ICB in the News

Dec. 8, 2014
Sister and friend shave heads for brother who died of brain cancer Monday
David Sharos

Former Naperville North High School student Michael Gustafson didn’t live long, but the courageous and upbeat youngster, who succumbed to brain cancer Jan. 6, 2013, continues to live on in a powerful way.

Nov. 16 would have been Michael’s 17th birthday. To mark the event, his twin sister Bridget and friend Kira Couch elected to have their heads shaved at the Gustafson’s home in Woodridge to raise money and awareness for pediatric brain cancer and support the foundation Michael helped start before his death.

“The Swifty Foundation was something both Michael and our family feel very passionate about, as there is really no money spent on pediatric brain cancer,” Michael’s mother Patti Gustafson said. “The facts are there is more money spent each year developing potato chips than there is on research for this. A lot of the medications are 30 and 40 years old, and all they do is radiate these kids at a time when their brains are still developing.

“We told Michael we’d take all the money for his college education or inheritance one day and use it for this.”

Using social media, the Gustafsons, led by Bridget, attracted a swarm of more than 75 kids and adults to their house Nov. 16 where they were treated to pizza and snacks throughout the afternoon as both girls began having their locks shorn about 1:30. The “barber” was a special guest — Bridget and Michael’s older brother Ian, 20, a sophomore at John Hopkins University, who was secretly flown in by his parents.

“Bridget asked me if we could fly Ian home to shave my head, and I asked her, ‘What was the point?’ when he was coming home a few days later for Thanksgiving,” Patti confessed. “I hated lying to her, but we had to keep this a surprise.”

Ian arrived the day before and said he waited in the kitchen for his sister to return home. He said he learned about a month ago that his parents were going to fly him back and that, when Bridget saw him, “she really lit up.”

“It’s so exciting that we can all be together, and I know Michael is watching this and is proud of what we’re doing,” Ian said. “I cut my own hair at school to save some money, but I’m only going to cut my sister’s ponytail off. We have a professional here to do the rest, because I don’t want to mess this up.”

The girls’ goal was to raise $6,000 from the Going Bald event, but totals Nov. 16 far eclipsed that. Since announcing the event, Bridget posted on Facebook she had upped her goal to $11,000, and Kira pledged she would try to raise $5,000. By Nov. 16, the combined total was about $27,000.

Patti Gustafson said money has been pouring in from a number of groups from Michael’s former school.

“The senior board donated $500, and The Link Crew, a group that mentors incoming freshmen, hosted an event called the Huskie Helping Hats where kids paid a set amount and got to wear a hat for a day in school,” she said. “The boys’ golf team, which Michael was a member of, have an MG stitched on their golf shirt uniforms and are collecting donations. There are other events in the planning stage, including a possible Reindeer Run with the girls’ cross country team.”

Bridget expressed both excitement and some trepidation Nov. 16 as she took her last shower that included washing her hair.

“For girls, their hair is one of the top three things they think about in terms of their appearance, and I’m both confused and excited about doing this,” she said. “Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to know how people like Michael felt without hair, and having people look at you wondering why you look that way. On the other hand, my showers are going to be a lot shorter in the morning as well as the time it takes to get ready for school.”

Both girls received lots of encouragement from the crowd as their locks began to fall. Couch said kids are particularly touched when one of their own passes away.

“When tragedy strikes, people come together because this isn’t something that is supposed to happen to people as young as us,” she said.

Kyle Crement, a senior at Naperville North who is part of a youth church group Bridget attends, said Michael inspired people and that “there is always a bright side when things look dark.”

“We realize that all prayers aren’t answered in the way we want, but to have something like this is probably even greater than we would have prayed for,” he said.

The Gustafsons miss their son but are convinced he remains with them in a different realm.

“There have been so many moments since Michael died that we feel and know he is with us, and would be very proud of the things that have happened,” Patti said. “I remember before he died he said that he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up, but since he could never become one, he elected to give his body to science so that it could help other kids not have to experience what he went through.

“When he made that decision, it gave his short life a purpose, and it freed him.”

Al Gustafson, Michael's father is a current and original External Board member, and former chairperson for the Institute of Bioethics. He was and continues to be instrumental in our development and direction that has been key to our success. Al is also a major donor of our continued research effort, he along with his sister donated $100,000 to a grant, The Allen and Dolores Gustafson Distinguished Research Fellows Program in the name of thier parents. Peter A. Clark, S.J., Director of the Institute of Bioethics also serves on the Gustafson Board and is a long time close friend of both Al and his wife Patti as well as the family. Recently a fund has been established for Michael called the Swifty Foundation, in hope to provide help for other children.