Berman: Littlest footprint has big impact in U.P.

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Brody was three — curious, busy, exceptionally fond of mud — when his mother, Tanya Etelamaki, noticed that Brody seemed to be missing energy, his characteristic grin.


She knew her indefatigable son. So she promptly took the listless, tired boy to a doctor, the first of many she and her husband Doug would consult. The diagnosis wasn’t dehydration, as she thought likely. It was brain cancer, propelling the Etelamaki family into a new and terrifying world of needles, complex medical nomenclature, bewildering treatment options — all of which served to fuel the family’s fierce, no-holds-barred effort to help Brody overcome his illness.

But how would she, Brody’s mom, survive? Tanya Etelamaki is a parole and probation officer who covers the Upper Peninsula’s Ontonagon County, an area larger than Oakland County, (1,311 square miles; Oakland County is less than 1,000), populated by 6,172 people, buried in 200 inches of snow a year.

When Brody was diagnosed on April 21, 2013, Tanya took an immediate leave: “There was no way to keep working,” says Tanya, “He needed 24-hour care.” She and her husband, Doug, a corrections officer, opted to take Brody to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, staying for months, until he was moved to Ann Arbor for treatment at the University of Michigan’s cancer center.

Tanya quickly used up her sick time, vacation and other benefits. She worried about losing the job, the connections, and a portion of her family’s livelihood.

“Crime doesn’t stop here, just like anywhere else,” says her supervisor, Kevin Ayotte. “The difference up here is the distances.” Her nearest coworkers were in other counties, an hour or an hour-and-a-half away.”

T. Etelamaki

Her job in Ontonagon was a 45-mile drive from her home, in the small Houghton County city of Chassell; she had to be in the office, because she was the staff member who answered phone calls from police officers, judges and caseworkers, who appeared at court sentencings and hearings. “You’re a one-man show,” says Ayotte, who supervises 10 counties out of the Escanaba office.

The other agents knew what was going on, and volunteered to cover her job. They did that, without complaint, sometimes driving hundreds of extra miles in a week, or juggling meetings with judges scheduled for the same time in different counties, doing whatever needed to be done.

“We all viewed it as a small sacrifice compared to what Tanya was going through,” says Russell Ryyananen, a field agent who works out of Houghton, 52 miles away.

He and two other agents, Tom Michaels and Jonathon Holkkanen, assumed most of her duties. They assured Tanya they would continue to perform her job indefinitely, for as long as it took. Their supervisor, and his bosses up the line, did not flinch.

“I told Tanya the last thing she had to worry about was losing her job,” recalls Ayotte. “I would tell my supervisors that nobody was complaining, everybody feels helpless and wants to help: Please, can we keep the job open?”

Brody, who inspired hundreds to walk in his honor wearing “Brody Strong” T-shirts in September 2013, died on April 15, 2014, a year after his diagnosis. “One thing about living in such a small community: Brody touched a lot of lives,” his mother recalls. “Sometimes the littlest footprint leaves the biggest impact.”

In a community where everyone knew the family’s story, where nearly everyone had thrown a pie, or walked, or bought a T-shirt, or cooked a meal for the family, Brody had become a community family member. His death was a front page story in the Chassell newspaper. Ayotte still carries videos of Brody on his phone.

Tanya Etelamaki struggled to keep going. Brody, the little boy who ate snow and played with trucks and worshipped his two sisters, now 8 and 11, and an older brother and sister, was gone. Day after day, she stayed at home.

D. Etelamaki

“After he passed away, I was off for another seven months,” recalls Tanya. “My co-workers kept covering for me, stretching themselves.” She knew she couldn’t let them continue. She also knew that they would, for as long as it took her.

When Tanya went back to work last December, Ryyanen experienced a different intensity at work. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, or how hard it is, until it changes. Now we wonder how we ever got it all done.”

Had he lived, Brody Etelamaki would have begun kindergarten this month. His mother wants people to understand that childhood cancer has its own ribbon color — gold — and that there’s a need for more funding for pediatric cancer research. Her little boy was treated with powerful drugs scaled from adult doses: “Nobody has done the research on these drugs with children.”

Ayotte, says Tanya and her husband are admired in their tightly knit community. “She’s a wonderful mother and they’re great people, a great family. They touched many people.”

None of this has been simple for Tanya , but she appreciates, and understands, the sacrifices undertaken by her co-workers. Work keeps her busy. She decided to return, to move forward in her life, as painful as that still is.

“You need to work and keep going,” she says, in that accent that sounds like Minnesota to those of us in the Lower Peninsula. “I realized that you can just exist or you can live. My children and my family need me to live.”

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Laura Berman is the Detroit News metro columnist.