Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Mom comes back from homelessness after toddler's death

Kim Straube | H-W Photo/Matt Dutton
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 11, 2017 10:25 am

QUINCY -- Kim Straube, 57, has spent almost 30 years trying to claw her way back to where she was before the death of one of her sons.

Straube and her two older sisters were raised by their mother after their father died when Straube was 1.

"She was tough," Straube said. "She raised the three of us without public assistance. She is who taught me my work ethic."

Straube found her first job in the third grade, working in the library at Jefferson School in exchange for free school lunches. Through junior high, she was a crossing guard during the school year and detassled corn every summer. She worked in the lemon shake-up stand at carnivals to buy clothes for school. She studied constantly to maintain a straight-A average through school.

By 1987, she had been married to her high school sweetheart for a few years. They both had jobs, and were expanding their family. Their oldest son, George, was 4. Jamie was 2, and she was pregnant with Jonathan.

"It was a white picket fence," she said. "Our marriage was strong."

‘The scariest day of my life'

Just before Christmas, Jamie woke up with a limp one morning. The doctor brushed it off at first, but it didn't go away. After the limp had stuck around for a few more weeks, the doctor began running some tests.

"He had been a healthy kid, 100 percent," she said.

A CT scan revealed a cancerous tumor in his bones. Jamie was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and childhood leukemia.

"It was the scariest day of my life," Straube said. "When they said cancer, I fell to my knees."

Straube began keeping a log of everyone, including secretaries and receptionists, that she spoke to over the phone while trying to coordinate Jamie's treatment. She filled several spiral notebooks with names of people in the medical field.

"That came natural," she said. "I just started writing things down."

The family's doctor put them in touch with a neuroblastoma expert who was about to do his first bone marrow transplant.

Jamie needed a transplant, but he didn't have a donor. Doctors wanted to check his older brother to see if he was a match, and they were waiting for Straube to give birth, to check his unborn brother, too.

"This was all very new, and they didn't have statistics. They couldn't give me answers," Straube said. "It was an emotional challenge because how can I jeopardize one child for another?"

Jamie was able to have the surgery without a donor on Leap Day, Feb. 29, 1987. He was the second bone marrow transplant recipient at St. John's Hospital in Springfield. He was given his own marrow that had been purged of cancerous cells.

"It worked, he was in total remission," Straube said. "That's where I was able to build my love of nursing."

The doctor kept the family informed every step of the way, and Straube passed time by watching the nurses and how they carried out their daily tasks.

"We learned together," she said. "This was pioneering."

Jamie was receiving follow-ups at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. As Straube wasn't working -- the family was living solely on her husband's income -- they flew out there through LifeLine Pilots, a program in which pilots voluntarily fly medical patients to their destinations for free.

Their doctor had begun developing a bone marrow transplant program at a major university in Tennessee, and Straube and Jamie would fly there to receive follow-ups, as well.

‘Life got the best of me'

The family spent Independence Day 1989 camping at Wakonda State Park, near LaGrange, Mo. On July 5, Straube and Jamie flew out for a check-up.

"We were walking back to the Ronald McDonald house -- there wasn't any money for taxis -- and little Jamie said, ‘I can't walk this far, I hurt,'" she said. "When we walked in the door, the man at the house said we needed to call the university immediately."

Jamie, now 4, had relapsed after more than a year in remission. Another surgery -- the first bone marrow transplant at the university -- was done on July 11. Jamie died of sepsis as a result of the surgery on Aug. 19.

"They were not prepared," she said. "We had many meetings after that."

Straube said the air filtering system required to create a sterile environment had not yet been installed before the procedure.

"The university said that to sue them, we would have to sue the doctor first," Straube said. "I went back to my room and did some soul searching. This man did everything under his power to save my son. I cannot justify bringing suit against him."

She is still in touch with Jamie's doctor today.

Straube and her husband divorced shortly after. As a 29-year-old newly single mom, she started CNA training at John Wood Community College in April 1990. She graduated and continued on to the LPN program.

"I can remember waking up at the kitchen table with all my nursing books out and the imprint from the books on my face," she said.

She passed her state boards and was working at Blessing Hospital on the cancer unit as a float nurse.

As she says, "Life got the best of me." She started drinking and using drugs. A failed drug test -- she tested positive for marijuana -- cost her the job.

"This is where I catch myself wanting to make excuses. It's nobody's fault but my own," she said. "I remember drinking to stop seeing my son's death. For a long time I would wake up and have the vision of his little body in his casket."

Drinking took the image out of her head for a bit. She used speed to help her get through 12-hour shifts. After losing her job in October 1994, she continued spiraling out of control.

Two months later, she got pregnant again with her son, Garrad, and took a job working full time as a janitor in a factory.

"They called me ‘Katie,'" she said. "Working around all those fellas, I didn't want them to know who I really was. I don't think any of them over there really knew my real name."

She sobered up while pregnant, but relapsed after giving birth. She says she hit bottom in 2003, when it seemed the courts might take away her youngest son. She has been sober since then.

"How could I fight like I did for Jamie and allow somebody to just take Garrad from me?" she says she asked herself.

Making a comeback

Homeless at the time -- she couldn't find anything more than a minimum wage job -- she called her ex-husband, who agreed to take care of Garrad.

"I was going to food pantries, just treading water and going under," she said. "It was tough."

Sober but sinking, she went to a friend and asked for help. The friend took her down to the Salvation Army, where Straube spilled all the details of her past to the executive director.

She entered into the YWCA's Supportive Housing program in May 2003. Part of the program included counseling, and she began going six days a week. The counselor asked if she had ever tried to get her nursing degree back.

"The nursing board doesn't show emotion, they just ask questions," she said. "They gave me an extreme list of things I had to do, and I did them."

She had to take her state boards again, and she had to successfully complete five years of random urinalysis tests at her own expense. Each test cost her $75.

"I was working, but just barely making enough money," she said, "so I called the bank and spilled my guts to them, too."

The bank worked with her to ensure she had overdraft protection for urine tests that would send a wrinkle into her budget.

In 2005, she got her LPN license back. After completing her skills checkoff at Sunset Home, the director of nursing urged her to apply. Before doing so, Straube -- now two years sober -- told her future employer all about her past.

"I think I was a pretty good nurse before," she said, "but when I went back into it, I went into it with a passion you can't even imagine. I was so thankful to be given the opportunity to take care of people again."

About that time, Straube began coaching youth baseball. In 2007, she received a Habitat for Humanity house.

Full circle

Driving down the road one day, Straube heard a John Wood Community College commercial on the radio. She stopped and immediately shifted her route to the school, where she enrolled in the RN program.

While furthering her education, she simultaneously rose through the ranks at Sunset Home to become unit coordinator of the Alzheimer's unit and later, after completing her bachelor's degree, the director of nursing.

Last February, her name appeared on a list put out by the Office of the Inspector General, causing her to be removed from her position at Sunset Home. The issue dated back to 1997.

Trying to trace down the problem, she ended up in the office of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in Springfield. While the man she spoke with was empathetic, she was told it would take four to six months to have her name removed from the list.

After several weeks, she was replaced at Sunset Home. She wrote a heartfelt letter, thanking the man in the senator's office, but informing him she had lost her job.

"I was devastated, but kind of like with that hospital in Tennessee, you can't be bitter," she said.

Within 24 hours of writing the letter, her name was off the list, but it was too late to get her job back.

Earlier this year, Tracy Orne, JWCC's director of public relations and marketing, texted Straube and asked if she had ever considered teaching. Orne arranged for her to meet with Laurel Klinkenberg, vice president of instruction, to whom Straube came clean about her past.

Straube became a certified nursing assistant instructor this fall. The two-month class wrapped up earlier this month, and a pinning ceremony for her first class of students was held on Dec. 8, her late son Jamie's birthday.

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.

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