Choosing to Give: Ty Eschenbaum’s Foundation Brings Hope in the Midst of Loss
for Tri-State Livestock News
At fifteen, Ty Eschenbaum was your typical teenager; he was involved on his family’s ranch and playing football for Lake Preston High School. His parents, Jeff and Jody Eschenbaum, were active partners at Wienk Charolais with Jody’s parents, Arnold and Carol. The couple was busy with the farm and cattle and raising their sons Sterling, Ty, Calder, and Stetson. Ty’s days were filled with chores, school, sports, and more chores on the farm.
Just after his freshman year, some mild symptoms sent him to a doctor for a routine visit. Test results were shattering for the entire Eschenbaum family: Ty had leukemia.
The next two and a half years were spent alternating between chemotherapy and hospital stays.
“At one point mom and I were living at Rochester,” Ty recalled. “It was a pretty ugly two and a half years. I was diagnosed in June after my freshman year and I didn’t finish the last round of chemo till Christmas of my Senior year.”
Ty’s family bore the brunt of his illness with him.
“When someone gets sick, it affects everybody,” he said. “My older brother Sterling pretty much had to take care of the farm, although Grandpa was still there and did a lot. Mom and Dad were so busy taking care of me that Sterling had to step up and fill my dad’s role. He was sixteen when I was diagnosed, and suddenly he wasn’t a high school kid anymore. He was an adult. I think it was hardest on my youngest brother; he was only four when I was diagnosed, so his whole world was turned upside down.”
It was not an easy road for the teenager who would rather have been playing football and basketball.
“Just about everything that could go wrong did,” Ty said. “I got staph infections, I got shingles. I got a fungus in my lungs. I got addicted to pain killers. The chemo destroyed my joints. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to walk out of there.”
For Ty, that was never an option.
“There were a lot of terrible parts of my story, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. “So many good things have come out of it. It would have been pretty easy to ask ‘Why me?’ but I found myself asking, ‘Why not me?’ as I watched all the babies and toddlers going through cancer treatment who couldn’t even tell the doctors where it hurt.”
Even while still undergoing treatment, Ty began speaking to other kids, to groups at schools and churches, sharing his story and encouraging them to persevere in whatever life might throw their way.
“It’s almost like the time before I was diagnosed was a whole different life,” he said. “It was tough. I just wanted to do what every kid my age did. I always identified as an athlete and I couldn’t play sports after the diagnosis. Nothing about that experience was normal. But it gave me a lot of perspective. A lot of humbleness. I learned a lot about getting up again after being knocked down.”
After high school and after cancer, though still battling to achieve healing for his joints damaged by the chemotherapy, Ty attended South Dakota State University. He continued to be a part of Wienk Charolais, managing marketing for the ranch, designing sale catalogs and maintaining the website. After graduation from SDSU, he worked for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture for five years. He continued to speak about his experience with cancer and was always looking for ways to give back to other families fighting the battle he was only too familiar with.
In 2011, Ty started the Ty Eschenbaum Foundation with the purpose of awarding college scholarships to cancer survivors in South Dakota.
“It was pretty small,” he said. “I started it with two hundred fifty dollars.”
It was a way to tell another cancer survivor that someone knew what they had been through, that someone cared and was proud of them.
Finally life seemed to be leveling out. Ty, now a managing partner of A1 Development Solutions, met the love of his life, Autumn Jungwirth. The two had big plans for spending forever together. Plans for marriage, family, children, and growing old with each other.
All those plans came crashing down when Autumn passed away unexpectedly in May of 2019, the result of a blood clot.
In the midst of their grief, Ty and Autumn’s family used her memorial money to create an endowment as part of the Ty Eschenbaum Foundation with the intent to grant a “Make a Wish” trip to a child in South Dakota at least once a year. For forever.
“Taelyn Hettick was our first Make A Wish recipient,” Ty said. “Autumn loved kids, she was deeply committed to her family and faith, and we knew this was what she would have wanted. When we connected with Make a Wish to plan the trip, as soon as I saw pictures of Taelyn, I knew she was the one Autumn had picked.”
Taelyn is a spunky seven year old, the daughter of Chris and Alexis Hettick of Selby, S.D., and little sister to Tray and Taryn. She was diagnosed with a rare liver disease two years ago after a persistent stomach virus sent them to the doctor.
“They noticed that her tummy was distended,” Alexis said. “They were also concerned because her white blood cell count was low, so they sent us to Sioux Falls right away to run tests the next morning.”
The diagnosis, Caroli Disease, meant that Taelyn would need a liver transplant. It also affects her kidneys, so she will likely need a kidney transplant in the future.
“We knew it was scary,” Alexis said, “But I felt that God would get us through, and that we didn’t need to worry, we just needed to pray and trust Him.”
Hetticks felt that the diagnosis came at the right time; Taelyn had not experienced any problems related to her liver issues up to that point but started having recurring infections within a month. She was placed on a transplant list and the family waited.
The call came in April; a liver was waiting. Hetticks traveled to Minneapolis and Taelyn was prepped for surgery.
“They took us aside and told us that Taelyn’s donor was a teen who had brain cancer,” Alexis said. “They told us that there was a risk that Taelyn could get cancer from it. The liver had a spot on it and the doctors biopsied it twice to check for cancer cells. I’m the sort of person who likes to be in charge of all the details, but somehow I was able to trust that God knew better than we knew and just asked Him to take care of it in His way.”
Taelyn’s transplant was successful, though not without complications.
The main artery to her liver ended up forming scar tissue that limited the blood flow. She struggled with some respiratory problems and had to have a bronchial procedure to help her breathe. The family came home June 1, but about a month later Taelyn’s immune system crashed thanks to the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). This necessitated an emergency flight back to Minneapolis followed by IV treatments in Sioux Falls and six months of shots.
“She really doesn’t like needles,” Alexis said.
Thankfully, 2019 has been a little easier for Taelyn and her family, but they pray constantly that the EBV is kept at bay and that her kidneys continue to function well. Even little things like colds and flu bugs pose a big threat, so being able to enjoy ‘normal’ family life is something they don’t take for granted.
Hetticks received a call from the Make A Wish foundation saying that Taelyn had been chosen to receive a trip this fall but didn’t know right away who the donor was.
“God, who are you bringing into our lives now?” Alexis wondered.
Taelyn, a ‘girly girl’ and princess lover, was truly thrilled with her Make a Wish trip to Disney World, and the Hettick family made many special memories that will last them a lifetime. Ty and Taelyn got to meet in person in December at a Hands of Hope event in Miller, SD. Most of Autumn’s family was present also, and the Hettick and Jungwirth families connected on a deep level. Alexis had miscarried Taelyn’s twin early on in her pregnancy; Autumn also had a twin sister, Alicyn.
“Ty and Autumn’s family are amazing,” Alexis said. “It hasn’t even been a year yet since Autumn passed and even in the midst of their grief they are trying to help others. Autumn’s family was so eager to meet us. When I found out that Autumn was a twin, I was overcome with emotion. I could feel God working again like I have so many times since Taelyn was diagnosed. I know that Autumn and Taelyn’s twin are enjoying each other’s company in Heaven, and it fills me with joy.”
The future still holds many medical issues and uncertainties for Taelyn and her family, but they are thankful to have friends, family, and faith to hold on to through her journey with Caroli Disease. Taelyn is currently battling C-Diff bacteria that invaded her digestive tract after a bout with the flu in October, so the family is praying that her body can fight it off with the help of medication before more drastic measures become necessary.
“We trust that God gave her this for a reason,” Alexis said. “She needs to tell her story, that her experience can help bring people to Him.”
Taelyn’s big smile brightens up the world wherever she goes and her caregivers, family, and Ty have all been amazed by her strength and faith.
“Taelyn has no idea how much she means to me,” Ty said. “I am her biggest fan.”