How a teen cancer patient in Colorado nourished his spirit on a hospital helipad

Luke Heupel of Montana thought his cough was COVID. It took several trips to the doctor to get the correct diagnosis.

Josh Heupel plays trumpet on the helipad of Colorado Children's Hospital. (Courtesy of Colorado Children's Hospital).

A version of this story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan.

Luke Heupel of Kalispell may be the only person in Montana who wishes he had COVID-19.

Originally, he thought he contracted the pandemic virus right after his high school graduation. Even during the odd summer of 2020, he was busy preparing to make his way to Bozeman to study agronomy at Montana State University when classes started in the fall. His senior year had already been disrupted by the disease, and so he thought his summer may be, too, as he went to work, only to come down with a cough and feeling sluggish.

COVID, right?

At first, he quarantined. But the tests showed he was negative.

The cough didn’t leave, and he felt more and more tired.

The next trip to the doctor brought some antibiotics for a possible infection.

Those didn’t do much either.

“I kept going back and saying, ‘It didn’t work,’” Heupel said.

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Finally, after several trips to the same-day care clinic, he was barely able to walk, and he was having a hard time catching his breath.

“Something’s really wrong,” he remembered thinking.

When he went back to the same clinic, doctors shipped him to the emergency room, where they ran tests and blood work, only to find out that something more than COVID was wrong. A few hours later, an emergency room physician delivered the news: He had leukemia.

“Your life flips upside down,” Heupel said. “The doctor said a lot of words, and then he said the word ‘leukemia’ and everything just stopped. My life didn’t really flash before my eyes — everything I was getting ready to do flashed. I had just graduated from high school.”

A few days later, after more testing, he got more news.

“If you had to choose a terrible disease, the doctor said, this is the one to pick because about 90 percent of people survive,” Heupel said.

“The doctor said a lot of words, and then he said the word ‘leukemia’ and everything just stopped.”Luke Heupel

Within a week, he was heading to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora to undergo treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. His plans for college canceled, and his attention turned toward survival.

The treatment course would last nearly a half-year — in a place a long way from his home in Flathead County. While his friends would be heading to college or participating in Zoom classes, he would be undergoing chemotherapy. Five rounds of chemo, for 20 doses total. The pattern wore on him. He’d get to feeling a bit better, only to be hit with more drugs.

“I didn’t get any of the side effects super bad, but I got all of them somewhat,” Heupel said. “But I was nauseous.”

Part of dealing with the chemo and the disease was finding something to do to keep his mind occupied. He loved music, and part of his life had been playing the trumpet — something he started in sixth grade. He began playing the instrument because his father had played it, and, well, they still had his dad’s old trumpet. Heupel had taken an early interest in the instrument and turned it into success, making the Montana All State Band twice and the All Northwest Band in Portland. He had been gearing up to play in MSU’s “Spirit of the West” band, and he had a scholarship.

But playing a trumpet in a hospital is pretty hard to do.

That didn’t stop one of his nurses, Kiley Jurta, from looking for places where he could play and not disturb other families and patients.

“It is impossible not to notice the importance of music to Luke,” Jurta said in an interview with the Daily Montanan.

He had a guitar, trumpet and music in the room.

At first he used a bell silencer, which allowed him to practice the trumpet without being heard. However, playing a trumpet with the device was a lot like putting a lid on a jar.

“It added a lot of backpressure,” Heupel said.

And breathing wasn’t always easy, especially when fighting the effects of the chemotherapy.

“I just wanted to play without it,” he said.

Jurta saw how difficult the extra energy could be to muster during chemo. So she started exploring places he could play.

“Oh my god, we have to find a place for him to blast his trumpet,” Jurta said.

The first place wasn’t so successful.

“We went into a lead-lined radiation room. We thought that would be good,” Heupel said. “It wasn’t very sound proof because when I came out every one was saying, ‘You sounded really good.’”

Jurta thought it was better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.

“My assumption was that because the room was lead lined, it was sound proof,” she said.

She went outside of the room while he played and the music was pretty clear.

A fellow nurse asked her, “Do you hear that?”

“I’m like, ‘I’m so busted,’” Jurta said.

That set her on a new mission: To find the perfect place where Heupel could just play and not have to worry about disturbing others. Jurta’s years of experience taught her that nourishing the spirit was just as important as the drugs to fight the disease.

“He needs this,” Jurta remembers telling her supervisor, who agreed. “This is something we have to keep positive for him.”

The next venue was a conference room, which worked well since no patient rooms were close. But, conference rooms were often used, and some people walking by would stop and stare in.

Finally, Jurta and Heupel settled on the helicopter landing pad.

“You can just see all the buildings around, and it feels like the sound went farther,” Heupel said. “I remember parents on the floor, and one of the fathers who was outside on the ground at the time said he could hear me.”

Heupel played “The Carnival of Venice” and “The Debutante” when he was on the roof.

Those moments helped him feel normal again, not confined to a hospital, where he spent from July 13, 2020, to Jan. 22, 2021.

“It was so awesome. I wasn’t taking care of him that day, but the nurse who was came to get me and said, ‘Dude, it’s helipad day,’” she said. “We went up and it was so fun sharing that with Luke and flight nurses sharing that with him.”

When he left Colorado Children’s Hospital, all the nurses and staff received handwritten thank-you notes from him. Getting to know Heupel was part of why Jurta said she loves her job.

“We get the gift and blessing of meeting some amazing and incredible kids,” Jurta said. “That was the least I could do is go have fun and give him some sense of normalcy.”

For now, the results look promising. Huepel is waiting for his immune system to recover, which typically takes about six months. He’s once again looking forward to Bozeman, just a year delayed. That’s not to say he didn’t receive an education, though.

“It changes the way you look at the world,” Heupel said. “Suddenly the little problems don’t seem like problems. It makes you appreciate right now. You have to appreciate how precious life is.”

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