'Dancing in our hearts' family remembers son 14 years after losing cancer battle


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Tears start to form as Tracy Koranda recounts her son’s funeral on a sunny day in December 1998. Her 2-year-old son Sebastian died from a cancer known as neuroblastoma in the early hours after Christmas, in his father’s arms.

The University of Iowa Dance Marathon community was there for Sebastian and his family, from the very beginning to today. This week, even 14 years later, the family plans to participate in the Big Event Friday.

“There were those people who asked, ‘What can we do to help?’ ” Koranda said. “I told them to tell our Dance Marathon dancers what had happened. The day of the funeral, I looked up, and 11 of the dancers were there. They always brought us so much comfort.”

Erin Ferris was a dancer for Sebastian in 1999, when the Dockery/Koranda family first started participating in Dance Marathon. Ferris met Sebastian while he was in treatment and said he was a beacon of strength for Ferris and the other dancers to use during the then 30-hour Dance Marathon.

“We met him and saw how brave he was, even in the face of such a devastating disease,” Ferris said. “After he passed away, you couldn’t have any more inspiration. It was easy to remember why we were dancing. We were keeping his memory alive.”

Sebastian was 15 months old when he was diagnosed with a tumor growing around his organs, and he fought for 11 months until passing away peacefully on Christmas night. Two months later, Koranda and her family attended Dance Marathon and gave the closing speech at the event. 

Koranda said Dance Marathon has been the instrument to help her heal with the loss of her son, who passed away 14 years ago.

“Your biggest fear is that your child will be forgotten, and we never have to worry about that,” Koranda said. “Because of Dance Marathon, we know our son will be remembered. We always say we’re members of the club no one wants to belong to, and we want them to know Dance Marathon is there for us, too. It’s one way to get on with our lives. As much as I don’t want to say moving on, in a way we are.”

One aspect of Dance Marathon includes having pictures of the children who have passed away, as well as adding their names to a quilt, which is displayed during the duration of Dance Marathon.

Mary Schlapkohl, who has been a pediatric nurse for 20 years, aided Sebastian from the day he was diagnosed until the day he left the hospital. After 15 years, she still remembers his infectious smile and energy.

“He taught me that no matter what he was going through, he was still just a little boy,” she said. “He was still just a toddler. It’s a nice reminder that this isn’t just a disease, it’s a child who had a life before this.”

Sebastian’s father, Steve Dockery, agrees that Dance Marathon is a good cause, although he says he wishes there were not a need for it.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this, but I hope Dance Marathon puts a bright light in people’s lives,” Dockery said. “Seeing those kids, those teenagers and young adults being so unselfish, it’s just a wonderful thing to see. You have this sorrow in your life, but it helps to see something so joyful.”

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