Labri is everyone's friend and always has been, and the family is so wonderful,' Krause said. 'It's an easy thing to do.'

Labri's friends surrounded her as they snacked, compared cell phones, chatted and giggled. Heidi got a kick out of watching her daughter smile again and again. The girls watched as Labri ceremonially cut her cake.

So far, Labri's illness has brought out the best in them, too.

'Adults can learn a lot from them,' Krause said of the girls. 'They live their lives in the moment and appreciate every second they have with Labri.'

Despite obstacles in her way, Labri is the type who always makes the best of any situation and takes life in stride, she added.

'She brightens everyone's day and you can't help but smile when you're with her,' Krause said.

At the tender age of 12, Labri understands her condition and does not wish to hide it. Mostly, she chooses to ignore it and go about her daily routine as usual.

Her parents openly discuss the doctors' ongoing prognosis and the treatment she chose to undergo.

'She's old enough to know,' Heidi said.

A dedicated student, Labri loves math, science and writing poetry, which she may compile into a book someday.

'I have a little bit of everything in me,' she said. 'I have a lot of interests.'

As always, Labri feels her best when she's around her friends. If she could have all of them over to the house each day, she would. She loves hanging out and talking on her cell phone or instant messenger.

She gets annoyed when she can't participate in physical activities, such as snowboarding or soccer, or socialize for long periods of time without an adult supervisor.

According to Heidi, Labri's stamina doesn't hold up and she experiences side effects from medication, including a noticeable swelling of her face.

'I'm not sad … I just want it gone,' Labri said of the tumor.

Labri currently undergoes chemotherapy once a month for five days at a time to fight the aggressive-growing brain tumor. After 10 months, doctors will no longer treat her. A hospice nurse pays Labri a house visit several times each week.

Labri emphasizes that her goal is to live each and every day to its fullest through the difficult journey ahead. She even created a word for that mission, 'Zandleucapa,' which she included in a poem.

Since finding out she has brain cancer, Labri said her faith in God has grown tremendously.

'All the friends and people thinking about me has opened my eyes to how much God loves me, knows me and heals me,' Labri said.

For Heidi, it's become increasingly tough to leave her daughter's side.

The tumor, located in the brain stem, is too unpredictable and could affect Labri's vital functions if not closely monitored or medicated.

'I look at how she's doing today, how she can do something and how much of it she can do,' Heidi said. 'I try to give Labri as much independence as possible … But you just want to hold your children close.'

During a recent vacation to Black Butte, Labri convinced her mom to let her ride a bike for the first time since her diagnosis.

After a successful trial on soft grass, Labri rode down a small hill and yelled, 'The wind on my face is beautiful!'

Heidi, who has learned to set aside time to personally grieve, relished the moment.

'I was a little nervous, but she looked fantastic,' Heidi wrote later in Labri's Web site. 'It was great fun for her to have a little bit of normalcy for a few minutes.'

To read Labri's journal or show your support, visit www.caringbridge.com/visit/labridirkse. To contact the family directly, e-mail Heidi Dirkse-Graw at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tax-deductible donations to the Love for Labri Fund can be sent to Meadow Springs Community Church at 12647 SW 62nd Ave., Portland, Ore., 97219. Non-tax deferred donations to the fund can be made at any U.S. Bank.