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Cancer patients' treatment eased by menagerie beyond glass

The birdhouses are small and unpretentious, blending so well into their natural surroundings that you might not notice them at first.

But for some chemotherapy patients at the Citrus Hematology & Oncology Center in Inverness, the handful of houses and bird feeders have become magnets for a new flock of feathered and furry friends.

Many of the patients spend upwards of five hours at a time receiving treatments, usually resting in vinyl recliners and staring out the window into the woods behind the center off Highland Boulevard.

It can be a contemplative time, a chance to meditate on the challenges in one's life. It can also be frightening because of the constant reminders of why they are there.

Some patients looked out the picture windows and saw nothing more than a bunch of trees. Tom Klerk gazed through the glass and saw life.

Klerk has blended an enormously upbeat attitude _ and top-notch medical care _ to keep his colon cancer at bay for two years. The 74-year-old retired airplane mechanic is not ready to stop living _ he has too much left to do.

But Klerk is also a realist. He knew that many of his fellow cancer sufferers at the center needed help if they were to find a measure of peace.

One day, the idea struck him. Why not put a birdhouse in the woods outside the center? Maybe a couple of birds would drop by and give the patients even a brief distraction from their misery.

With the support of Dr. Craig Englund, Klerk hammered together a modest birdhouse and hung it just outside the center's large picture windows. The birds liked it; so did the patients.

Soon, there was a second birdhouse, then a third. A friend donated a cement birdbath that Klerk wrestled into place. Now, there are four houses, a bath and at least one feeder. There's even a salt lick for the deer.

It's hard to say who is enjoying the little neighborhood more, the animals that are flocking to the food or the patients who have adopted the critters.

"I would go there and no one would talk to anyone, they would just sit there and get their treatments," Klerk said. "It was depressing. You'd stare at the bag (of medication) and it would look like it would never empty.

"Now, you hear 'em laughing at the animals. Those squirrels, they put on a show. The people give them names, "Oh, that one without the tail, that's so and so.' It gives them something to do."

Dr. Englund is not surprised by the positive effects of Klerk's idea. When he planned the center, Englund wanted a pastoral scene for his patients. His Crystal River office has an atrium to create a similar soothing atmosphere.

While no study has definitively connected a positive attitude with successful cancer treatment, patients with a good outlook are more likely to participate in their care, he said.

Even Englund appears to have caught the spirit.

"We have the fattest squirrels in town," he said, looking out his office window. "We've seen screech owls, wild turkeys, raccoons, even deer."

All of which brings a smile to Tom Klerk's face, quite an accomplishment considering what he has been through since his cancer diagnosis and surgery two years ago.

"My doctor told me the cancer was bad," he said. "He said, "We have A, B, C and D classifications. If we had an E, that's how I'd classify it.'

"They told me that I died on the (operating) table, and the anethesiologist brought me back," Klerk said. "I didn't want to die.

"The doctors will tell you, if you want to lay down and die, go ahead. But why do that? I wanted the treatment. See what happens."

Klerk, a World War II veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, wanted to fight back. He was given six to eight months to live. This week he and his family celebrated his second year of living past the surgery.

"I beat the odds," he said proudly.

It hasn't been easy. When he talks of the effect his illness has had on his wife, Moira, the tears begin to flow and he can't complete his thought. But he brightens at the memory of how much quality time he has spent with his older brother, Cornelius "Cory" Klerk, of Inverness.

For people in his condition, time takes on special significance. That's why he willingly goes for his treatments _ made easier to take now because of the show his furry friends perform.

"Sometimes, I look forward to going," he said. "Everyone who goes there knows their time is limited. When I go, I tell myself, "Geez, I made another week!' "