While Winslow native Nate Poulin was busy climbing each step of the Empire State Building, his mother, Kathy Poulin, was sitting in their hometown, nervous to hear that her son made it to the top and was OK.
“I was sitting on needles just wanting to hear he made it to the top,” she said.
With the help of Nate Poulin’s wife, Ellete, Kathy was kept up to speed on her son’s progress as he climbed all 1,576 steps in 23 minutes 13 seconds, besting his time from last year.
While the physical achievement on Feb. 6 was satisfying for Poulin, the real victory was the $4,700 he raised for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the top sponsor of the annual Empire State Building Run-Up.
Poulin’s effort came days before NBC’s Tom Brokaw announced he has the relatively rare cancer, putting a public face on a disease the family and the foundation has struggled to raise awareness about.
A little more than two years ago, Poulin’s father and life-long Winslow resident, Michael Poulin, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which affects the white blood cells in the bone marrow. Late last month, the Poulin family’s story was featured in the Morning Sentinel. They hope to raise awareness of the disease that the National Cancer Institute says represents just 1 percent of cancer diagnoses.
Since the story was published, the Poulin family said they have been overwhelmed with support from the community, both from friends and strangers.
The family’s effort in Maine has coincided with news last week that Brokaw has been diagnosed with the disease.
When Michael Poulin’s diagnosis became official in January 2012, both he and Kathy knew it was going to be a difficult adjustment letting their friends and coworkers know.
“When he was going to Dana Farber (in Boston) for treatment, I’d go with him,” Kathy Poulin said. “So the people who were closest to me at work knew something was wrong. Generally, it just wasn’t a topic of conversation.”
The support for the Poulins has come from where they expected — friends, family, close coworkers — but it’s the support from the strangers in the community since their fight became public that has touched the family most.
With the added publicity, Nate Poulin managed to raise more than $1,000 more than he did in last year’s climb. But the real winner was the research foundation, which raised about $775,000 nationally through the 200 participants in the Run-Up.
“The morning after the story had been in the newspaper, I went outside to get the Sunday paper, and when I brought it in, an envelope fell out and it was from our newspaper carrier,” Kathy Poulin said, fighting off tears. “We’ve never met her before, but she had written a sweet note about how she didn’t have much to give and wanted to give some to support us and the foundation.”
The Poulins plan on continuing spreading awareness through the state and participating in more 5k races and road races to raise money
“We did three races last year with the grandkids, and we’ll probably do the same again this year,” Michael Poulin said. “I have two sisters who live locally, and they said they want to run with us next time.”
While multiple myeloma is rare, Brokaw’s diagnosis, made public last Tuesday, has put it in the national spotlight.
Brokaw, an NBC news anchorman and reporter for nearly 50 years, has been getting treatment since August, and his doctors are optimistic about his treatment and encouraged by his progress, according to a story by the Associated Press.
“Our hearts go out to Tom and his family during this time,” said Kath Giusti, founder of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, in a prepared statement after Brokaw’s announcement. Giusti, who also has multiple myeloma, penned a column for Time magazine on Thursday, detailing the advances in treatment and medication since the foundation was created 16 years ago.
The news came as a shock for the Poulin family, but they are optimists who see the silver lining of a public figure’s diagnosis.
“It’s very weird to talk about in that sense, but with Tom Brokaw’s outlook and notoriety, it could bring a lot of attention to the disease,” Nate Poulin said. “It’s great to have an ambassador that people recognize. Many news outlets are already bringing more information about it to light.”
The country’s celebrity culture helps raise awareness when a celebrity is diagnosed with a disease or illness, according to Bob Heiser, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern Maine.
“As celebrities come out with illness, it really ratchets up the awareness. People identify with them or consider them companions or friends,” Heiser said, using Hall of Fame baseball player Lou Gehrig’s connection with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as a prime example.
Celebrities can be the connection for a cause to reach a greater audience, Heiser said, because of society’s ability to relate with celebrities more than with someone else they’ve never met. And with Brokaw’s longtime role as many Americans’ source for important news as anchor for NBC Nightly News for more than 20 years, Brokaw’s relationship to people could be familial to those finding out about his diagnosis.
“He’s seen as an authority figure and probably has a fatherly attribute for many people,” Heiser said.
Michael Poulin thought of the work Michael J. Fox has done with research and awareness about Parkinson’s Disease, raising more than $400 million for research since 2000 with The Michael J. Fox Foundation.
“You hope the same might come of this,” Poulin said in regard to Brokaw’s diagnosis. “If nothing else, it’ll help spread the awareness of it.”