SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. - Up on the lavishly appointed stage at his Saddleback Church, Rick Warren looks out on a panorama of transfixed faces, deep into the third of four sermons he will deliver on this Sunday in November. Outside, where a chilly baptismal pool awaits the salvation of yet another soul, lengthening shadows begin to creep across the Santa Ana Mountains, which just a week before had been ablaze with racing wildfires. A special ceremony will be held later in the service to honor some of the firemen who battled the conflagration, but not before Warren has expounded upon the essence of his immensely popular book, "The Purpose Driven Life." With his shirttail flapping over the seat of a pair of faded jeans, the charismatic pastor declares in a booming voice: "Love is a many-layered thing!"
No one is better versed in the aspects of a purpose-driven life than Kim Hill, a 41-year-old woman in a wheelchair toward the rear of the church. Chances are you have never heard of her, but years ago in Philadelphia, as the 3-year-old daughter of Eagles tight end Fred Hill, she was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia and became the inspiration for a worldwide charity you have surely heard of: the Ronald McDonald House, which provides temporary shelter for the families of children who are receiving hospital care for serious illnesses. The untold story is that she beat her cancer, and for 18 years lived an altogether normal life, only to discover at age 24 that the heavy doses of radiation that she received as a child promoted the growth of brain tumors. Five surgeries have compromised her speech and left her with the use of only her right hand. Says Fred: "Kim has always been a fighter."
But this is not just the tale of what happened to the young girl whose sad circumstances led to such an outpouring of compassion. Folded inside of it is the journey of Fred and Fran Hill, the star athlete and the homecoming queen, grade-school sweethearts whose golden destiny veered into a realm of aching sorrow and who discovered just how many layers love has. While Kim has lived in a nursing home for 10 years due to the frequency of her seizures, the Hills attend church with her each Sunday and do whatever else they can to keep up her spirits, which they agree has become increasingly difficult. Kim has become depressed since spring, forgetful in ways that had not been evident before. The fight in her has gradually dimmed, yet there remains in the loose grip of that right hand the desire to hold on.
It's funny how couples sometimes get together. The Hills met in first grade at Roosevelt Elementary in Paramount, Calif. By ninth grade, they were going steady. Fred was an excellent football and baseball player who later played at Southern California under John McKay. Fran was a straight-A student and head cheerleader who held the distinction of being the yo-yo champion of a Los Angeles County suburb. She had a long ponytail then and asked him to attend a Sadie Hawkins dance. Fred was big for his age, with chiseled features, the very picture of the All-American boy. But he was shy with girls. Not long after they began going steady, Fred proposed that they get married in 7 years, once they were both finished with college.
"I remember the date exactly: Oct. 2," says Fran, seated at a patio table under an umbrella at their house in San Juan Capistrano. "I said, 'Gee, do you think we can wait that long?' We always had so much in common."
Fred laughs. "Our friends said, 'You should go out with other people.' We tried that for a while, but I got worried I would lose her, so I got her a ring and we said 'I do' at the end of our junior year in college."
There's a picture of them from those days on the wall of their house: They were sharing a milkshake through straws, both of them aglow with young love. In the early days of their marriage, they had a small place near USC, where Fred used to bring food home to Fran from the training table; she attended rival UCLA. The Red Sox had wanted to sign Fred at the end of his sophomore year, the spring the Trojans had won the College World Series, but McKay had told him he could play in the NFL if he could overcome the assorted injuries that hampered his football career. "I always had big games but never a big year," Hill says. The Eagles selected him in the fourth round of the NFL draft, and in the summer of 1965 he and Fran drove across the country to begin their new life in Philadelphia.
Kim was born in August 1966 in California. Fred Hill was in training camp with the Eagles when he received the news: "You have a little daughter!" The way the Hills remember it now, Kim was a "healthy, fun child" who was full of energy, occasionally even crawling out of her crib to explore. There was no sign of any of the problems she would have until her third birthday, when Fran noticed that she began waking up irritable from her naps. "I remember her heels hurt her when she walked," says Fran, who also noticed how easily her daughter bruised. Two weeks or so after Kim turned 3, Fran took her in and asked her doctor to perform a blood test. Initially, the doctor told her it was not necessary, that it had been done the previous year and had come up fine. But Fran told him she would feel better if she had some new lab work, if only because she herself had been anemic as a child.
Fred Hill was in North Carolina with the Eagles for a preseason game when Fran called him with the report on the blood work. He says, "I was getting my ankles taped and told our team doctor what her blood count was. And he said, 'Fred, it sounds like she has leukemia.' " He joined his wife the following day at Cooper Hospital, where a doctor confirmed the diagnosis of leukemia. "The doctor had tears in his eyes," says Fran. "Back in those days, children with leukemia did not live very long." Other doctors who consulted agreed that she had a 1-in-1,000 chance of living a year. Says Fran, "The belief was that she had anywhere between 6 weeks and 6 months. We were just heartbroken."
And it was never worse than on those days when Fred Hill would take Kim for chemotherapy at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. He used to drive her in from their place in South Jersey. On alternate weeks, she would have 5 consecutive days of chemotherapy and then just 1 day. And then every 6 weeks, she would have a spinal tap, an exceedingly painful ordeal that would leave her with a high fever and a splitting headache. Fran says, "She always wanted to know when they were going to do the big needle." On those days, her father would not tell her until they were on the Ben Franklin Bridge, at which point Kim would begin to cry hysterically. "When we got to the hospital, I would just grab her and stick her head between her legs until the intern stuck it in there," he says. "Occasionally, they had to take it out and push it back in until they came up with spinal fluid and not blood. Heck, once the guy missed several times."
No one knew then the enduring legacy that would emerge from this profound suffering. In what would become the foundation of the Eagles Fly for Leukemia, Fred and others helped organize a fashion show in Cherry Hill in 1972 on behalf of the Leukemia Society of America, an event that included the participation of the Eagles' wives. At the end of the affair (at which $12,000 was raised), team owner Leonard Tose summoned then assistant general manager Jim Murray to his table and told him to develop the charity on a grander scale. With the help of countless people along the way, the indefatigable Murray did precisely that, unaware that he also was setting in motion the first Ronald McDonald House. Told by Dr. Audrey Evans, the head pediatric oncologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, of her dream of providing a temporary residence for the families of children being treated at her hospital, Murray enlisted the support of McDonald's, which now has 272 houses in 30 countries. Says Murray: "And the seed of it was Kim."
What the Hills say now is that Kim went into remission fairly quickly, that it is conceivable she would have been fine without the 6 weeks of radiation she received as part of her treatment. "Young kids with leukemia were not living, so they just did not know," her father says. Kim received chemotherapy until she was 6 1/2, at which point her doctors discontinued it for fear of promoting organ damage. Fred Hill had come to the end of his football career and had gotten into real estate. He and Fran had two other young daughters by then, Kristina and Kyle. They missed California. So when Kim was in second grade, they moved back there and lived happily, though not ever after.
Conversation has become increasingly hard for Kim. On this Sunday before church, a van from the nursing home has dropped her off to be with her parents, who have sent for a carry-out order of some of her favorite Mexican dishes. Carefully, her son Andrew elevates a spoonful of food to her lips, occasionally wiping her chin with a napkin. Tattooed on the inside of his wrist is KIMBERLY. While Kim can remember events that happened years ago, she has been having difficulty with her short-term memory, which now seems to abandon her even before she completes a sentence. The inability to complete her thoughts leaves her inordinately frustrated, especially if the person with whom she is speaking gets impatient and tries to finish them for her.
Casually, Andrew asks, "Mom, what do you remember about Philadelphia?"
There is a long pause.
Kim frowns and replies, "I just remember the shots."
Fred smiles grimly. "She has gotten sadder lately," he says. "She always believed she would have a chance to walk again. But she has come to the realization that she never will. And that is real sad."
There is another long pause. Kim then says, "I used to be able to run so far."
Kim had a typical childhood once she overcame leukemia. She ran cross country for her school, sang in a choir and rode horses with her sisters up into the hills that surround her house. But she was also extraordinarily strong-willed and it was not uncommon for her to clash during her teenage years with her father, who worked as a medical-supply salesman before eventually buying three McDonald's franchises. "Very outspoken and strong-willed," says Fred Hill, whose three daughters have worked for him behind the counter. "In fact, it got to the point where I actually fired her." Kristina laughs. "Maybe it was because she was taken to the hospital and basically tortured as a baby, but boy, was she tough," she says. "Once Dad tried to keep her from leaving the house, and she floored the car and tried to run him over."
Kim went to live with an aunt in Riverside, where she attended school and got pregnant at age 20 with Andrew. The Hills have never met the father. "The boy did not get into the relationship with Kim to become a husband and a father," says Fran, who attended child-birth classes with her daughter. Fred Hill was in the delivery room when the baby was born. Kim and Andrew moved back in with her parents, but while Kim doted on her son, tensions in the house continued on as strained as ever. Fran says Kim was angry and eschewed any advice she and Fred offered. "Oh gosh, she was running around with these friends and we were baby-sitting Andrew," says Fran. "And we would say, 'Kim, what are you thinking?' But that unruly period ended when she came home one day from her job at a child-care facility and complained that she had been dropping things at work."
Fran told her she should get checked out.
A CAT scan revealed a brain tumor.
"They found it on Easter Sunday 1991," says Fran. "She was home alone when she got the call. And she cried hysterically."
Hearing that Kim had developed a brain tumor did not surprise her doctor, Stuart E. Siegel, the director of the Childrens Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases in Los Angeles. Siegel says that while it was unclear back in 1969 what the side effects of using radiation to treat childhood leukemia would be, the data from those who survived has been collected and indicates a tendency for patients to develop brain tumors. Siegel adds that Kim probably would not have received radiation today because her white blood count would not have placed her in a high-risk category to develop leukemia in the spinal fluid. Doctors in the 1960s only knew that 50 percent of the children with acute lymphatic leukemia ended up with a potentially fatal occurrence of the disease in the spinal fluid. Says Siegel: "So back then radiation would have been a necessary evil."
Two growths formed on her brain. Doctors performed her first surgery in April 1991, but could not eradicate them. Kim entered physical therapy and appeared to be coming around when she experienced a seizure that December. A second surgery was performed in January 1992, again followed by physical therapy and more radiation. But she continued to have seizures that only increased in intensity. Doctors performed a third surgery in March 1993, at which point Kim and Andrew moved into a condominium the Hills owned. There, Andrew slept in the same room with her, close at hand in the event that Kim had a seizure and help had to be summoned. Mobility also became an increasing problem for Kim, who regressed from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. Two subsequent surgeries were performed in 2002.
Seeing his mother in a state of perpetual decline has been difficult for Andrew. While he was just 3 when she had her first surgery, he can still remember the way she was before the enduring image of her became entangled in hospital tubes. The bond between them only strengthened through the years, during which he says he had only thought occasionally of his biological father. He thinks of Fred Hill as "Dad." While the two have also been at odds and Andrew concedes that "there have been periods when I have been [ticked] off at the world," he has come to appreciate how Fred stepped in and assumed the duties of a father, the way he took him to his games and worked with him to accumulate his scouting badges. Says Andrew: "I wonder how Dad and Mom - Fran, that is - I wonder sometimes how they have done it."
Kyle says, "They have shown us what love is."
Kyle and the others are amazed how Kim has hung in there. They think if she had been any less of a "tough customer," chances are she would have been gone years ago. But while Siegel says she is still apt to complain - which he views as a sign she wants to live - others say a spiritual side of her has blossomed in full, that she spends her days now at the nursing home with the radio fixed on a gospel station. However sad the better part of her 41 years have been, she likes to think that they were not without the purpose Rick Warren spoke of, that by some divine hand she was placed in the world to inspire other souls to build the Ronald McDonald House. Even as she appears to have slipped into this enveloping despair, she appreciates what her parents, her sisters and her son have done for her and is always sorry to hear if any of them have had a bad day.
"Oh," she will say. "I will pray for you."
How long ago it now seems, that blessed summer day at the airport in Philadelphia. The terminal was especially crowded that day, with passengers hurrying this way and that, and Fred Hill stood at one of the gates in anticipation of an arrival from Los Angeles. The door opened and out stepped Fran, their baby daughter wrapped in blankets and cradled in her arms. Fred rushed up to her and began clearing a path for them, worried that someone would bump into them.
Excitedly, he announced: "Be careful, you guys! She has a baby."
They had a baby.
"Freddie was just so cute," Fran says with a laugh. "Here he was, this young, handsome athlete, and he was just so nervous."
Hill laughs and says, "I was just concerned someone was going to blindside them."