By ZEINAB NAJM
TAYLOR — Support for Taylor Parks Elementary School teacher Derek Kaunelis is poring in from the community after the news of his stage 4 gastric cancer.
He teaches a fourth- and firth-grade split class that he had to leave following his diagnosis.
Kaunelis is currently in Texas where he went to seek treatment options at MD Anderson Cancer Center for his cancer which has metastasized to the bones.
A GoFundMe page has raised $50,175 of its $60,000 goal as of March 18. Funds collected will be used for travel between Michigan and Texas and to care for the Kaunelis’ family.
His wife, Tina Kaunelis, is still working her job as a nurse at a hospital in Michigan taking vacation days to spend time with her husband, but with limited paid days, future time off requested will be unpaid so the funds raised also will help with day-to-day needs.
The couple has two children, Brianna, 16, and Dominick, 13.
To donate go to www.gofundme.com/f/the-kaunelis-family. Stacey Warren, a close friend of Derek Kaunelis, started the page and has been posting updates from the couple keeping the community in the loop.
Warren wrote that Derek Kaunelis’ cancer is a very aggressive form without a cure available. Without treatment he has been given less than three months to live, but with treatment, the doctors at Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital said that time could be extended to one to three years.
Due to his prognosis and the amount of treatment required, Derek Kaunelis had to take a leave of absence from teaching at the elementary school.
According to the fundraiser, the couple was waiting on health insurance approval for chemotherapy and radiation treatment to begin at Saint Joseph when they decided to explore additional treatment options which led them to Texas.
“They have only just begun researching other major cancer centers in the country that may offer different treatment options, clinical trials, or any little bit of hope,” Warren wrote on the GoFundMe page. “We live in a great country with some of the world’s best medical staff available.
“However, we all know how travel expenses can start to add up quickly. It would be a shame for Derek to miss out on an opportunity that one of these hospitals offered.”
The diagnosis came in February after Derek Kaunelis went to the emergency room for COVID-19 symptoms which resulted in a positive test result but also the cancer diagnosis.
His first day at MD Anderson Hospital revealed that he had a had tongue deviation over a week ago, he has a lesion on his brain stem affecting the hypoglossal nerve. Emergency radiation treatment had to be done to the impacted area.
“Thank you to our GoFundMe donators for making this easier on us,” Tina Kaunelis wrote in a March 10 update. “Derek has been stressed about the toll this will take on our finances, but when I updated him on the progress, I could tell he was relieved.”
On March 12, she said hey met with her husband’s lead radiation doctor where the couple learned Derek Kaunelis’ “tongue may never go back to normal and he may be left with issues such as speech and swallowing, however, previous radiation treatments are continuing to heal his body,” she wrote.
His team of doctors said they believe chemotherapy is the best first line option for him so his chemo port was placed in his chest. Derek Kaunelis will be able to receive chemo in Michigan and then go to Texas for scans and oncology appointments about every two months.
“One of the big reasons we came to Houston was because MD Anderson offers the best of the best including multiple trials,” Tina Kaunelis posted. “According to current test results, Derek is not currently a candidate for immunotherapy, but they are awaiting a more sensitive and specialized test to see if Herceptin can be added to his Folfox chemotherapy regimen. If this test comes back conclusive, we will look at other options.”
In addition to the GoFundMe page, Taylor Councilwoman Caroline Patts said an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner fundraiser is planned for April 9 for the Kaunelis family. The fundraiser will be held from 12:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Taylor Masonic Center, 23263 Goddard Road. Admission is $10.
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected].)