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Don’t Chew ... Results aren’t pretty

March 8, 2012

Photo by Deb Mayor

By his own admission he is sometimes difficult to understand. Yet, even with only half a tongue, Gruen VonBehrens captivates a room full of teenagers, his story commanding an emotional silence.
There are many programs and public speakers designed to raise awareness for teens to issues such as alcohol or tobacco use, but few seem able to relate to them on the level Gruen can. As the spotlight shines on him and his tragic story begins to unfold, it quickly becomes clear the kids are listening.
Gruen shared that story last Friday in the Broken Bow Middle School auditorium, with students from Callaway, Arnold, Anselmo-Merna and Broken Bow.
It began when, at the age of 13, he was camping with some friends when one of them offered him a dip of chewing tobacco. It seemed harmless enough - after all, he lived in a rural area where lots of young guys did it. So he tried it.
Gruen says he didn't much care for the tobacco at first. It made him dizzy and a little nauseous. But he did it again anyway - and again, and again. He continued using tobacco through his teen years, and being a star baseball player it just seemed like the thing to do. He was a good athlete, well liked and popular in high school. His ability on a baseball diamond made him highly sought after to play college ball, and by the time he was 17 Gruen had scholarship offers to the college of his choice. He seemed to have it all.
But he was keeping a secret, one he knew could destroy everything he had worked for. He was sick, and doing all he could to hide it from everyone he knew - especially his mom.
Gruen's father had walked away from the family when he was very young, and he had been raised by just his mother. He has a profound respect and love for her, and though he didn't always show that as a teenager, he knew that his sickness would devastate her.
His mom had begun to notice that Gruen wasn't able to eat very well, and his speech was getting more and more unclear. She had no idea that the inside of mouth was coated with white sores, and his tongue had begun to split in half. He was losing weight, drooling and exhibiting slurry speech - yet he did his best to convince his mom that everything was fine.
One day she loaded him in the caron the premise that she was taking him shopping. Instead, she drove right by the mall and pulled in to the dentist office. She believed that the cause of Gruen's problem was wisdom teeth, and she had made an appointment to have them extracted. Seeing no way out, Gruen went into the doctor's office with her.
As he sat in the dentist's chair, watching as the doctor prepared the shots that would soon deaden his mouth, he finally came clean and told the doctor what was really wrong. "I have cancer," he said. Of course his mother was stunned. And the doctor didn't see how this young man could possibly know he had cancer - until he looked in Gruen's mouth. Gruen's worst fears were true, he had cancer.
As a surgical nurse, his mother was all to familiar with what a diagnosis like that meant for her young son. And as Gruen suspected, she was devastated by the news.
"Having to see the pain in that woman's eyes when she found out I had cancer, was the hardest thing I have ever had to do," Gruen says.
The team of doctors wasted no time, and Gruen underwent his first surgery which lasted 13 hours. He spent more than a month in the hospital. Since then, he has had 33 more surgeries.
"My class started their senior year while I lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from the damage I had done to myself with tobacco."
When he got out of the hospital he went through radiation therapy. Nearly two years later, thinking it was all behind him, Gruen started college. Of course, his baseball career was over, but that was not the worst of it. His teeth began to fall out as a result of the radiation, and at the age of 19 all of his teeth had to be pulled.
Most of his lower jaw had to be removed, and bone and skin were taken from other areas of his body to try and rebuild his jaw. The surgery left him extremely disfigured, which took a huge toll on the then teenager.
"I went from being the person people looked up to, to the person people looked at. People stare and point, and whisper. Little kids are scared of me and ask their moms why I look like this."
It has been 17 years since Gruen was diagnosed with cancer in his mouth as a result of tobacco use. He now makes it his mission to warn as many young people as he can about the dangers of tobacco use, in hopes of saving them from having to go through what he has had to endure.
"Nobody told me I had to be here today. I am not here as an authority figure or to tell you you're a bad kid. I come here today as your friend, as somebody who wants to give you the opportunity to make good choices with your life. I do this because I know in my heart, if somebody would have come to me when I was your age looking the way I look, I would have taken a different path in my life."
Gruen says through all he has been through he has learned some valuable life lessons. He encouraged the teen audience to respect their parents, to learn to like themselves just the way they are, to be nice to others and to take nothing for granted.
"I don't like what has happened to me, but I don't feel sorry for myself. I am thankful for the blessings I have been given, and always appreciate the good things in life."
The presentation was sponsored by the BBHS YOADA group. Gruen VonBehrens travels all across the U.S. and Canada sharing his message, and has spoke to more that 3 million kids in 46 states. He has also addressed the United States Congress about tobacco-related issues, particularly large tobacco companies targeting kids.
Though he misses being away from his wife and children, Gruen says he feels burdened to continue his campaign against teen tobacco use. His story, and his life, are a true inspiration to all ages.

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