After 17 years as a firefighter and paramedic, Jeff Otte of Shorewood Illinois had seen his fair share of tragedy, but nothing would prepare him for the day when doctors told him that his 8-year-old son Brandon had cancer.
“I was just in shock,” Otte tells me. “I cried for hours. I was on duty when I found out he needed brain surgery and chemotherapy.”
Diagnosed with LCH-Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, a type of cancer that causes white blood cells to build up and form tumors in the body, Otte knew that his family was in for the fight of their lives; a fight to save the life of Brandon.
But sadly, the father of seven soon found out that he would be in this fight alone — because just four days before Brandon was scheduled for brain surgery to remove a tumor from his skull, his wife packed her bags and left. Abandoning Brandon in his fight, she left Otte as the sole caretaker to the couple’s seven children, several of whom have varying degrees of special needs, including their second youngest son who has autism and is nonverbal.
In an instant, Otte’s world collapsed.
But, standing by the age-old firefighting motto of doing “whatever it takes,” this dedicated dad has done exactly that to keep his family intact, and his son alive.
Now a year later, his soon-to-be ex wife has no contact with the couple’s children, and Otte is left trying to navigate not only the tough world of single parenting, but also the rough path of raising special needs children. With health insurance being a top priority in the safety and survival of his children, Otte has done everything and anything necessary to keep his job — and in turn his health benefits — even though it entails a schedule where he is often gone for 24 hours straight. With his only family support system being his sister Cindy, who has had two brain surgeries for aneurysms and recently underwent a double mastectomy for cancer, Otte has been just barely staying afloat.
“Finding childcare is the hardest part,” sighs Otte. “Everyone says they want to help, but they all have their own things going on. In fact, I am scheduled to work overnight Christmas Eve, until 8 AM Christmas morning, and I really have no idea how I am going to find childcare on a holiday, for seven children. Even if I can find one person, one isn’t enough for seven kids, especially with special needs.”
And although this Christmas I myself am fortunate to have the day off, I can honestly say that I know what Jeff is going through. Four years ago, after the diagnosis of a potentially fatal genetic disorder in my daughter, my own husband walked out the door and never came home; leaving me as a single mother to a sick 3-year-old and our 7-month-old son.
To this day, he has never once had any contact with our children.
But even though this year has been a struggle, Otte is the first to gush over the amazing kindness and support he’s been shown by his community.
“Everyone from the teachers, to the bus driver, to a woman named Casey at the park district has done something to help our family,” he says, but in his voice I can hear a sadness that I myself know all too well.
“It’s the little things,” says Otte, of his daily struggles. “The things that you don’t want to ask anyone to do for you, but you are drowning in day to day. The laundry that piles up and you can’t find a free second to tackle it, the carpets that desperately need to be vacuumed, and the groceries you never have time to buy. Work and doctor appointments and kids come first, and everything else falls to the wayside when you are in survival mode.”
“It’s how you explain to your kids that their other parent chose to leave,” I say, before hearing Otte’s weary voice agree with me.
“They ask about Mommy all the time and it’s so hard,” he says. “I just say she’s sick. I don’t want to bash her or put her down in front of the kids, but it’s tough to know what to say.”
Otte’s divorce is now nearly finalized, but his struggle remains far from over. “I’m so used to being the one to help everyone else, that being on the other side, it’s … it’s … ” he says before his voice trails off and I finish his sentence with “humbling.”
“Yes, yes it definitely is,” he laughs.
“People say they want to help,” I tell him, “and I know that they do, but how do you ask someone to do your laundry because you haven’t had time in weeks?”
He replies with a resounding “YES,” and we joke that finding a way to pay for light housekeeping would be a dream come true (and I know the mess my two kids make, so I can’t imagine trying to keep up with the chaos seven kids would create!).
But in reality, Otte has dedicated his life to saving the lives of others, his own son included, and now that he is struggling, it’s further heartbreaking to know his own wife has willingly walked away.
“Everyone tells me that someday my kids will thank me for all I’ve done for them,” I tell him, “but when you are stuck in the moment and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you feel like what you really need, is some help to make it through today.”
“Absolutely,” Otte agrees. “It’s so much, and I need so much help and I don’t even begin to know where to find it, and I just need to make it through today.”
I won’t pretend to truly know what this dad is going through on a daily basis, but I do know that what he needs today is childcare, help around his house, and the knowledge that after all he has done to save others, that in his time of need, people will step up and help save him.
These kids will be OK, and their family will be alright, because despite cancer, despite a mother who gave up and walked away, they have Jeff. They have a dad who is committed to waking up every morning, and doing whatever it takes.
If you would like to help Jeff, his son Brandon, and his six other children, please visit his GoFundMe page, and follow his family’s story on Facebook.More On