University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

Lessons in a Loss: A Journey Through Friendship, Cancer, and Medical School

Nathaniel B. Verhagen, BS

WMJ. 2023;122(1):7,3.

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During my transition to middle school, my friend Andrew was diagnosed with brain cancer. I recall my parents reassuring me that he would be receiving world-class care at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Ten-year-old kids aren’t supposed to die from cancer I thought, and thankfully, he didn’t. However, the gauntlet of surgery and chemotherapy greatly weakened Andrew. The star athlete, student, and friend became restricted by his debilitating illness, but his optimism and carefree attitude always seemed untouched.

Andrew’s mom recently shared a story about when he finished his first round of chemotherapy that perfectly captures his positive demeanor. She described the great joy in the hospital on the day that Andrew rang the bell, signifying the end of his chemotherapy. However, this moment of relief was quickly replaced by fear as Andrew later developed pneumonia. Andrew’s doctors were concerned that he may not make it through the infection. Visibly upset and stricken with fear, Andrew’s dad entered the hospital room to check on him. This was when Andrew—in his witty, nonchalant manner that everyone loved—asked, “Dad are you really crying? I am going to be fine.” And he was.

As I went on to live out a normal middle and high school experience, Andrew’s cancer recurred, and he was in and out of treatment. His illness kept him from enjoying the milestones kids our age were supposed to, like attending high school graduation. When it came time for me to go off to college, he was pursuing a hopeful clinical trial. We both had dreams of a brighter future.

This year, I started medical school at the same institution where Andrew began his cancer journey nearly 12 years ago. Every time I enter Children’s Hospital, memories of first visiting Andrew’s hospital room flood my mind. When Andrew was first diagnosed, a group of our friends went to visit him in the hospital. We were all given visitor bracelets and went up to his room to find him smiling in his hospital bed. My initial worry of seeing Andrew for the first time since he was diagnosed disintegrated immediately. We began doing what you might expect middle school boys to do–recklessly tossing a ball around his hospital room. His baseball prowess continued to shine through as the ball zipped around the room; however, we were all unable to comprehend the hardship he was enduring. Thinking of these moments with Andrew have added so much purpose to my medical education. He has fueled my passion for cancer research, and during a hectic exam week, the thought of Andrew adds an obvious relevance to my field of study and the patients I hope to care for.

Only when I began learning how to save a life, Andrew finally lost his. After over 10 years of highs and lows, his journey concluded. He had endured two brain surgeries, six port placements, lost his hair six different times, took over 100,000 pills, and boarded 62 flights for a clinical trial in a span of 2 years, while also managing to attend college for five semesters. To this day, I do not think he complained once.

This summer, I was fortunate to conduct research through the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Medical Student Summer Research Program. My research focused on optimizing preoperative care for cancer patients undergoing surgery. While I had always been interested in cancer research, my work took on a whole new meaning. Starting research early in the morning suddenly felt less early and there was an overflow of motivation to continue working into the evening. Dedicating my summer to this research was so abundantly meaningful when the patients I hoped to help became so familiar.

At times I wish I could harness my 10-year-old naivety again; 23-year-olds are not supposed to die from cancer. Only now I know too well they can. Andrew is dearly missed, and as I reflect on his arduous journey, below are a few observations I wish to share and will carry with me throughout my medical career.

First, appreciate the little things in life. The last time I spoke to Andrew, he explained how difficult it was for him to see a world so full of complaints. This is as good of a reason as any to find the positives—no matter how small—in every moment.

Second, we must hold tightly to the things in life we value most. While the world of medicine is unbelievably interesting and engaging, it is only part of our identity. We are sons, mothers, friends, authors, artists, and, above all, humans.

Finally, adversity is inevitable throughout our lives, so I will conclude with the motto Andrew found strength in throughout his journey: Be courageous, stay strong, keep faith.

Acknowledgement: The family of Andrew Wernicke gives their full support and permission to publish this manuscript in his memory and hopes his story inspires the readers of WMJ. More information about Andrew and the Andrew Wernicke Courage Foundation can be found at
Funding/Support: None declared.
Financial Disclosures: None declared.
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