Bill Meirink was babysitting his twin granddaughters on a recent Sunday afternoon.
That qualifies as “active duty” because the two adorable girls are extremely active, forcing Grandpa into plenty of movement as they travel rapidly the various parts of his Belleville home near High Mount Grade School.
Meirink is all about staying active, now three years removed from a stage 4 stomach cancer diagnosis in 2013 that seemed more like a prison sentence than a medical opinion.
“The doctor said the chances were less than one percent,” said Meirink, a huge sports fans who can never get enough of the Cardinals or St. Louis Blues. “I just remember staring at the wall like ‘What? What are you saying?’’’
It was a diagnosis that hit Bill and his wife, Anne, with the force of a 105 mile-per-hour fastball to the forehead.
Not expected to survive more than a few months, the 54-year-old Meirink has since celebrated three birthdays with plans for many more. Despite having his stomach removed earlier this year, the former high school baseball player has been working on his fastball in preparation for a big event.
Meirink was chosen to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game July 5 as part of Siteman Cancer Center Cancer Awareness Night at Busch Stadium.
People tell me I’m an inspiration, but I don’t see myself that way. I’m still here and if that inspires somebody, so be it. I’ve never focused on cancer. I have focused on living, trying to stay as healthy as I can.
“This whole thing has been a humbling experience,” said Meirink, whose six children range in age from 14 to 34. “People tell me I’m an inspiration, but I don’t see myself that way. I’m still here and if that inspires somebody, so be it.
“I’ve never focused on cancer.I have focused on living, trying to stay as healthy as I can.”
On the same day Meirink learned about his Busch Stadium pitching debut, another trip to the radiation oncologist turned up what looked like more potentially cancerous spots in his body.
“He just sank, he was at such a low,” said Anne Meirink, a reading specialist at Abraham Lincoln School in Belleville. “Now they’re thinking it was just inflammation from his surgery, so we’re hoping they’re right.”
Not surprisingly, Anne was the first person Bill told when he got the phone call about the Cardinals game.
“It was exciting for all of us about throwing out the first pitch, but it was really exciting for Bill because he’s like the biggest Cardinal fan ever,” she said. “He was shaking when he got that call from Siteman.”
On Father’s Day, Bill Meirink enjoyed being able to play catch with his son, former Belleville West baseball player and current University of Illinois student Evan Meirink.
“That was cool,” said Bill, who also has been tossing a ball against the house in preparation for the big day at Busch. “I figure they won’t let me up on that mound but I’m going to get as close as I can. I’ll be able to throw it that far, don’t worry.”
Being chosen for such as honor gives the humble Meirink a chance to get everyone who has helped him.
“I’m going to think about all the people I’ve met through this journey,” he said. “All the ones who struggle and go and get that treatment. Cancer’s a tough thing, it’s extremely tough mentally besides being physically tough, too.
“I’m going to think of all the people I’ve met through this thing, including the doctors and nurses. The support system that I’ve had through this whole thing is just off the charts, family and friends and everyone else. I’ve been blessed.”
In one of several good breaks along the way, Meirink said a family friend helped get them in with nationally known stomach cancer specialist Dr. Craig Lockhart. Meirink credits Lockhart with making a major difference in his treatment and outlook.
More than 100 family members and friends have already purchased tickets to join Meirink at Busch Stadium.
It was exciting for all of us about throwing out the first pitch, but it was really exciting for Bill because he’s like the biggest Cardinal fan ever.
Meirink’s wife, Anne Meirink
“I remember going over to his house the day after I found out about the diagnosis,” said Chip Krause, a good friend from Belleville who also coached youth baseball with Meirink. “He hasn’t changed. Not once have I ever heard Bill say ‘why me’ or ‘woe is me.’ He never felt sorry for himself.
“He hasn’t complained, nothing. That amazes me. He’s never asked anybody for any sympathy.”
Instead, Meirink has become something of an ambassador of kindness at Siteman during his chemotherapy treatments.
“He’s going through all this himself, but when we go over to treatment he makes sure that he knows every single person in that (chemotherapy) pod’s name and takes time to listen to their story,” Anne Meirink said, noting how her husband also carries a prayer card with him that includes the name of all the cancer patients that he’s met. “He prays for them and really reached out to all the people around him. He knows all the nurses and asks about their lives and families.
“He’s just such a good example for everybody. As much as he’s going through, he’s always looking to help somebody else.”
In the late summer of 2013, Bill Meirink was having stomach pain and a tough time swallowing.
“I went in and they did a scan and they said they saw a mass where your esophagus meets your stomach,” Meirink said.
His lymph nodes were swollen and his liver showed early signs of cancer. He began chemotherapy treatments at Siteman Center in St. Louis every two weeks at first, then every three weeks.
“I responded to treatment so well and other than the weeks that I would get the chemo, the next two weeks I’d feel pretty good. I could do anything I wanted to do basically,” Meirink said.
A decision was made to remove Meirink’s stomach and lymph nodes on March 31 of this year. He’s since lost 30 pounds.
“I’m getting used to a new diet and starting to get my strength back,” he said. “It’s a long haul.”
Meirink’s diet now consists of six to eight smaller meals a day and includes lots of protein. A long list of things he used to enjoy are now forbidden.
He can have smoothies and eats chicken, but salads are out because he can’t process the fiber as well.
“Before, anything that you put in front of me, that was my favorite food,” he joked.
I want people to feel as loved as I have felt for the last three years. It’s been incredible - and I want everybody to feel that love without the cancer. It’s very special, I am so blessed.
Meirink has found solace in Melani Vincelli, a mentor from the Debbie’s Dream Foundation.
“She’s seven years cancer-free and she had her stomach removed, too,” he said. “I love my garden and within the last couple weeks I’ve started some light workouts and riding my bike again. I want to ride the Tour de Belleville.”
Meirink’s children include Erin, Emily, Andy, Adam, Evan and the youngest daughter, 14-year-old Abbey.
Last Christmas, he had another gift ready for each of his children.
“He picked out a different hike for every one of the kids and said he’s going to take a hike with each one of them, one-on-one,” Anne Meirink said. “That’s really been important to him.”
The entire family has taken several vacations together, visiting Florida and later Yellowstone Park to visit the Grand Tetons and fishing on the Yellowstone River.
After his cancer diagnosis, Meirink hiked 12 miles a day with friend Mike Reeb on the Lake Superior ridge line trail in Minnesota.
Some of the more strenuous activities have been curtailed recently, but Meirink does what he can.
“This is harder than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I’ve just got to learn to be patient and keep my focus on the Lord and let him guide me.”
Meirink was blown away by a 2013 fundraiser held in his honor at Crehan’s in Belleville. Staged by family and friends, the near-overflow crowd an outpouring of support that still makes Meirink emotional.
“I want people to feel as loved as I have felt for the last three years,” he said. “It’s been incredible — and I want everybody to feel that love without the cancer. It’s very special, I am so blessed.
“Without God, I don’t know how people make it. I could not have made it without him. He’s first and then everything else falls into line. That’s from my heart.”
A love of baseball
Meirink’s love of baseball came from listening to Cardinals games on KMOX Radio with his father. That passion was fueled even more by trips to Busch Stadium with his brother, Ed.
“When we were growing up we’d catch the bus at Kresge’s and we’d go over there to St. Louis and get let off by the 7-11 and the Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Meirink said, “Then we’d go sit in the bleacher for a buck.”
One of Meirink’s fondest Cardinal memories was seeing Bob Forsch throw a no-hitter in 1978 against the Phillies on his birthday, April 16.
The only other time Meirink has been on the Busch Stadium field was a brief visit when his son, Adam, played there with Belleville West.
“I can’t imagine being out there, especially to throw a pitch,” said Meirink, a catcher and outfielder at Althoff High. “I’ve got to throw a strike. I’ve always said adversity makes you stronger, so I should be pretty strong by now.”