Unlike most kids, Cole Vukich isn’t scared of the hospital.
The 6-year-old University Place boy likes his doctors, doesn’t flinch at needles and has a fondness for all kinds of medicine — except cough syrup.
That’s because Cole has mostly grown up in hospital rooms and clinics.
He was diagnosed at age 2 with biphenotypic acute leukemia, a rare blood cancer. The kindergartner currently is in remission.
On March 10, Cole’s father and 1,550 other firefighters from five countries will race up 69 flights of stairs at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle in full gear to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Cole is the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb’s honoree this year. That means he gets to be at the front of the drum and bagpipe procession leading the first firefighters to their starting point, and will wait on the 40th floor with his mother and two brothers to watch the firefighters on their way up.
This is the third year his dad, West Pierce Fire & Rescue firefighter Steve Vukich, has participated in the event. He signed up shortly after Cole was diagnosed, feeling he needed to show his support in as many ways as possible.
Some firefighters train for months, hoping to place high in the competitive event. Vukich’s schedule doesn’t allow much time for training. Besides, he’s more interested in raising money for the society.
He admits, however, that he’ll regret the lack of training as he slogs up the stairs lined with photographs of cancer patients.
“As you’re struggling to get up the stairs, you look up and you think, ‘Look at everything these guys have gone through,’” he said. “I can get up these stairs.”
Last year, Vukich clocked his best time ever. (The event record, set last year, is 10 minutes, 38.3 seconds.)
He thinks he did so well because he carried a blue token in his pocket given to him by Cole before the climb. The boy receives a token every time he has to be poked with a needle in treatment. Once he collects four, the nurses give him gift cards he hoards until he has enough to buy a video game.
Vukich was touched by his son’s gesture. He still tears up a bit remembering.
This year, West Pierce has a team of 26 firefighters. They’re the 10th-highest fundraising team, already bringing in $10,593 and counting.
At the Vukich home on a recent evening, the family discussed the event and Cole briefly abandoned building a Lego car with his twin brother to check out the 50 pounds of gear his dad has to strap on for the climb.
Cole placed a hand over a graphic of himself plastered across his dad’s face mask.
“That’s me,” he said with a grin.
Then he looked expectantly at Dad, who helped Cole strap on the mask. Next came the helmet. Tilting his head back so he could see, he diligently stepped into Vukich’s too-big boots and shuffled to the hallway mirror.
When asked how he looked, a muffled voice replied, “Good.”
After appearing in a commercial for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, retrieving a tee at halftime for a Seattle Seahawks playoff game in 2011 and kicking cancer’s butt, Cole has become a bit of hero to those who know his story.
Strangers don T-shirts and bracelets with his name, teachers compliment his upbeat nature, and the community continues to support the Vukich family.
It’s not hard to see why. Cole’s medical history is terrifying, especially for such a young tyke.
He’s endured 25 spinal taps, more than 100 intravenous chemo drips, five bone marrow aspirations, four CT scans, 10 MRIs, five platelet transfusions, surgery for port placement and more.
Cole takes one to nine chemo pills each day, overcame a blood clot in his brain caused by all the treatment, and is believed to be Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital’s longest continuing patient.
People repeatedly use the word “trouper” to describe Cole, who will finish chemotherapy in May.
“Everybody will celebrate then, but it’s one of the scariest times because you sit and pray and hope it doesn’t come back,” said his mother, Brooke Vukich.
While Cole plays a hero for many, the Vukichs still see him as their little boy. They’re just thankful to watch him grow up.
What: Scott Firefighter Stairclimb
When: March 10. The first firefighter will start at 9 a.m. and the rest will follow in 14-second intervals.
Where: Columbia Center, 701 Fifth Ave., in downtown Seattle, billed as the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi.
Vertical elevation: 788 feet.
Flights of stairs: 69.
Number of steps: 1,311.
Gear weight: 50 pounds.
Water breaks: Stations are set up about every 10 floors.
Participation: More than 1,550 firefighters from 281 departments around the world did the climb in 2012.
Goal: To raise $1.2 million.
Beneficiary: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
How to donate to the West Pierce Fire & Rescue team: Visit http://bit.ly/13o724W
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653