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Taylor's smiles choke up dad
Father hopes she still has plenty of time for fun
By Amy Mack | Daily Herald Staff

Father Jeff, left, Taylor, mother Laurie and brother Blake Radtke enjoy the sea lion show at SeaWorld in San Diego Monday.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Taylor Radtke, left, photographs a beluga whale as brother Blake and mom Laurie take it all in.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Taylor Radtke checks out the polar bears during her SeaWorld visit.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/15/2007 11:59 PM | Updated: 10/16/2007 6:08 AM

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SAN DIEGO -- Watching his daughter grin from ear to ear as she did the "Shamu Slam" at SeaWorld Monday was too much for the usually stoic Jeff Radtke.

The Lake Zurich firefighter turned his back on his family and fought the tears he didn't want them to see.

"It really undid me," he said. "Watching her have such a good time …"

The words stopped as he stifled a sob. "I just hope this isn't the last good time she has."

Another pause.

Earlier Coverage
Taylor Radtke
Seven-year-old Taylor Radtke, diagnosed with a rare tumor that threatens her vision and mobility, needs life-saving surgery that few doctors are willing to perform.
How you can help
DONATE - Donations for Taylor Radtke are being accepted at First Midwest Bank's Johnsburg branch, 3805 N. Johnsburg Road, and McHenry branch, 1308 N. Route 31. Funds raised will be put toward research, travel expenses and medical costs.
SEND A CARD - If you'd like to write the Radtkes a card, please send them courtesy of Amy Mack, Daily Herald, 385 Airport Road, Suite A, Elgin, IL 60123.

"The hardest part right now is just knowing we're going back into the unknown and we don't know what's going to happen," Jeff said. "I don't have a problem dealing with it when I know what we're up against. But not knowing what's going to happen …"

Jeff and his Johnsburg family were at SeaWorld thanks to Taylor's special Make-A-Wish trip, which today will include a return to the San Diego Zoo for a behind-the-scenes visit. But then it's back to the medical reality that has consumed the young family for weeks as they frantically searched to find someone willing to try to remove an unusually located brain tumor from Taylor.

Dr. Robert Spetzler of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix has agreed to try, and the family will meet with him Thursday afternoon. Surgery has tentatively been scheduled for mid-week next week.

The waiting and uncertainty are taking a toll, Laurie agreed. "If I could have had her there last week, I would have," she said.

But they know Taylor's is a unique situation and they're glad the specialist is taking care to put together the best possible plan to remove the clivus meningioma that threatens her vision, mobility and life.

Despite the difficult moments, the respite of Taylor's Make-A-Wish trip has filled them all with joy, Jeff said. "The kids are having a blast. We all are, actually. It's so great that they're able to interact with each other still and just be kids. They don't really have a good idea of what we're going into, and I think it's good we can do this."

That's for sure, Laurie said. "Basically what's nice is we don't have any stress right now. I don't have to worry about calling doctors or if she's going to be OK today or tomorrow.

"I'm watching Taylor experience this, and she's just really happy. It's like she's taking a mental picture of it so she doesn't forget it," Laurie said. "The kids are being kids. It's touching because the next phase is so hard."

The family visited the dolphins and sea lions, whales and more with an occasional break for lunch and cotton candy.

The best part? Taylor at first thought it might be the dolphins, but the Shamu Slam won out. Shamu audiences act like cheerleaders -- another Taylor favorite -- putting their arms out straight and then slapping their hands together to create a whale's tail spurring a great big splash from Shamu. "The whale did a flip. And we got wet," Taylor said with a laugh.

She also liked the polar bears, of course. "They were lazy and one was hunting for fish."

Was it better than her day at the zoo? "No, I like the zoo better," she said. And that was before the little girl who loves animals gets today's behind-the-scenes VIP tour or her special lunch arranged by a close family friend.

Jeff and Laurie said they're treasuring these moments. "I'm trying to stand back and watch her drink it all in," Laurie said. "You're only able to be a kid for a very short time. To have part of that taken away kind of breaks my heart. I can't give that back to her. But at least she has this, and if that gets her through this next storm."

They also continue to treasure the numerous offers of help from friends, family, co-workers and complete strangers. "You read stories like that and you never guess you'd be in the middle of them," Jeff said. "It touches me deeply. I don't know how to express our thanks. It's beyond words."