He missed giving his wife Christmas gifts, so he now gives them to others battling cancer

Stephanie Farr | (TNS) The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — As Chris Rotz was decorating for Christmas in 2015, he thought of his wife, Kathleen, the woman he knew he was meant to be with when they met for the first time at Doc Watson’s Pub more than 30 years ago.

She loved this time of year. They had loved this time of year.

But Christmases were different now. That Christmas was the second without Kathleen but Rotz still couldn’t shake this deep longing to give his wife a gift, to show her how much she meant to him, and how she always will.

“It was like ‘I miss you, what do you want me to do?’” he said. “And I thought ‘If I can’t buy you something for Christmas, I’ll do something for you.’”

Rotz thought about what their family of five had gone through in the two years Kathleen, a non-smoker, battled stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, and about the care and compassion they received at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.

He knew other families that Christmas who were going through what they had endured.

“I thought, maybe I’d give her gift to them,” he said.

And so, Rotz donated $1,000 to a family chosen by the staff at Abramson that Christmas.

“I didn’t know the recipient, but everybody at the hospital let me know how much it meant,” he said.

Rotz, 62, tried to keep his good deed quiet, but when his children — Megan, 36, Kaitlan, 33, and Christopher Jr., 30 — caught wind, they convinced him to make it an annual event under the charity the family had already created, the Kathleen M. Rotz Lung Cancer Research Fund.

Now in its seventh year, the Rotzes’ Believe in the Magic of Santa event has fulfilled the wish lists of dozens of patients and their families at Abramson, from buying major household appliances to finding people permanent housing. Often, the donors and volunteers go above and beyond to grant wishes in unique and unexpected ways.

In 2017, a patient named Syeta asked for an American Girl doll for her 9-year-old daughter, Randi. What she and her daughter received was a limo ride to New York City and a trip to the American Girl store, where Randi customized her own doll. They were then treated to a performance of the Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas Show, dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, and an overnight hotel stay.

A former Penn Medicine staffer who nominated Rotz for this profile said: “I can basically count on my fingers and toes the number of times I have cried in my adult life, and probably half of them were being there as Chris gave these gifts and seeing the impact they clearly had on the people receiving them.”

Rotz, a Tacony native and certified public accountant, met Kathleen through a friend in 1982. They married three years later and moved to Warminster, then Doylestown, where they raised their three children.

“From Doc Watson’s forward, we both just felt it was somehow meant to be. It was an inseparable bond,” Rotz said.

In 2012, Kathleen was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, which had metastasized to her brain.

“We cried our eyes out when she was first diagnosed for two solid days,” Rotz said. “Then, we made a pact that we wouldn’t let cancer beat us and we’d get up and live every day like we normally would.”

They didn’t know it at the time, but Kathleen’s life expectancy was five to seven months. She fought for 25 months before her death in 2014.

In her memory, Rotz and his family started the the Kathleen M. Rotz Lung Cancer Research Fund, which has raised nearly $480,000 for lung cancer research since 2015.

Donations for the Believe in the Magic of Santa event are raised separately from the research funds. Some donors take on an entire family’s wish list, while others donate gift cards for things like food, transportation to treatments, or childcare.

“It’s not a big nonprofit. It’s just a lot of good people teaming together,” Rotz said.

Before the pandemic, the event raised nearly $30,000 annually and fulfilled up to 18 families’ wish lists, but in the wake of COVID-19, donations slowed. The fund is granting three families’ wishes this year.

Recipients are nominated by the care team at Abramson, and it’s the job of Kayla Hilliard, a hematology-oncology social worker there, to gather recipients’ wish lists. She tells them the story about Rotz and his wife. Then, she asks them to list their biggest wishes.

“I always tell people go big, think big, put down your wildest dreams. We don’t know if it will be fulfilled, but it never hurts to ask,” she said. “But every year it is fulfilled. Every year I say keep your expectations low, and every year they are met or surpassed.”

On the day of the event (Dec. 21 this year), the Rotz family brings red-and-green tubs of wrapped gifts to Abramson. The clinic is shut down and recipients and their families are brought into exam rooms, where they are given the gifts.

“It’s one of my favorite days of the year,” Hilliard said. “These exam rooms are places where people get the worst news of their lives, and to transform these spaces into a place of joy for just an hour is beautiful.”

Last year, a patient named Patricia told Hilliard her greatest wish was one that couldn’t be bought in a store.

“She said ‘Kayla, I don’t want stuff. I know I’m dying. I want more time with my son. That’s what I want for Christmas, to make memories with him,’” Hilliard said.

Knowing that Patricia and her adult son, Andrew, shared a special love of “The Lion King,” Hilliard discussed the patient’s wish with Rotz. He got them a limo trip to New York City, tickets to see the show on Broadway, put them up at a five-star hotel, and covered all their meals.

In a video of Rotz presenting the gift, Andrew says, “When is the last time we did something like this?” and his mother answers, “Never.”

For Rotz, it’s a memory that will never leave him.

“There’s no better Christmas present for me than to see their faces and how happy it is making them,” he said. “I’ll never forget that moment. I didn’t find out until sometime after that she passed away.”

Some of the recipients have died, but the joyful memories Rotz, the donors, and the staff at Abramson helped them create amid the darkest of times, live on in their loved ones.

And what would Kathleen, a fairly private woman, think of the holiday event held in her name?

“I know she’s smiling, I know she’s incredibly happy, and I know that on any given day she’d want to do the exact same thing,” Rotz said.

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For more information on the foundation, visit believeinthelungs.com.


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