Ironman and former FLEET FEET employee Luke Hofmann sits on the edge of the hospital bed, Xbox controller in hand. Across from him a young boy, eyes focused and bright with competition, head smooth and hairless from chemotherapy, also holds a controller. The twelve-year-old talks smack as he maneuvers his quarterback across the screen. He’s good—at both the game and the trash talking—and he lets Luke know it in no uncertain terms. The spirited banter goes on a few minutes more before Luke stands up, relinquishing the controller (but only until next time) before making his way down the hall to the next room. There he greets another youngster, who also sports the shiny head indicative of a full-fledged counteroffensive against cancer. Luke conducts the routine assessments before hanging a bag of chemo next to the bed and hooking up the long thin tube that leads from the bag to a port implanted under his young patient’s skin. Then it is on to the next room for more checkups, more chemo, more blood transfusions, more anti-nausea medicine—but not before he’s challenged to a game of hallway hockey or he finds himself an unsuspecting adversary in a makeshift battlefield (needle-less syringes make excellent water guns).
On 9 West, the pediatric hematology and oncology unit at St Louis Children’s Hospital, the harsh realities of cancer fuse with the boundless tenacity and guileless optimism of childhood. It is not so much a reconciliation as it is a coexistence, one that is uniquely inspiring, unspeakably difficult, and not without tension. There, some of life’s darkest hours are met with restored faith and incorrigible hope, and tears collide with moments of lighthearted mischief and laughter. On 9 West, kids with cancer can still be kids.
And Luke is devoted to keeping it that way.
The name Luke Hofmann may seem familiar to a lot of people in the FLEET FEET community, and with good reason. For over five years, Luke wore a collection of hats for the store, from sales to inventory to store manager. And while now his hours are filled as a nurse in the pediatric oncology department at Children’s, he still finds time to orchestrate FLEET FEET’s annual Nike XC Kickoff and help with race timing.
A St. Louis native, Luke ran four years of cross country at Chaminade before heading to St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, where he majored in biology and logged another four years of running, including indoor and outdoor track. After graduation, he planned on going to medical school; however, he was soon intrigued by another path.
“I decided I wanted to go to nursing school. I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field,” he explains. “The medical field had always interested me because I enjoyed helping others. The idea of nursing was more hands-on with the patients. You’re dealing with the patients on a real, daily level.”
Shortly after returning to St. Louis, Luke fell into the sport of triathlon. It was a passion born of both the love of sport and simple necessity.
“I have bad shins due to bone density issues that my family has,” he explains. “I got a bone scan in college that showed three stress fractures I’d been running on for a long time. After college, I looked for something I could do that would take impact off my legs. I enjoyed watching cycling, so I got a bike, and it just worked its way into triathlon.”
In the summer of 2005, Luke signed up for the Olympic-distance triathlon in Lake St. Louis. He trained on his own, making up his training plan as he went. At least, he had two of the three disciplines covered.
“I could barely swim,” he laughs. “I stood on the shore—before my first open water swim—I stood on the shore for about half an hour, and then I just went home.”
But he somehow managed to survive, completing Lake St. Louis with success, open water and all.
“Once I did my first triathlon, I set [a full Ironman] as a long-term goal,” he says. “Ironman was a lofty goal, and I wanted to do it.”
The week after completing Lake St. Louis, he interviewed for a job at FLEET FEET. It was there that he met Katie and Brian Schoenholz, an endurance sport power couple with thirteen full Ironmans between them. Luke began training with them. He raced two half Ironmans in 2006—Racine 70.3 and Rockman 70.3—returning to Rockman the following year. In 2007, he completed Ironman Wisconsin.
Ironman Wisconsin also proved to be a 140.6-mile kickoff to nursing school, which literally began the day of Luke’s race. (“I missed my very first clinical because it was the day of the Ironman,” he says.) For the next two and a half years, Luke worked full-time at FLEET FEET while attending night and weekend classes at Maryville University. When he did his first pediatric clinicals at Children’s Hospital, he knew he had found his calling.
“There is that attention to caring for the child and the whole family,” he says. “At some hospitals, you take care of the patient and you’re done. But at Children’s, you are invested in taking care of the patient’s well-being instead of just clocking in and clocking out. The organization as a whole is built that way. I want to care about my job. I want to be invested in it. Taking care of kids… you have to do that.”
Luke’s graduation from nursing school also marked the end of his five-year tenure at FLEET FEET. He has now been at Children’s for over three years. Luke has helped many kids—his “buddies,” as he calls them—through both traditional cancer-fighting methods and those that are less tangible. Trash talking over a game of Madden on Xbox. A syringe water gun fight. Hallway hockey. And even a few (harmless) practical jokes on the other nurses. Yes, some days are very difficult. Some are devastating. Such is par for the course when it comes to childhood cancer. But for Luke, helping others isn’t about what’s easy.
“It’s all about the kids. The perseverance and the ability to roll with the punches that kids have. They’re more genuine. They don’t hide emotions. Their determination is unique… they’re just very genuine.
“I think of it this way: The other day, I was slightly sick and felt under the weather and just kind of achy. I thought it was the worst thing ever. My day was ruined. But the reality of it is that these kids deal with that every single day, all the time. They constantly have fevers, they constantly have headaches, they are constantly nauseated. It puts things into perspective. My ‘worst day’ can be a decent day for them health-wise.
“It all comes from the kids. They’re more genuine, so when I hear kids call me their buddy or they ask for me to be their nurse—when they say they like you—it means so much more.” He pauses. “That’s always rewarding.”
Wanna join Luke in the fight against childhood cancer? Luke is shaving his head to raise money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a volunteer-driven charity devoted to funding research to cure childhood cancers. Of all the funds raised for cancer research by charities, only one penny of every dollar goes to pediatric cancer research. St. Baldrick’s is 100% devoted to pediatric cancer research.