Chris Rumble didn’t know the kid, but that didn’t matter. He was intent on helping the brother of a former teammate who had been stricken with leukemia. Their family was desperately seeking potential donors for a bone marrow transplant. And with the clock ticking, they came up with an idea.
Rumble, who had made a documentary a year earlier while playing junior hockey in Wenatchee, Wash., was a natural choice to produce a video that would get their message to the masses. It was shown at the Town Toyota Center, the 4,300-seat hockey hub in suburban Seattle that had a team in the North American Hockey League.
One video watched by a few thousand people led to a request for another. Rumble was asked to present one for the Scott Firefighter Stair Climb in Seattle. The event draws about 1,500 firefighters from the United States, Canada and beyond who hike up 69 flights of stairs in full equipment to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Leukemia again, he thought.
Freaky. That’s the best way to describe the story of Chris Rumble, a promising defenseman who wanted a college education and a chance to play Division I hockey but who already had the disease. He traveled to hell and back, joining kids who learned more about life and death than anyone should at a young age.
In the end, he realized what didn’t kill him made him stronger, just like the song says, and stand a little taller than the rest of us. Together, he and those kids created another video that went viral on YouTube and became a symbol of hope for millions around the world.
“You take hockey,” he said. “Everyone loves it, but it’s a pain. You hear guys saying they don’t want to practice or they don’t want to work out. I can’t wait to practice. I can’t wait to work out. I can’t wait to do my homework and go to class. I’m excited to get yelled at by my coach because they’re things I never thought I would get to hear again.”
Rumble was then living with the family that owned his former junior team, the Wenatchee Wild, and they were concerned about him. He said he felt fine but they thought he looked sluggish and refused to let him on the ice for workouts until he had seen a doctor. Doctors diagnosed him with a sinus infection before sending him for additional blood work as a precaution. He despised needles, so he refused.
Rumble’s mother insisted that he return to the office for the blood work. His girlfriend had a routine doctor’s appointment later in the day, so he was going back to the same clinic, anyway. OK, fine. In effort to pacify the people around him, during his girlfriend’s visit he had the blood drawn.
A few hours later, on April 3, 2012, his cell phone rang. It was the doctor herself, not someone from her staff. She asked Rumble if he was alone and sitting down. He was riding in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by his roommate, Max McHugh. McHugh could hear only one side of the conversation, but he knew something was wrong.
Finally, Rumble asked the question.
“Are you telling me I have leukemia?” he asked.
Rumble almost never had a chance to fight the disease because McHugh nearly killed him first. The question so startled McHugh that he slammed his brakes in the middle of the street, sending Rumble toward the windshield and almost causing an accident. A few seconds later, they drove home with the most sobering news of Rumble’s life.
“I was shocked,” McHugh said. “I didn’t know what to say. What do you say?”
Canisius made offer
Rumble was stunned, too. He felt reasonably healthy and was in the prime of his life. Five years earlier, the defenseman left home to chase his Division I hockey dream. Canisius coach Dave Smith offered him a scholarship during the 2010-11 season. He spent an extra year taking classes in Wenatchee, not playing hockey, to comply with NCAA academic standards.
Buffalo was a great fit for a hockey brat. He attended five high schools and relocated numerous times during his childhood. His father, Darren, a first-round pick in the 1987 NHL draft, bounced between the NHL and AHL as a player and later became a coach. Buffalo was a place in which Chris could settle down. His mother was from Kitchener, Ont., his father from Barrie.
Canisius worked on many levels. Finally, everything had snapped into place.
Rumble spent two hours speaking to a woman about leukemia in preparation for the video for goaltender Greg Lewis’ brother. (The video didn’t lead to a bone marrow donor, but Lewis’ brother would later find a match and is doing fine after a transplant.) Two days after it aired, Rumble and his girlfriend watched “50/50,” which was inspired by its screenplay writer’s battle with cancer. Then his girlfriend had the doctor’s appointment.
Chris Rumble, age 21, who by circumstance joined in the fight against cancer, had unwittingly been suffering from leukemia. Now, the clock was ticking on him. The whole thing still seems surreal to this day.
“There were all these weird signs,” Rumble said. “My whole family moved to Seattle three months earlier. The stars were all aligned, and I didn’t understand why.”
The news was horrifying enough, but the worst was telling the people closest to him. McHugh was floored, along with his brakes. Rumble’s girlfriend of three years, Shae Telford, immediately drove to his apartment in tears. Rumble nearly broke down when he called home to tell his mother and his 12-year-old sister answered the phone.
By all accounts, he’s never been an overly emotional person. He was the oldest and most independent of the four Rumble kids. But for reasons he still can’t explain, going back to his childhood, he broke down when telling his mom about petty health issues such as runny noses and skinned knees.
And now ... leukemia?
His mother, Jennifer, responded with a strong, optimistic tone upon hearing the news. She told him everything would be fine and shared her confidence in medicine. She was there for him when he needed her most, tougher than ever. More than anything, she offered hope because, really, hope was all they had.
“It was a bit of a shock to say the least,” his mother said. “I remember that phone call like it was two minutes ago. It’s something you never, ever want to hear. But you snap into this other person that you don’t think you’re strong enough to become. You’re forced into that quickly. You become your parents. We had to deal with it.”
Father gave direction
His father also kept a steady hand. Darren Rumble had taken a coaching job with the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds, another coincidence that helped a family in crisis.
“I had one direction and one direction only,” his father said. “I told him, ‘This is going to be a pain in the [butt]. Buckle down and battle through it. You’re going to come out on the other side. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Then you go get a degree and play some hockey. Away you go.’ ”
One positive that came with the urgency required to treat the disease was having little time to think about its ramifications. The possibility of death was pushed to the backdrop. Rumble immediately checked into Seattle Children’s Hospital, where doctors told him he would be nine times less likely to suffer an infection. He had 48 hours to prepare for the worst six months of his life, assuming he survived.
Rumble suffered from acute myeloid leukemia, which required aggressive and immediate treatment. He needed every white blood cell that was available while battling the disease and chemotherapy. This time, a runny nose was worth crying over. It could have been enough to take over his body and kill him.
For months, he was confined to “AML jail,” as it was called. Leukemia handed down a death sentence to a few children during his time in the hospital. His family was there almost every day, but Rumble’s closest friends were 6- and 7-year-old boys and girls who longed for elementary school and rarely whined about their own plight.
Rumble, a kid at heart and the biggest one on the pediatric wing, figured the children didn’t know they had a right to complain. He felt obligated to stay upbeat and confident for them, the way his parents did for him. They followed his lead. If they only knew, under their bald heads and boundless optimism, that he was actually following them.
“Kids are so resilient,” his mother said. “He was in there feeling like hell, and there were these little kids, same disease, who were sicker than he was. They were running around with their carts and throwing up in their buckets and going in circles. It was good for him to see that. It worked both ways. Yes, they looked up to him, but did he ever admire those kids.”
Rumble’s steady progress came with serious setbacks. His biggest brush with death came after he suffered through 14 days with a fever. Doctors realized one of his intestines perforated, threatening to send him into septic shock. His blood pressure plummeted in less than an hour.
“I think it was 40/20,” he said. “I was laughing.”
He was shaking uncontrollably but still cracking jokes with the medical staff, relying on humor as his best medicine. Moments before he was to be assigned to the intensive-care unit, his blood pressure recovered for reasons he and his family couldn’t explain. Their best guess: He was fighting for his life.
“I would wake up from a nap or something and be like, ‘Ahhh, this is still real,’ ” Rumble said. “It literally felt like a bad dream that you’re not going to wake up from. That’s how I would explain it, perfectly. But it’s not going away, so I would just deal with it. I never had time to feel bad for myself.”
He remembered only one emotional meltdown, when he asked his mother if she understood the feeling of falling asleep unsure if she would wake up. Otherwise, his optimism never wavered. Thoughts about dying were pushed aside.
Rumble drew strength from his family and his girlfriend. Smith visited him for two days and reaffirmed his verbal commitment, giving Rumble another lift. Teammates he hadn’t met at Canisius sent him messages of prayers and encouragement. And there was the Happy Birthday video from his hockey buddies from Wenatchee that was, well, entertaining.
Another video. Fitting.
Rumble got stronger
Rumble was forced to respond, of course, never knowing the impact he would have around the world. He gathered the kids from his floor and the nurses and doctors who looked after them. Together, they created an incredibly powerful three-minute tear-jerker set to Kelly Clarkson’s hit single “Stronger.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller, it doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.”
It was Rumble’s way of showing how people can fight a disease. AML alone kills 10,000 Americans every year. The video had more than 100,000 hits in the first few days. More than 3 million watched on YouTube in the next eight months. Clarkson acknowledged the video on her Twitter page. Rumble has heard from as far away as China.
Yeah, he can reach the masses.
In truth, it did make him stronger and stand a little taller, which was why he refused to stay home for a minute longer than necessary. He was discharged from the hospital Aug. 10 and enrolled at Canisius two weeks later, against his mother’s wishes but with her blessing. He had fulfilled his aspirations for college.
He’s a 22-year-old freshman. He was told he shouldn’t play hockey when the school year began because the exercise might cause a heart attack. He regained the 25 pounds he lost in the hospital. Hair that once fell out in clumps has returned. He had a scare last month when he was told the disease came back, but it was based on inaccurate test results.
On Jan. 5, he played his first Division I game, against Bowling Green. Five days later, he scored his first goal and added an assist against Sacred Heart. After three games, he was named Atlantic Hockey’s rookie of the week. He has a goal and three assists in five games. His next test is Saturday against Mercyhurst at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.
By the way, he’s majoring in Creative Arts (see: movies). He knows a good story. He is a good story. Seeing him now, healthy and strong, with his long hair and his fun-loving personality, it’s hard to imagine what he overcame.
“ ‘Conquer’ would be the word,” he said. “I feared the worst and conquered my fears. Everything happens for a reason. I don’t know if the reason was to make all of those kids happy or make their day. I don’t know. I know I’ve learned a lot from it. I have a totally different outlook on life. I truly think it was a good experience.”