When Lemont resident Katie Barto steps over the edge 278 feet above Chicago's State and Lake Streets on Sunday, she’ll be thinking of her mother, grandmother and grandfather, all of whom lost their lives to lung disease.
Barto, 32, is rappelling 27 stories down theWit Hotel for Skyline Plunge! Chicago, an event hosted by the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago to raise money for local lung disease research and educational programs.
“I think it’s important that education about lung disease is out there and that people are able to get help when they are diagnosed,” Barto said. “Whether a person needs more information or a better doctor, we need to support an organization that is doing so much.”
Barto's mother, Louise Wegner, was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 2006. Wegner had gone to the emergency room to treat a migraine when doctors found that she had stage 4 cancer that had metastasized, or spread, to her brain and lymph nodes.
The diagnosis came soon after she quit smoking, and it changed every aspect of her and her family members’ lives.
“Because of her medicine and cancer, my mother had small seizures so she couldn’t drive anymore,” Barto said. “She worked as a health clerk in our local school district, but she couldn’t do that anymore, either. I think she felt as if she no longer had a purpose.
“My mom was someone who would wake up at 5 a.m. just to write lists for stuff she had to do that day or the next or even next Christmas,” Barto continued. “What people don’t realize is that once a person has cancer, sometimes it takes over their life. All my mother could do is talk about it, talk about treatments, think about treatments, feel sick from treatments, etc.”
For nearly two years, Barto and other family members helped her father, Gary Wegner, take care of his wife. In August of 2007, Louise began hospice care at home.
She died in October of 2008.
Since her mother’s death, Barto has participated in lung health fundraisers in her memory, as well in memory of other family members.
In 1999, her grandfather passed away from emphysema, a lung disease that causes difficulty breathing due to lung damage (he was also a lung cancer survivor). Her grandmother passed away earlier this year from complications involving chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that causes difficulty breathing and shortness of breath due to lung damage and airflow blockage.
Their passing has driven Barto to become active in fundraising for others who may go through the same thing. She participated in the annual Hustle Up the Hancock—a 94-story climb up the John Hancock building—several years in a row, and this year decided to try the Skyline Plunge! Chicago for the first time.
"I had shoulder surgery that has kept me from participating in the past, so I'm excited to finally do it," she said. "I'm slightly scared of heights, but I'm the type of person who does things to overcome my fears. Once I set my mind to something, there's no turning back."
So far, Barto has raised about $1,300 for Skyline Plunge, surpassing her personal goal of $1,000.
“I have many friends who donate to this cause, and I know it’s because I’m not the only person who’s been affected by lung disease,” Barto said. “I’m doing the Plunge for my family, and all of their families, too.”
Barto has lived in Lemont since 2008 with her husband, Kevin. She works as a dentist in the southwest suburbs, and works for a school health program for underprivileged kids.
Volunteering has also become a big part of Barto's life. Last year she participated in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day fundraising walk for breast cancer. She also hopes to continue participating in events for the Respiratory Health Association in the future.
"I enjoy doing those types of things where I'm raising money or donating my time," she said. "I think it's been therapeutic for me to turn my loss into something positive."
To support Barto in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, go to www.lungchicago.org/katiebarto.
Editor's note: Information in this article was supplied by the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.
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