As a trained Army medic in Iraq, Bill Kohler was responsible for frontline trauma care on the battlefield. He was a soldier that provided care for disease and battle injuries to his comrads in the absence of a doctor. He was experienced at saving lives and helping wounded soldiers.
Bill Kohler would now have to face one of the toughest challenges of his life, but it wasn’t on the battlefield in Iraq caring for his comrads that were injured. No. This battlefield was at home and it was personal. It was his very own 10-year-old son, Ayden who was battling cancer.
Ayden Ziegler-Kohler was a typical 10-year-old boy. He was funny, kind and loved to play sports. One day during football practice Ayden collapsed on the field. They thought it was just a concussion, but shortly thereafter, his condition began deteriorating and he was diagnosed with an agressive and rare cancer that had attacked his brain stem and cerebellum – diffuse instrinsic pontine glioma.
For Bill Kohler, an Army medic, this was a battle that frankly no soldier is prepared for, let alone a parent.
There are some conversations a parent never wants to have with children. And undoubtedly, the hardest is talking with a child about death — his death.
But that’s exactly the situation Bill Kohler found himself in with his son, Ayden. Seven months prior, Ayden had been diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma.
DIPG is a rare cancer that affects the brain stem. Patients rarely live for more than a year after diagnosis.
Ayden’s case, though, was worse. He had not one, but two brain tumors — and he knew he was dying.
As a former Army medic who’d completed a tour of duty in Iraq, Kohler knew what it was like to lose people. But he didn’t know how to face his son’s demise.
He tried to get Ayden into countless clinical trials after the diagnosis. But he’d only received rejection after rejection.
“I was a medic in the war, you know, and you fix things,” Kohler told The York Daily Record. “And this was something I couldn’t even touch.”
So he made a pledge: If he couldn’t cure Ayden’s disease, he’d do everything he could to make his remaining days as rich and full as possible. That meant meeting WWE wrestling stars, chatting with celebrity chef Guy Fieri over FaceTime, hunting in the woods, and joining the team members of the York Generals semi-professional football team for a fundraiser.
“We looked at the day, and we looked at how we could make that day the best we could,” Ayden’s mother, Jennifer Zeigler, said to Public Opinion. “Every day.”
But there came a time when even that was too much. Ayden eventually reached a point where he couldn’t walk, eat, or even breathe well.
That was when he said the words Kohler hoped he’d never hear: “Dad, I gotta quit.”
Kohler answered in the only way he knew how, saying, “I’ll make you a promise. If you’ve fought as much as you can and as hard as you can and you feel you fought that hard, I promise you it’s OK to quit.”
Ayden soldiered on, and a mere seven months and seven days after being diagnosed, his battle ended. He had only one final request.
“If people gather to remember me, I want them to dance, sing, and take group pictures,” he said. “If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say happy, funny, athletic, wise, fighter, caring, and selfless.”
After almost an 8th month battle with the cancer, Ayden Zeigler-Kohler died in his Springettsbury Township home, surrounded by people who loved him. He was 10.
Ayden’s two older brothers were among the family that had gathered at his bedside Monday night. The three of them had a saying they would recite to each other. Together, they said it one last time.
“Bub, I love you to the moon and back,” said Arian Kohler.
“And to the end of the world,” said Ayden.
He pointed to his second brother.
“And to the end of the sun,” finished Pierce Bloom.
Ayden didn’t wake up again after Tuesday night. His young heart held on until Wednesday morning. When it finally stopped, his dad went to his side.
“Thank you for giving me everything you’ve given,” he said. “Go run again, play again. I love you, son.”
For Army medic and father, Bill Kohler this battle was over. His son’s short life on earth ended, but the battle scars for Army medic Bill Kohler will remain forever. Ayden’s life is a reminder and celebration of life that will go on forever in the hearts and minds of those he loved.
Contributions may be made in Ayden’s name to support DIPG research in the Dr. Eric Raabe laboratory at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.