Student dies of lung cancer at 18
Thomas Carter Flueckiger, 18, died on Monday, March 28 at the Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Flueckiger, a freshman lighting design major at Webster University, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare tumor that affected his chest wall. His funeral will take place in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana on Thursday, March 31.
Flueckiger, known as Carter to his family and Thomas to his friends at Webster, was diagnosed with pneumonia after experiencing shortness of breath on Feb. 12. His left lung collapsed a week later, and after several tests and consultations, oncologists at St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis diagnosed Flueckiger with lung cancer. His parents decided to transfer him back home to Indiana for chemotherapy, withdrawing him from classes and moving him off of the third floor of West Hall.
In early March, doctors began treating Flueckiger at Simon Cancer Center. The Flueckiger family kept a blog through CaringBridge.org, documenting their son’s time in the hospital and his struggle to regain his health. More than three weeks of Flueckiger’s fight are documented on the website.
“It is one month (28 days) today that Thomas was admitted to ICU (intensive care unit) at St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis,” his parents wrote on March 19. “His only time out of doors since then was the much-less-than-comfortable ambulance ride to Indy on March 1. He has never complained about the confinement, but has said he wants to do ‘normal’ things again.”
Most of the blog updates are about Flueckiger’s patience and perseverance during his stay in the ICU, with concerns for his ability to eat and breathe on his own. On Friday, March 25, a post on the CaringBridge.org said that though the tumor wasn’t shrinking, doctors were thrilled with Flueckiger’s response to chemo treatments.
However, the next day Flueckiger experienced more difficulty breathing and an increased heart rate. Doctors told his family that the cancer was unconventional in its response. Flueckiger died at 8:30 p.m. Monday evening after spending several days attached to a BiPap machine to help him breathe.
“As you all know, Thomas fought very hard against his cancer, and he never complained or gave up hope,” said his parents in the blog on Tuesday morning. “But the cancer, chemo, side effects and terrible toll on his body finally wore him out. We have lost a very special person. We thank God for every moment we had him, and we thank all of you for your guestbook entries, thoughts, prayers and kind words throughout Thomas’s illness.”
Dottie Marshall Englis, chair of the Conservatory of Theatre and Dance, was in close contact with the Flueckiger family throughout their son’s illness. She received a call late Monday evening about Flueckiger’s death. She said his parents asked her to contact three of Flueckiger’s closest Webster friends in person to relay news of his death.
“It’s hard to believe someone can go so quickly,” Englis said. “He was always smiling, always bringing everyone up. He was an extremely good student, clearly a leader, even to his friends.”
On Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m., Englis gathered all first year Conservatory students together for a meeting with Associate Dean of Students John Buck and campus counselor Patrick Stack. Englis said the students were already aware of Flueckiger’s death. A memorial service will take place on Webster’s campus in the near future, Buck said.
“They are a tight-knit group,” Englis said. “I talked through what I know and what I don’t know, and the resources available to them while they grieve. It hits everyone differently.”
Englis said the atmosphere of the meeting was somber and quiet, with quite a few tears. The students were given freedom to deal with their grief in their own way. Some students gathered together and shared stories about Flueckiger, while others chose to be alone or leave the campus. Englis said the students focused on Flueckiger’s positive personality.
“When Patrick Stack asked them, ‘What was he like?’ they all answered that he always had a smile on his face,” Englis said.
Friends of Flueckiger, like senior photography major Ashley Lam, spoke of his enthusiasm and the shock of his death.
“He was one of my favorite smartasses ever,” Lam said, who met Flueckiger during new student orientation when she was his group leader. “There were weeks upon weeks where we would text late into the night. He and I also would write letters to each other. I would promise him baked goods, he would make me a friendship bracelet, and so it was really like a cheesy, summer-camp kind of friendship.”
Lam said she was scared for Flueckiger when she found out his diagnosis. She said she felt surreal when she found out about his death through the CaringBridge blog.
“I was just like, ‘This isn’t real — do I even know this kid?’ ” Lam said. “He suddenly became someone I didn’t know. I was so devastated because I kept his friendship bracelet in my wallet and I borrowed a book and a DVD from him that are sitting in my desk and now I look at them and I was just like ‘I don’t want to touch them.’ They became sacred artifacts of this wonderful guy that I knew.”
Sometime after the funeral, Flueckiger’s parents plan to visit Webster to talk with friends and teachers about his life.
“His parents definitely want to visit,” Englis said. “They want to connect with Thomas’ friends. It’s important to them. There is great comfort in those kinds of rituals.”
For now, friends of Flueckiger are coping with the idea of his absence.
“It’s still sinking in,” Lam said. “I get that twitch in my heart when I walk by the dorms and I see his window.”