2014 Father of the Year: Optimist, caregiver Dolch
By Jude Rude, Senior Writer, Golfweek
Published: Friday, June 13, 2014
Life throws daily curves, sometimes nasty ones. The color of your sky can change instantly. Craig Dolch knows this, clearly, painfully. Nine years ago, he was reporting at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst when 14-year-old son Eric called and wished him Happy Father's Day. They talked for about five minutes.
"Looking back, I wish I had talked with him for hours," says the 55-year-old Dolch, a respected sports journalist who worked 26 years for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post. "I never thought when I hung up that phone what could happen."
What happened is they have not conversed since. Eric has not talked or walked since. The next morning, Dolch's teenage daughter, Alex, called and said, "Dad, doctors think Eric has encephalitis."A couple of days of headaches for a healthy boy had led to fever, to incoherence, to a Monday trip to an emergency room, to diagnosis of the rare neurological disorder that inflames the brain.
Soon after came a medically induced coma, one lasting 115 days, to control seizures that would flare up to 40 times monthly. There were 14 months in hospitals in Boston and Miami. And two 10-hour-plus brain surgeries. And several near-death experiences. And medical bills exceeding $5 million, at least $1 million out of the pocket of Dolch and wife Ava Van de Water. And too many tears. And endless love and care.
Today, Eric is communicating nonverbally and progressing slowly at a group home in Loxahatchee, Fla. He has been there since October after seven years of home care. Dolch says his son has made more progress during the past six months than in the previous three years. But the same questions remain. No one knows what caused this or what Eric is thinking or what the prognosis is.
"The heart-wrenching part is, it's been nine years and I can't tell you how he feels," Dolch says. "Is he in pain? What goes through his brain? What is his daily life in there like? I wish at some point he'say, 'Dad, what the hell happened?'"
The rock throughout the ordeal has been Dolch. He has made managing Eric's care, A to Z, his full-time job. He has fought with insurance companies and has spread optimism. He has been the impetus behind the Eric Dolch Children's Encephalitis Foundation, aimed at finding an encephalitis cure and assisting stricken kids. Van de Water says she feels "blessed" Dolch has been willing and able with a flexible schedule to handle so much.
"Early on one of the doctors told me that a lot of men would have just walked away," she says. "They recognized Craig was special."
Golfweek feels the same way. Tha's why Dolch is a clear choice as our 2014 Father of the Year. He will be honored June 14 during Golfweek's 32nd annual Father & Son Open, at Streamsong (Fla.) Resort.
Dolch says the award is "humbling" and "bittersweet,"the latter because not being chosen would translate to his son being healthy. He also knows he can help others with foundation work and with his messages. So while this is a tearjerker story, it's also an inspiring one.
"You can't choose what happens in life, only how you choose to deal with it," he says. "I didn't want to become bitter. I didn't want to look at kids on the playground and ask why. Maybe the reason this happened is so we could start a foundation."
Dolch says Eric came close to dying about six times during the first six weeks. He looks back and says, "God did his part to keep him alive, and now we're doing our part to give him as good of a life as possible. His fight inspires me. When I see how he tries, with things like trying to sit up, how can I not do the same?
"At the end of the day, nobody cares about how much money you make. The most important thing is your relationship with your kids."
Early on, Dolch became adept at crying a river and then "acting like nothing happened"when talking with someone soon after. He would play basketball to combat stress but also so no one could tell he was crying in the midst of the sweat. But he doesn't cry in front of Eric because he doesn't want his son to feel that emotion.
Eric gives nonverbal cues that identify mood. He breathes harder when upset. It's clear he loves hamburgers and pizza because he devours them. He perks up upon hearing the Johnny Cash music he loved as a teenager. He becomes energized when dad takes him to a weekly swim class.
"It's like he becomes another person in the pool," Dolch says. "He makes noises like he's trying to speak. He becomes content and relaxed. It's like it gives him a little life."
That Dolch celebrates every little bit of progress hardly surprises the Rev. David McEntire, a Methodist minister and Craig and Ava's next-door neighbor in West Palm Beach for two years until 2007. McEntire talks of Dolch's positive nature and tenacity.
"Many people would have been frustrated and discouraged to the point of losing hope," says McEntire, now in Lakeland. "But Craig was determined his son would achieve the best outcome."
McEntire marvels at a scene during a hurricane one year. He recalls high wind "ripping roofs off neighbors' houses." During that chaos, Dolch and Alex safely made their way to McEntire's living room.
"I remember Craig sitting there telling his daughter, 'It's going to be OK,'" McEntire says. "Here's a man who's separated from his wife (product of the despair), whose son is in critical condition and whose roof is coming off. Yet he had the capacity to say, 'It's going to be OK; we're going to get through this."
"He has never lost sight he's not in this alone. There is eternal optimism."
When a rare disease cut off Eric Dolch from the world, it also left his loved ones struggling to rebuild their lives.
By Emily J. Minor, Special to The Palm Beach Post
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013
It was a summer of everyday occurrences. A family. Two teenagers. A marriage gone stale.
West Palm Beach couple Craig Dolch and Ava Van de Water were immersed in their middle-class lives, with competing work schedules and kids home for the summer and exciting plans for an upcoming cruise vacation, which they felt would surely ease the impending tedium of July, August and September.
And then the fever hit.
It was both usual and alarming, if such a dichotomy makes sense. Eric Dolch, their healthy teenage son who had just finished eighth grade at the local Catholic middle school, was having a great summer. Happily obsessed with paintball, he also loved to park himself in the corner of the family kitchen, where he would sit at the computer, laser-focused on his video games, listening to a narrowing playlist of music.
“He would listen to the same songs over and over again,” says Alexandra Dolch, now 24, two years older than her brother.
“He drove us crazy that summer,” says his dad, Craig Dolch.
One of the songs he always played? Johnny Cash’s mournful cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
Now, that seems eerily foreshadowing.
With her husband away on business, Van de Water was in pre-getaway mode. A former real estate and business writer for The Palm Beach Post, she was by then a Realtor on Palm Beach, busily trying to wrap up loose ends before she and the kids headed north to meet Dolch. A few dozen members of her family, still dealing with the death of Van de Water’s mother in late 2003 and then the sudden death of a young nephew six months later, were also making the trip to Bermuda. They were all sailing out of Norfolk, Va.
Bathing suits at breakfast. Boat drinks on the deck. No cellphones.
“Ava just thought we needed to do something fun,” Dolch says. “All we’d been doing was getting together for funerals.”
But Eric. He just didn’t seem right.
‘He just has a fever’
For a few days now, the 14-year-old had been tired and almost distant, with a fever that had spiked near 103. Van de Water wasn’t messing around. She marched her teenager into the pediatrician’s office, where she very plainly explained herself. “I cannot have this boy sick on that boat,” she said.
It was probably a virus, said the doctor. It’ll work its way out. But he gave her a prescription for antibiotics, especially since they’d be out at sea.
That was Friday.
By Saturday, Eric seemed a tad better. Sunday was Father’s Day, and Eric rallied, called his dad, walked across the street to grandpa’s, played on the computer for a while.
But in the middle of the night, well before sun-up that Monday, Van de Water found her teenage boy sitting in the bathroom, staring into space, burning up with fever. When she got him to the emergency room at St. Mary’s Medical Center, an intake worker was taken aback. “You should have called 911,” the woman said.
“911?” thought Van de Water. “He just has a fever.”
The situation quickly escalated into crisis, the kind that frightens you to the bone. (Not because you understand, but because you don’t.) “I knew it was bad, but I had no idea how bad it was,” Van de Water said. There was nothing to see. No chopped-off finger or gouged-out eye. Nobody was standing there with paddles, yelling “clear.” It was the feel of things, the stolen glances, the way nurses and doctors rushed about.
Meanwhile, Craig Dolch was 700 miles away.
A golf writer at the time for the Post, Dolch had been covering the U.S. Open in North Carolina. Tournament play had actually ended the day before, but Dolch and a few other Florida golf writers were taking advantage of a rare treat: playing 18 holes at the magnificent Pinehurst Resort. They had just made the turn on the 9th hole when his flip-top phone rang. It was his daughter, Alexandra.
“Dad,” she said, practically breathless. “The doctors say Eric has encephalitis.”
That was Monday, June 20, 2005.
The handsome kid with the paintball addiction would never make it to his freshman year at Cardinal Newman High School. “He went to the hospital and that was the end of it,” says his sister.
Today he can’t walk. He can’t talk. He can’t feed himself. Cumulative costs for his medical care are approaching $5 million. His dad’s 401(k) is gone. His sister graduated a year early from high school, IB program, second in her class, then went and got herself a college degree. “That’s how she dealt with her stress,” Van de Water says.
And the 1988 marriage that first percolated in the newsroom at The Palm Beach Post slowly dissolved under the weight of heartbreak and disaster.
“The only thing we shared was despair,” Dolch says now.
That, and a love for a boy, all but gone.
A medical nightmare
It wasn’t a mosquito bite that caused Eric Dolch’s encephalitis — although what does it matter, really? “It happened,” says his dad.
Instead, Eric tested positive for “mycoplasma,” a bacteria most commonly present in walking pneumonia. It’s unusual for mycoplasma to settle in the brain, causing the tissue swelling that’s the main marker of encephalitis. When it does, it’s not good.
And the bad news kept coming.
First, there were the seizures — huge, frightening, grand mal seizures, so violent that the medical team summoned religious services.
“I swear, it wasn’t 30 seconds before there was a minister at my side,” Van de Water remembers.
But as things moved along, the real culprit was Eric’s own autoimmune system. It was out of whack, his antibodies attacking his brain — probably because the swelling and the scarring from the seizures were being interpreted as foreign matter.
The only real medical choice? Induce a coma. And in that coma he stayed, for 115 days.
“We threw the kitchen sink at him,” said Dr. Trevor Resnick, the pediatric neurologist at Miami Children’s Hospital, where Eric was moved that first week. “We treated him for everything.”
As one of the country’s leading child neurologists, Resnick easily recognized the dynamic playing out with this family. Pediatric medicine doesn’t always have a fairytale ending. A child gets sick. The parents are desperate and desolate. They’re buried in bills. Nothing is normal.
“They give 190 percent to the kid who has the need,” Resnick said recently. “And that’s hard on a family.”
In this case, Alexandra.
She’d turned 16 that summer — they were to have celebrated her June 25 birthday on the family cruise — and now she was home alone a lot. She studied, drove herself to school, made her own meals, did her own shopping, set her own rules. “I’ve always been an independent person,” says Alexandra, who graduated with a degree in international business from FAU and works in her mother’s real estate office. “They were always at the hospital. It was OK.”
But it wasn’t. Not really. And neither were the uncertainties about Eric’s recovery, which always came around to the same thing.
What would he be like when he comes to?
“We really didn’t know,” says his mother. “I’d ask the doctors and the answer was always the same. ‘We won’t know until we get him out of the coma.’”
Finally — finally — they were able to taper off the sedative and lift the coma. Two-and-a-half months later, the seizures still stalling recovery, Eric was flown to a rehab center in Boston.
Dolch, who’d been given a year off from the newspaper, got a small apartment up there. And the two parents with the pretty house and the beautiful kids and the great professional lives began existing in alternate universes.
“I literally would meet Craig in the baggage claim of (Boston’s) Logan airport and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going,’ ” says Van de Water, who was still working.
“We did not see each other for a year,” he says. “Think about it. That’s tough.”
But Boston was short-lived. Within three months, the rehab center was done with Eric. He was having too many seizures for regular sessions. Back in Miami, there was really only one next step that made any medical sense: Remove the child’s left, occipital lobe and part of the left parietal lobe. His neurology team thought this might stop the seizures. (The relief was only temporary.)
The village back home swarmed into action, building a ramp and a handicap shower stall and widening door frames. They made meals. They sent cards. Anyone inclined to pray, prayed. And after 15 months in various hospitals, when it was time for Eric Dolch to get released, a few well-meaning souls tried persuading his mother that maybe she should rethink things.
Bring him home? Are you sure?
But she’s a pretty, polite girl who grew up on Palm Beach, this one, so she just nodded and smiled.
“My son is going nowhere but home,” she said.
And that he did — 467 days after climbing in the car with a fever, early one June morning.
Does Eric understand? Feel?
Is he in there? That’s the million-dollar question.
Does Eric Dolch know what’s going on?
“The thing that drives me nuts every hour of the day is I don’t understand what he knows,” Dolch says. “Is he in constant pain? Does he enjoy anything? Who wants to live like that?”
Dr. Resnick says it’s hard to know exactly what Eric does and does not comprehend, but he can tell you this.
“He gets depressed,” Resnick says.
Really? How can you tell?
Carlos Restrepo, 31, the home health aide who spends the most time with Eric, says, without missing a beat, that his No. 1 patient is “absolutely” aware of what’s going on. “Oh, there is no doubt,” he says.
“Oh yeah, he’s in there,” says Elizabeth Keith, Eric’s longtime physical therapist.
But his sister, Alexandra, feels they lost him after the 2008 surgery that disconnected the left hemisphere of Eric’s brain.
They had to, really. It was the only way to stop the constant seizures.
For a long time, before FAU when she was in college in Orlando, Alexandra would come home every Friday to work the weekend shift with her brother. She’d feed him, do his meds, change his sheets, change his diaper. Eventually, she had to back away. First off, she wasn’t sure Eric would even want her doing all that. “I wouldn’t, if it were me,” she says. Secondly, it was consuming her life, both emotionally and in real time.
Today, she really doesn’t enjoy when they’re together.
“I guess I feel guilty saying that, and it’s not that I don’t want to spend time with him,” she said. “But I don’t think he even knows I’m there.”
Enter a team of “angels” — Van de Water’s choice for a word.
It’s not easy to find this kind of help when a family member gets sick. There were duds, for sure. No-shows and aides with attitudes and people you wouldn’t want to leave alone in your house, even for a hot second.
But rather quickly, the family found nursing help from Alexandra Castro and her sister, Carolina Restrepo. For years the two sisters traded the day and night shifts back and forth at the family’s house on the south end of West Palm Beach, always making sure Mr. Craig and Miss Ava had someone there. When Carolina moved back to Colombia, their little brother, Carlos, took the night shift.
Finally, knowing they needed a long-term plan — Eric’s muscles are weak, but his organs are strong — the family agreed in October to move Eric to a group home in Loxahatchee. Restrepo signed up for the day duty.
Every week day, he drives to the home in suburban Loxahatchee, the yellow concrete-block house with the big kitchen and the nice living room and the smaller bedrooms off in the outer wings. He stretches Eric for 45 minutes or so, gets him up, gets him showered, gets him dressed. Carlos fixes his meals, takes him to the movies. (Luckily, they both like action films.)
And while this pair’s communication is nuanced and subtle, almost imperceptible, they have their ways, he says.
“I understand his looks, his expressions,” Restrepo says. “When he’s not having a good day, he closes his eyes and just shuts everybody out.”
At a charity golf tournament back in July, when 144 golfers teed off for the Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation, Eric was there, in his chair, head down, looking perfectly out of touch.
By choice, says Restrepo.
“He didn’t want to be there,” Restrepo said.
What Eric Dolch does like, though, is bubble gum, Cheetos and a good steak on the grill. He likes cloudy, windy days. He loves his pool therapy, SpongeBob SquarePants on TV and Johnny Cash on his headphones.
How can you tell?
His breathing is quiet and easy. His eyes are soft. He might even lift his head, just a tad. And he doesn’t scowl.
Keith, the therapist who specializes in pediatric cases at her business, Young Body Rehabilitation, first met Eric in 2009 when he was still in a coma.
After their years together, he can reach and touch the top of his head, wipe his nose, handle an itch. He opens and closes his eyes, on command. When the dentist says “Open wide,” he does.
He has cortico blindness. That is, he can see but the brain can’t translate the images.
And his hearing? What can he hear?
“It’s his keenest sense,” she says.
Facing the truth
Usually if you get encephalitis, you either live or die. But there’s Eric Dolch, all 6-foot, 4-inches, 185 pounds of him, caught in the middle.
For years, Van de Water, ever the good mother, clung to the hope that he would get better, even when someone would raise their eyebrows and suggest the future might not be so sunny. It took a long time for her to embrace the truth. Too long, probably.
“A year ago,” she says.
A year ago?
“I might have known it three years ago, maybe two,” she said. “But I didn’t admit it until about a year ago.”
Meanwhile, her husband — they’re still married because right now she has the insurance — had known for a long, long time. Today, with his flexible work schedule, he manages Eric’s support care — everything from fighting with the insurance companies to checking in at the group home to hopping in the pool for water therapy.
“It’s a full-time job,” says Van de Water. “I feel really lucky that I have Craig to do that.”
The family has spent close to $1 million of their own money on Eric’s care.
“It basically ruins your life financially,” Dolch says. “If a child lives long enough, you’re going to run out of money — unless you’re Bill Gates.”
For years, Dolch had covered the sport of golf, establishing himself as a respected beat writer. He traveled a lot, sure, and it wasn’t always pleasant to saddle up to the likes of Tiger Woods, especially during Tiger Woods’ unraveling years. But when Dolch started the nonprofit to raise money and awareness about encephalitis, the golf community’s reaction was both quick and mighty. Jack Nicklaus, himself no stranger to tragedy, called early on to lend his support.
After all, professional golf is full of guys who make a living saying goodbye, leaving the wife and kids, missing PTA meetings and dance recitals and Little League games.
But for the grace of God …
“This is as personal as it gets,” says pro golfer Olin Browne. “This is their child, and to have it go on for all these years.”
Of course, through each struggle — the diagnosis, the surgeries, the two steps forward, the three steps back — there’s been a village forming around Eric Dolch. “Eric is our son, but he’s everybody’s son,” says Dolch.
And that’s probably why Restrepo, a guy who sees Eric’s struggles more than anyone else, likes this story. After all, family is family.
It was about a year and a half ago, give or take, and Eric was still living at home in West Palm Beach. Restrepo was on duty, his sister already having said goodbye to the family, Mr. Craig standing at the front door, crying, watching the taillights of her car disappear down the road. “I just knew I’d probably never see her again,” he says.
Restrepo thinks it was probably about 5 in the morning when Eric began to stir. And he wasn’t his usual groggy self.
Eric Dolch was wide awake — and laughing.
“He just started cracking up at himself,” Restrepo remembers. “He was laughing so much that he woke up.”
Restrepo, whose bedside manner is quick and quiet, floated over to his patient’s side and gave Eric’s skin a light tickle. “And I remember, I started talking about paintball and asking him if that’s what he was dreaming about, and he just opened his eyes way up, like, ‘You got it.’ ”
Truth be told, sometimes — years ago — Eric would laugh, completely out of the blue, oddly and without reason. The human brain is a complicated thing, and that laughter was often unsettling because it would precede a seizure. But this wasn’t that.
There were no seizures that day. He was just a kid, having a dream.
“That,” says Carlos Restrepo, “was our very best day.”
You take what you get when someone you love is lying helpless. “I don’t know how to explain it but when it happens, when you connect, you just know,” says his mom.
Maybe it’s when she pops into physical therapy, and nestles in close for her kiss. Or when Carlos puts vintage Johnny Cash on Eric’s ear buds. Or a chilly Sunday morning when Dolch arrives with his usual flourish, juggling his cellphone and some groceries and the prevailing orders of the day. Hi Eric. It’s Daddy. It’s Sunday and the Dolphins are playing today.
“We all search for those moments,” says his dad.
Eight years, and counting.
The Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation
The Dolch family runs The Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to raising money and awareness about encephalitis. Encephalitis is a rare disease, occurring in about one of every 200,000 individuals — most commonly in children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. With support from community and medical leaders and the professional golfing community — including Olin Browne, Nick Price and Jack and Barbara Nicklaus — the foundation recently made a $5,000 donation to Miami Children’s Hospital Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. In July, the foundation ran its first golf tournament, raising almost $20,000 for research and awareness. The event was a sellout, with 144 golfers teeing off.
For more information about The Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation or to give a tax-free donation, visit ericdolchfoundation.org or email Eric’s father at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More on this story can be found at http://clikhear.palmbeachpost.com/2013/south-florida/palm-beach-county/understanding-eric/
Jack Nicklaus's generosity has become
the new measure of his greatness
By Michael Bamberger, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 on Golf.com
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Jack Nicklaus came into the press room here at the Honda on Tuesday, as he does every year. He does it at the Memorial. He does it at the Masters. For decades he did it at every event he played. These sessions, they're always the same, and they're never the same.
A lot of players come to Jack looking for playing advice. They'd do well to ask him about how to handle this part, too. What Jack does is answer every question posed to him thoroughly, openly and originally. His intelligence and his playfulness have always come through. You probably know that. What you might not know about is his warmth.
That was evident here at the Honda Classic, which raises money for a variety of causes, including theNicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation, which provides funding for children's health services in Palm Beach County and beyond. Nicklaus was talking about how he and his wife, Barbara, realized years ago, when they were raising five kids near here, that there wasn't a nearby medical facility for complex children's medical issues. Nicklaus talked about the two-hour drive to Miami that families had to make in those days.
In time, Joe DiMaggio lent his name to a children's hospital in Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Palmer did the same in Orlando. Jack and Barbara saw the need in their own backyard. As he was taking his sweet time explaining all this, Nicklaus looked at the maybe two dozen reporters hanging on his every word. He said, "Do I see Craig here? Craig's been through that -- a lot."
Craig was there, and Craig knew what Nicklaus was talking about. Craig is Craig Dolch, who has covered Nicklaus as a well-respected sportswriter for 30 years, most of those years with the Palm Beach Post. In the summer of 2005, Eric Dolch, Craig's healthy teenage son, was diagnosed with an extreme form of encephalitis, a neurological disorder and a form of epilepsy. Eric's life has been nothing like normal since then. He's in a wheelchair, and he cannot speak. For years, the Dolch family had to make the long drive to Miami for his highly specialized medical care. One day, on a drive there, Dolch's cell phone rang. It was Nicklaus.
He knew Nicklaus professionally. If Dolch had a question, Nicklaus answered it. Always. It wasn't like they were buddies. Something changed on this day. Nicklaus said, "I know how Eric is. But how are you doing?"
I could easily make this little write-up about the Dolch family and Eric's disease, and if you want to know more about that go to ericdolchfoundation.org. But this is about Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of all time, as a human being.
"Nobody had really asked me that question," Dolch said after the press conference. It was almost like Jack gave Dolch permission to think about himself. Think of the humanity that takes.
Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher, spoke last week at the funeral of Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher. He said that no person did more for the greater good of Palm Beach County than Gary Carter -- except for Nicklaus. If that's not literally true -- Palm Beach has some major, major philanthropists -- it has to be close to true.
About five years ago, Nicklaus volunteered his services to fix up the old municipal golf course in North Palm Beach. A lot of people didn't like how it came out, but I happen to think it's fantastic, even if the greens are a little crazy and the bunkers are so deep you could bury elephants in them. It's tough. What do you expect? It's a Nicklaus course! Anyway, while it was still under construction, Jack gave me a tour of the course, just the two of us, in a cart, looking at all 18 holes. Jack couldn't possibly remember this experience, but I'll take it to my grave.
At one point, there was a heavy passing shower and Jack parked underneath a palm tree and we continued to talk. I said that it was generous of Nicklaus to devote all this time and effort and not get paid for it. After all, he's a golf course architect. I said something about how I was sometimes asked to write for school newsletters and whatnot and what a bother it was. I mean, I'm trying to make a living as a writer. Jack said, "Well, you've got young kids. I used to be like that. People would want me to play in a pro-am or something for free. You don't want to do it. But then your kids get older, they get out of the house, and then you're happy to start doing these things."
Nicklaus is 20 years older than I am. It was almost fatherly, the way he said it. He was prescient, by the way.
The Nicklaus family, like every family, has known heartache. A few months before Eric Dolch's health problem was diagnosed, Jack and Barbara lost a grandson, 17-month-old Jake Nicklaus. On Monday at the Bear's Club, a golf course here, there was a fundraising tournament called The Jake that raised $1.4 million for the health charities dear to the Nicklaus family. Think of how much good will there must be toward the Nicklaus family to be able to do that. What goes around comes around.
Barbara Nicklaus is on a thousand charity boards. Dolch asked her if she would serve on the Eric Dolch Foundation. She answered on the spot: "I'd be honored to." When Dolch organized an early fundraiser for the foundation, Jack and Barbara were first in line to help.
Dolch said he knew on that day Nicklaus called him, to ask him a question instead of the other way around, that their relationship would not be the same. In recent years, Dolch, consumed with dealing with his son's medical problems, left his paper and became a freelance writer. Nicklaus helped Dolch get a gig to write the history of Lost Tree, the golf-course development where the Nicklaus family has lived for decades.
"I remember the first time I met Jack, in 1982," Dolch said. "I was surprised at how short he was." Many people have had that reaction. If you're a six-footer, you tower over the man. "Now," Dolch said, "I marvel at how big he is."
By Craig Dolch
Published in Sports Illustrated
Near the end of the phone call with my son, Eric, the topic turned to golf, as it often did. "Do you think Olin is going to win?" he said, referring to Tour player Olin Browne, who lives near us in South Florida. It was the morning of the final round of the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Father's Day. It was tough to call, I said, because there were many good players in contention.
We haven't talked since.
The next day Eric, then 14, was hospitalized after he became incoherent. He was diagnosed with encephalitis, a rare, sometimes fatal swelling of the brain.
I spent the 2005 PGA Championship sitting in a hospital room in Miami, Eric lying in a coma, hooked up to various machines. During the tournament, CBS's Jim Nantz paid tribute to Eric on air and members of the golf writers' association signed a flag from Baltusrol. In the months after Phil Mickelson's victory that flag hung at Eric's bedside, a reminder of the life I have lived and all the friends I have in golf.
For 20 years I've covered the game for The Palm Beach Post, complaining like many sportswriters about deadlines and editors, but always cherishing the job. It was something that made Eric proud of me.
Over the last 14 months work and golf have taken a backseat to my son's ordeal. It has been as dreadful as one might imagine, fighting through the trauma with my wife, Ava, and our 17-year-old daughter, Alex, as Eric, an easygoing kid who played golf and basketball but really loved paintball, battled the seizures brought on by this awful disease. He spent the first four months in a coma, but since regaining consciousness he's often been so sedated we still don't know what his brain can process. Will Eric be able to see? To walk? To talk? To interact? To have a life?
In March there was a benefit for us at Old Palm in Palm Beach Gardens. Raymond and Maria Floyd hosted. Jack and Barbara Nicklaus were there. So were Olin, Nick Price, JoAnne Carner, Dottie Pepper, Bob Murphy, Ian Baker-Finch, Jesper Parnevik, Brett Quigley, Tom Fazio and Bob Toski. Olin spoke about how Eric wasn't simply our son, but everybody's son. The benefit came at a time when we really needed it, both financially and spiritually.
The Post has been unbelievably supportive, increasing Eric's insurance and giving me time to be at his bedside. But it was time to return to work, and last week I was back on the road, covering golf again and putting up the website for Eric's foundation.
Being back in the press tent, talking to players, writing and doing my job has been cathartic and uplifting. Everywhere I turned last week, whether it was to Price, Baker-Finch, Jim (Bones) MacKay, PGA boss Joe Steranka or designer Rees Jones, people all asked, "How's your son?"
Last Friday, I got word from Eric's doctors that he can come home this week. Maybe Eric figured that if I was back at work, it was time for him to return home. I can't wait to see him and to one day tell him that while he didn't win the Open, Olin Browne never stopped asking about him.
Commentary: As son lies ill, family's life is redefined
By Emily J. Minor
Palm Beach Post Columnist
It took a wrong turn on a Sunday, Father's Day of all days, the day Eric Dolch got really sick.
He'd been complaining of a headache all week, and that Friday he'd gone to the doctor.
Antibiotics, the doctor said.
The kid had a little something.
But by Sunday the fever was up again and by Monday he was delirious and his mom, Ava Van de Water, a former co-worker of mine, called the doctor.
Emergency room, the doctor stated succinctly.
And that's how a 14-year-old boy ends up in a coma for four months.
It's just that easy.
There's a lot the medical teams don't know about Eric Dolch. If he'll get better. If the seizures will stop. If, if, if.
But this they know: The smiling kid with swell manners and a tender heart had encephalitis last summer. Some virus inched its way into this child's brain, although the experts aren't sure how it started. Eric tested negative for the mosquito-bite kind.
"We'll probably never know," says his mom.
Her son's supposed to be a high school freshman, and instead he's slept since June.
Van de Water, a local girl who grew up in Palm Beach and went to school here, is married to Craig Dolch, who happens to be the newspaper's golf writer. They circulate in not-so-shabby circles, from friends on the island to friends from the golf world. Barbara Nicklaus has kept in touch through all this.
Encephalitis isn't common, maybe 2,000 cases reported to the CDC each year. But after the coma, which they medically induced to control the seizures, they moved Eric from Miami Children's Hospital to a Boston rehab center.
He's still heavily sedated, mostly immobile, although the number of seizures is down dramatically.
Things like this tend to change life and its many definitions: Marriage. Debt. Happiness. A good day. When Craig Dolch wrote about Eric a few months back, he used a great line.
"And I thought talking to Curtis Strange after a double-bogey on the 18th hole was tough," he said.
Now, a Curtis Strange anger management situation would be a walk in the park.
They've got Eric on a special diet, and it's fed to him through a tube into his intestine. The diet's supposed to help stop the seizures. Craig Dolch is in Boston. Van de Water and their daughter, Alexandra, 16, fly to Boston as often as they can. Alexandra will graduate from high school this spring, a year early, and she's second in her class.
Apparently, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
"Life is tough," Van de Water says now. "But it's life."
When our boys were little, Van de Water and I sat cubicle-to-cubicle in the feature sections of this paper. Our sons, her Eric and my Ian, are the same age. And while the children never played, we did -- she and I -- in those early-morning work hours.
We'd entertain each other with lovely anecdotes of our sweet boys. Work and home and guilt was almost always the subtext.
After talking to my former colleague one recent day, I took a breath, wiped my eyes, called my son, who was home sick with a bug.
He answered on the millionth ring, which annoyed me, and mumbled into the telephone, which annoyed me. And when our lovely conversation was over, he hung up without even saying goodbye -- which annoyed me.
What this family wouldn't give for some of that.
By LAURA NEAL, LPGA STAFF A tale of two nights March 9, 2006
As jobs go, mine is pretty good. I have an office with a window, free sodas from the break room and every so often, I get to venture forth from Daytona Beach International (seriously?) Airport and write a new chapter in the imaginary book I like to call, "The Adventures of Laura." But sometimes, in addition to a few frequent flier miles and a stamp in my passport, I gain a little perspective.
And never was it more needed and delivered than this past weekend.
8 p.m., Bel Air Bar & Grill
I'm in LA to help with PR for the Oscar after-parties that six of our players are attending (Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis, Jimin Kang, Cristie Kerr, Christina Kim and Stephanie Louden). But first things first: dinner. We've ended up at a quaint Brentwood location that, although it's rumored that Steven Speilberg often dines here, is adjacent to a gas station. I thought I left Daytona Beach.
Anyway, tonight, the only celebrities in sight are at my table- Christina Kim and LPGA Tour Hall of Famer Amy Alcott. With Commissioner Carolyn Bivens and her husband Bill, two other LPGA staff members and a few glasses of wine, we were a party to be reckoned with. I relish these opportunities to spend time with staff and players away from the golf course, as the conversation drifts easily from Donald Trump's hairstyle to opinions on Michelle Wie's showing on the Rolex Rankings. It's a nice calm before the perfume-and-designer-dress storm that is about to encompass my life for the next 24 hours.
And while I love to hear Christina's laughter and her take on the who's hotter debate (I think she had Matthew McConaughey by an ab muscle over Brad Pitt), it's the table guest seated across from me, the one who was late to dinner because she had to bet the last race at Hollywood Park, who has my full attention.
I've always found Amy Alcott approachable and engaging. Given her experiences, from phenom to Hall of Famer and everything in between, Amy has interesting opinions on Wie, marketing the "hot, young" players, the Rolex Rankings and some good dish on the golfing celebrities she has taken a few dollars from over the years. Definitely a candidate for an OWL Q&A at some point, and, if she'll humor me, a quick lesson on the difference between a superfecta and a quinella.
10 p.m., Luxe Hotel, room 226
Back from dinner, we meet up with stylist Cheryl Horaney and take a few armfuls of designer dresses up to the suite for an informal fitting (aka, Fashion Show) with Christina, Jimin Kang and Stephanie Louden. Jan Butterfield, the LPGA's official skin care, hair and fashion consultant, is orchestrating the tangle of dresses, shoes and accessories.
With her brilliant personality and 20-pounds-lighter frame, Christina is a kid in a candy store and can only narrow down the myriad of choices to three. "I'll wear the others to the mailbox if I have to."
And she looks fantastic in her black, beaded gown, as did Stephanie Louden in her short, classic Vera Wang design. Jimin Kang bought an Armani for the occasion, but was swayed by our girlie "ooohs and aaahs" to switch to a black Versace dress that Cheryl had brought "just in case."
And here's where my blue eyes turn green, as I couldn't help but covet the opportunity to play dress up. I was starting to feel like Cinderella, pre-fairy-godmother. You know, all work and no play while the stepsisters (although those in my story are neither ugly nor evil) go to the ball.
Amidst the frenzy, Jan asked if I'd like to try on a dress "just for fun." Dear readers, if you ever find yourself in the same situation, just say no. Or, look at the price tag of said dress before stepping into the supple, designer fabric carefully tailored into intricate lines that compliment your frame immensely. I wanted to wear it to bed, to breakfast the next morning and on the plane home. Seriously.
This is coming from a girl who considers a purchase from the Banana Republic clearance rack a lavish treat (I'm not in sports PR for the money). So even with Cheryl's considerable insider discount, the perfect all-dressed-up-and-nowhere-to-go frock was out of my price range. Way out.
In normal instances, that's not a bitter pill to swallow. But standing in a room full of Oscar after-party attendees preparing for the night of their lives, with shrieks of "you look awesome" cascading out the open door and into the hallway, I was jealous. There, I said it.
I briefly considered throwing down my MasterCard and rationalizing it as an "investment." But then my conscience stepped in (as well as my desire to actually eat for the next four months), and I went to bed. And I may or may not have shed a tear-both for my inability to fund my lavish appetite (champagne taste and a beer pocketbook, as my mom would say) and for the weakness of envy.
1 p.m., Zumanity Hair and Nails
After I organized lunch for the players and worked through some last minute arrangements with our photographer and ESPN The Magazine (two columnists were going to shadow the girls for the night), it was time to head up the street for a quick manicure.
My friend and co-worker, Julie Tyson, was having a nail emergency and needed some help prior to her own Oscar after-party debut. So rather than hitting the nearby Coffee Bean for a very Atkins-unfriendly Chai Tea Latte, I sit down for a manicure of my own.
Julie and I are chatting nonchalantly about the parties, Dolce & Gabbana, Tom and Katie and how fabulous we are when I notice a small woman eavesdropping on our conversation and eyeing us from the next seat over. Poor thing, I think to myself. She must be jealous of our magnificence. Too bad everyone can't experience the glamorous life of an LPGA employee.
Then I check my phone for a text message. It's from Julie. It reads, "That's Calista Flockhart."
3 p.m., Luxe Hotel, room 226
And the whirlwind begins. Dresses are chosen. Players are showered. Hairstylists and make-up artists are in place, armed and dangerous with $200 blow-dryers and 65 shades of lip gloss. It's time to get ready.
I'm not joking. We really start preparing for the 9 p.m. departure at 3 p.m. Of course, there are six girls and lots of primping, powdering and polishing to do, and I'm sure Paris Hilton starts even earlier. But I think the excitement factor is much like that of a 6-year-old on Christmas morning, and the chances of us stalling any longer just as impossible.
Christina is so jumpy, she puts on her dress (and then changes into her mailbox dresses just for fun) at 3:30 and twirls around the room until boredom and fear of de-beading sends her into her Luxe bathrobe for a few hours.
I won't bore you with too many details of this 360-minute beauty tornado, but it is a blast. I have successfully slain the Jealous Dragon and am back to enjoying the giddiness and girlie-ness of the occasion.
Champagne and brie are delivered to keep the pre-party going, compliments of Bill Bivens. I mistakenly offer 19-year-old Paula Creamer a glass (she politely declined).
The TV is on for the Academy Awards, and Christina only gets excited when "Wallace & Gromit" wins Best Animated Feature of the Year.
The two columnists from ESPN The Magazine, brothers Andy and Brian Kamenetzsky, successfully navigate the clouds of hairspray and perfume, managing to sound informed and interested when they ask Paula about her 3-inch heels.
Cheryl, the stylist, dumps an entire suitcase of jewelry onto the floor and lets the players paw through and choose their accessories. It was like watching pigeons feast on designer breadcrumbs.
When John, the hair stylist, sits down after completing what he thinks is his last coif, he's warned repeatedly "just wait until Natalie gets here."
8:30 p.m., Luxe Hotel, room 226
"Okay, everyone! Time to leave!"
8:45 p.m., Luxe Hotel, hallway outside room 226
"Again! It's really time to go!"
8:55 p.m., Luxe Hotel, lobby
You've got to be kidding me. Six hours of preparation and we're going to be late? This is like sweeping marbles.
"Seriously, people. If you're not in the limo in the next three seconds, it's leaving without you!"
9:30 p.m., Busby's Restaurant on Santa Monica
A very unglamorous dinner of meatball fondue and spinach dip. And it was absolutely quiet. And fabulous.
5:15 a.m., backseat of a Bell Cab taxi
And just like that, the Hollywood fantasy is over. I'm on my way to LAX for a flight back to Florida. While seriously considering whether some of the players have even called it a night yet, I'm mentally preparing for a long flight and my next event, which is decidedly more somber and important than the one I'm leaving behind.
4 p.m., Ft. Lauderdale International Airport
I manage to sleep for most of the flight without doing that annoying head-jerk-wake-up thing too often, and my very kind boyfriend picks me up and we head north on I-95 to West Palm Beach.
In a perfect scenario, I would have stayed in LA at least until mid-afternoon in order to get a first-hand recap from the party-goers for LPGA.com. But I have a reception to attend, and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
7:30 p.m., Old Palm Golf Club
It's a beautiful night and a beautiful facility. Raymond Floyd is the founder and has arranged for the use of the clubhouse. Tim Rosaforte of Golf World has organized the guest list. Don Shula (in the flesh!) and Jack and Barbara Nicklaus are in attendance. And Eric Dolch is the guest of honor, although he's not there.
Eric is the son of Palm Beach Post golf writer Craig Dolch, a dedicated journalist who has been a good friend of mine for many years. I got to know him through working LPGA events in South Florida, like the ADT Championship. I appreciated Craig's knowledge of the LPGA, and I think he appreciated my fondness for a good Bloody Mary.
Last Father's Day, while Craig was covering the final round of the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C., his 14-year-old son was taken to the hospital, disoriented and with a high fever. Doctors soon discovered he had encephalitis, an infection that causes swelling in the brain. While the diagnosis was quick, his recovery has been anything but.
Eric's illness and his continuous struggle are the details of a nightmare. Once hospitalized, Eric was placed on a ventilator. The next morning, he suffered a major seizure and doctors were forced to place him in a medical-induced coma. It took 115 agonizing days, a dubious record at Miami Children's Hospital, before the seizures were sufficiently controlled and Eric was successfully weaned from the medication, allowing for his transfer to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston by medical jet.
He is still heavily sedated, and the toll of the disease and the ensuing complications (three major surgeries, to be exact) are not yet known. What is apparent is that once released, Eric will need significant care, probably for the rest of his life.
With the mounting medical costs and looming rehabilitation expenses, this reception allowed friends from the golf community and beyond to contribute to the Dolch Family Fund. In addition, Craig announced plans for the Eric Dolch Children's Encephalitis Foundation, which will help fund research and treatment for other children and families affected by this rare (but increasingly less-rare) disease.
8 p.m., Old Palm Golf Club
Craig, with his wife and daughter by his side, and a photo of Eric next to the podium, addresses the crowd. It is evident in both his words and his demeanor that he is appreciative and overwhelmed by the support. Fighting through his emotions, Craig talks about the instantaneous change his family has undergone since June 19, how priorities have shifted and plans have been put on hold because of this agonizing ordeal. We're riveted, sympathetic, eager to help and unsure of our abilities to do so.
The high from my brush with the Oscars and the glitterati is gone. And that's not a bad thing. Craig's family's situation juxtaposed with red carpets and fake eyelashes provides a sobering contrast, as well as an attitude adjustment. Was I really coveting a designer dress? And did I seriously think the world would end if we didn't get that last party invite for the sixth player on the list? Certainly, there are more important things in life- not only to worry about, but also to appreciate.
9 p.m., my car
It's been a long weekend: 48-or-so hours, two coasts and a hefty dose of glamour and reality. I'm beat and unsure how to feel reconcile the highs and lows of the past two days.
Although I chastised myself for the selfish thoughts and actions in LA (and elsewhere), I wasn't sorry we made the Oscar event a reality. But when Craig and his family host the first golf tournament this fall to benefit Eric's new foundation, I'm hopeful that the LPGA and our players will offer a comparable amount of time and energy to ensure its success.
And I'll be excited to be there, inside the ropes- even though they're not velvet.
When I handed the concierge the LPGA's donation to The Eric Dolch Children's Encephalitis Foundation, I added one of my own. Just a drop in the bucket financially, but sometimes we write checks because there's nothing more we can do.
(Laura Neal is in her eighth year at the LPGA and currently is the Director of Public Relations. She has traveled the Tour extensively and continues to work closely with the Tour players on a daily basis. Laura won a Golf Writer's Association of America award for her LPGA.com daily diary coverage of Annika at Colonial.)
Pros step up, help writer's son in need
By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer Published March 30, 2006
Craig Dolch will miss his third straight major championship next week when the Masters is played at Augusta National. He hasn't been to a tournament of any kind since the U.S. Open in June at Pinehurst. And he's not sure when he'll be back.
Dolch is not a player, but he knows plenty of them. He is the golf writer at the Palm Beach Post and has been to hundreds of tournaments over the past two decades.
The day after the U.S. Open Dolch's 14-year-old son, Eric, was rushed to the hospital with what was diagnosed as encephalitis. A medically-induced coma, lasting four months, was required to limit seizures. Too many medical complications to count ensued, followed by a three-month trip to a rehab center near Boston. To say that this has been a living hell for Dolch, wife Ava and their 16-year-old daughter, Alexandra, would be putting it mildly.
Dolch has not written about golf since (he hopes to return to work in June), but the golf world has tried to help. The Golf Writers Association of America and its counterpart in Britain, the Association of Golf Writers, have chipped in to help with the growing medical costs that won't be covered by insurance. So did the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and the LPGA Tour.
Players also made donations. They attended a recent benefit in North Palm Beach for the newly-created Dolch Family Fund and for the to-be-established Eric Dolch Children's Encephalitis Foundation.
Raymond Floyd donated his Old Palm Club for the evening, and Jack and Barbara Nicklaus attended. (Eric originally was taken to the Nicklaus Children's Hospital in West Palm Beach). Nick Price, Ian Baker-Finch, Olin Browne, Dottie Pepper, JoAnne Carner, Brett Quigley, Bob Murphy, Bob Toski, Tom Fazio and Jesper Parnevik also attended.
Dolch appreciates it all, but you have to believe this gesture might stick out.
Last week he received a letter with a check made out to the Dolch Family Fund from someone he did not know. Attached was a Post-it note from PGA Tour player Mark Calcavecchia, who apparently, along with wife Brenda, had a pretty good day at the exclusive Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach.
"Craig," the note read. "Brenda and I kicked this guy's butt last week at Seminole. Thought this might help Eric out. Hope he feels better soon. The Calcs."
Calcavecchia, 45, a 12-time PGA Tour winner, reported that Brenda did most of the damage in their match with the unnamed "donor."
The check was for $600.
A long, arduous process is ahead for the family. But Craig, no doubt, will make time to take a peek at the Masters. And there is a good chance he'll be rooting for Calc through Amen Corner.
NOTE: If you want to keep up with other stories on Eric, one way is simply to google his name and "encephalitis."
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