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Community unites behind 18-month-old cancer patient

On Sunday, friends of Kaitlynn Koehler will be betting on her future.

They will hop from pub to pub across Hernando County, collecting cards in an event called a poker run that will raise money for the 18-month-old girl's family to cover medical bills.

Kaitlynn, of Spring Hill, was diagnosed with cancer in January.

Ken Lepine, general manager of South 41 Auto Sales in Brooksville, helped organize the event.

"We just decided that this was a little girl and she needs our help," said Lepine, whose company donated a 1994 Geo Prism to be raffled to raise money. "That's all it took to get us involved."

Kaitlynn first became ill after a holiday visit with family in New Jersey, said her mother, Lori Ritz.

"We came home, and I was back to work two days, and she just turned yellow," said Ritz, a single mother who worked as a referral coordinator for a local doctor until her daughter became ill. "My life changed overnight."

Doctors at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg found that although Kaitlynn had a fairly common form of cancer, the tumor was situated in her bile duct, making it inoperable. Instead, Kaitlynn's treatment, which has been successful in other patients, will include 42 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

"That was such bad news," said Ritz, 35. "It's hard to watch your baby change like that. It's almost inhumane what they have to go through."

On Tuesday night, a slight fever sent Kaitlynn back to the hospital until doctors can determine the cause of the problem. With her lowered immunity because of the chemotherapy, they did not want to take any chances, Ritz said.

Other than mild asthma, Kaitlynn, the youngest of four children, was healthy, said Ritz.

Since January, Ritz said, Kaitlynn's medical expenses have topped a half-million dollars. Though she is on Medicaid, it is difficult to make ends meet, she said.

"It's just unbelievable," she said. "Every little shot costs a couple of hundred dollars. It's crazy."

Despite the overwhelming costs and painful chemotherapy treatments for Kaitlynn, Ritz said she feels comforted by the kindness and generosity of others.

"When you think there are no more good people in the world, another door opens to show you that you're not alone," she said. "The world is full of good people."

Erin Carter, who works at Connections bar in Brooksville and helped coordinate the fundraiser, agreed.

"The family didn't even have to ask," Carter said. "Everyone just sort of rallied around them. It's amazing to see this community come together."

In the poker run, participants will pay $10 per person or $15 per couple to enter. They will visit five bars, picking up a playing card at each, then see who has the best poker hand. Prizes will be awarded.

Sunday's event starts at 10 a.m. at Warlock's Motorcycle Club, 15465 Wiscon Road, Brooksville, then continues to the Keg in Ridge Manor, Bubba's in Weeki Wachee, Bayport Inn in Bayport and T-Bones, west of Brooksville. The event ends between 1 and 4:30 p.m. at Connections, 18640 Cortez Blvd., Brooksville. People need not participate in the poker run to attend the raffle at Connections.

"This is a blue-collar bar," said Connections owner Jack Solomon. "It's been pretty rough on the family, and we can all understand what that must be like."

Despite the negative stereotypes that some people have of motorcycle enthusiasts, Ritz said she could never hope for a better community to come to her aid.

"They are very big-hearted," she said. "They're some of the best kind of people in the world, and it's too bad they have such a bad reputation."

For information about Sunday's fundraiser, call 799-6468.