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'Motorheads' rally for Frazee teen

The 1986 Fiero GT that Tyler hopes to restore to mint condition. (Submitted photo)1 / 3
Tyler Shipman talks with friends Joe Lingl, Nathan Schumann and Megan Wutzke during Sunday's benefit at the Frazee Event Center. The benefit was jam-packed with people and well-wishers most of the day. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)2 / 3
A benefit for Tyler Shipman was very well attended last weekend. The community has rallied around the Shipmans. (Brian Basham/DL Newspaper)3 / 3

"Each day is a gift."

So says Frazee's Daneele Shipman, describing how her family has learned to cope in the weeks since son Tyler, 18, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Tyler, a senior at Frazee-Vergas High School, first began experiencing back pain early this summer, but initially dismissed it as the after-effects of a tumble he had taken while out riding his ATV back in May.

His parents, Daneele and Jay, brought Tyler to the chiropractor for an adjustment. The pain came and went, but by the end of August, had worsened to the point where his parents felt a visit to the doctor was warranted.

An X-ray quickly revealed the likely cause of the problem: a fractured vertebra in his back. But even after he started wearing a torso brace that extended "from his chest to his pelvis," the pain didn't let up, Daneele said.

In fact, it got worse. Tyler also began experiencing shooting pains in his leg, so his parents brought him back to the hospital for an MRI in early October.

"We were thinking it might be a pinched nerve," Daneele said.

But their family doctor called Daneele later that day, and said the results of the MRI showed something much more serious: a potentially cancerous growth.

The next morning, Tyler returned to the hospital for a CAT scan, which showed a softball-sized tumor in his left lung as well as spots of cancer along his spine, hips, femurs, and heart. He was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, which according to the National Cancer Institute, is a rare, slow-growing type of soft-tissue cancer that occurs most often in young adults.

Tyler was admitted to the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo on Oct. 9, the same week the cancer was discovered. He received his first full chemotherapy session that weekend.

Two more sessions of chemo and radiation therapy would follow over the next three weeks, as Tyler remained hospitalized at MeritCare. His parents moved into the Ronald McDonald House in Fargo to watch over him while he received treatment.

But the tumors failed to respond to either the chemo or radiation, and on Nov. 3, Tyler was discharged and sent back home, where he is now living under hospice care.

"There are good days and bad days," said Daneele. (As evidenced by the fact that Tyler had to miss a scheduled interview with a reporter Tuesday because of fatigue.)

Fortunately, Daneele added, Tyler has been "relatively pain free" since his discharge from the hospital, and has been able to get up and sit in a recliner most days. He gets around with the help of a wheelchair and a walker, she added.

"He's doing really good," she said.

Family and friends have been rallying around the Shipmans to lend Tyler and his family their support.

His Frazee senior classmates organized a benefit dinner on Nov. 10, and the classes at Frazee-Vergas schools have been engaging in a penny war, with each grade contributing to a collection jar located in the school library.

This past Sunday, Nov. 15, a full-scale benefit dinner and auction was held at the Frazee Event Center, with all proceeds going toward medical and home care expenses. From noon to 7 p.m., the building was jam-packed with well-wishers, and while the family declined to give a total for the amount of money raised, Daneele said, "It exceeded our expectations."

As she said to those who attended the benefit on Sunday, "This community has really pulled together for Tyler ... and that's made you all heroes in our eyes."

But fund-raising and support from within the community has not been the only thing boosting Tyler's spirits, Daneele noted.

Tyler's dream

Shortly after Tyler Shipman was first admitted to the hospital in October, he wrote a short note on the Internet message board named Pennock's Fiero Forum, where he frequently communicated with fellow Pontiac Fiero car enthusiasts.

"I have an '86 Fiero GT that I've been slowly fixing up. Well now here I sit at the hospital with cancer, and they can't treat it, and not knowing how long I'll be here -- they say could be till spring or longer or shorter, they don't know -- I'm just trying to find some way to get it restored before I pass. I love this car."

Work needed on the car, Shipman wrote, included the following: A cracked front bumper, cracked left tail light cover, failing fuel injector or missing fuel pump, seats ripping at the seams and some minor paint issues.

"I don't want people to think I'm just asking for handouts or anything," he wrote. "I just love that car and being fixed up would just make me feel so good. I don't want to leave not having her mint."

Nick Butze, Detroit Lakes, a longtime friend of Tyler's -- as well as a fellow car enthusiast --said he and Tyler had discussed the car while he was visiting his friend in the hospital.

"He said what he really wanted to do was to finish the restoration," Butze said.

It was shortly after their conversation that Tyler posted his plea on the forum. That short, simple message drew an unexpectedly large response.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Tyler's Project gained more and more momentum, as fellow motorheads from across the U.S. (and even from overseas) came forward to donate parts, advice, and prayers. As the discussion thread for Tyler's project grew, it even gained a website of its own,

"One young man's dream ... one forum's quest," reads the headline at the top of the page.

"When people talk about Tyler Shipman, an 18 year old from Frazee, MN, they describe him as talkative, funny, inventive, and very generous," reads the message on the main page. "No one ever describes him as a young man with cancer. Those who know him, love him. He is an ordinary young man with extraordinary strength, integrity and humility ... Tyler shares a love for the Pontiac Fiero with thousands of people around the world, and this love for this unique little car leads us into this story."

Tyler's project will reach its culmination this weekend, Nov. 21-22, as roughly two dozen car enthusiasts from across the U.S. congregate in Frazee to finish the restoration.

"Most of them are coming on Friday, but a few are coming on Thursday," said Butze. "Then on Friday night we'll go to Billy's Bar in Vergas and have a get-together, to get to know each other.

"We've known each other through the Internet, but we've never met in person," he explained. "Then on Saturday, we'll all get together at the Frazee Auto Body & Glass to finish restoration of the car."

Besides use of the shop, Frazee Auto Body has contributed a full exterior paint job toward the project, and many other local businesses are also making donations as well, Butze noted. A full list of donors is available at the website, which will also be doing a live webcast of the restoration throughout both Saturday and Sunday, he added.

"It's pretty amazing," said Daneele Shipman, noting that many of the people involved in the project are "people we've never met."

But maybe it's just a case of Tyler getting back a little of the support that he's given to others through the years.

"He will help out anyone with anything," said Butze. "He's a real hard working kid."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454