Beating Childhood Cancer Shaped Mott Employee’s Career Path

September 28, 2017 7:00 AM

A familiar face around the hospital, one C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital staffer overcame cancer as a teen, which influenced the man he would become.

Over the past six years, Joel Maier has become famous for rigging fart machines to stuffed animals, his ingenious Halloween costumes and other wacky ways to make kids smile.

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A certified child life specialist at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, he works hard to help young patients in various departments cope during their treatment.

What many Mott families might be surprised to know, however, is that Maier was once a Little Victor himself.

Unexpected diagnosis

At age 16, Maier was an active teen with a busy schedule juggling soccer, school, church and family, when he began to get intense and frequent headaches.

Signs of trouble were noticeable on the soccer field as well.

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“I’d notice I was having trouble getting my feet to do what I wanted them to do,” he recalls. “Sometimes I’d lose my bearings and I wouldn’t even realize I was passing the ball to the other team.”

One particularly intense headache resulted in the teenager walking out of school; his mother later found him curled up on the couch.

That night, Maier had his first MRI, and the next day they learned what was behind his symptoms: a large brain tumor at the base of his cerebellum that frequently blocked spinal fluid from his brain and the source of his headaches.

Still, he says, “I was a healthy teenager and thought I was invincible.”

Joel Maier, then 16, during his cancer treatment at Mott.

A new reality

Considered the most common childhood brain tumor, Maier’s type of cancer medulloblastoma tends to spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord.

Things moved quickly after his diagnosis. The Holt, Michigan, resident was admitted to a local hospital and then transferred to Mott for further care.

“When you hear that you have cancer, it’s just words,” Maier recalls thinking. “They don’t have meaning. I don’t think it was real to me until they were rolling me back to the operating room and I looked back and saw tears in my parents’ eyes. That was the first time it sunk in.”

Maier underwent a high-risk operation with Mott pediatric neurosurgeon Hugh Garton, M.D., to remove the tumor, followed by six weeks of radiation and nearly a year of chemotherapy to ensure no cancer cells remained.

Fortunately, Maier has since remained cancer-free. But his hospital days, he would soon discover, weren’t over.

Maier, pictured during his early days on the job at Mott, works with a patient.

Profession with purpose

In college, Maier briefly explored the idea of being a physical therapist. It didn’t stick, though, and he found himself in his guidance counselor’s office looking for ideas.

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“She heard what I was saying about wanting to work with kids and wanting to make a difference,” he says. “She suggested child and family life, and it sounded perfect.”

After completing his formal studies and an internship at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, Maier began his career at Mott.

Today, the 29-year-old is part of a dynamic trifecta of Michigan Medicine employees: His fiancée, Shae, works for the Office of Medical Development, and Denver, the golden retriever whom he cares for, is a popular full-time hospital dog at Mott.

Maier’s perspective on cancer is complex. While he wouldn’t wish the disease on anyone, he also credits his tumor for making him the man he is today.

“I feel very fortunate for how my cancer was cured, and it’s that much harder for me to see how many kids don’t get the same positive outcome,” he says, noting that his job allows him to see how little progress has been made in childhood cancer treatment since his own occurred.

“I care for kids who had the same surgery I did, and they’re looking down the road at exactly the same treatment I had.”

Maier is nonetheless encouraged by U-M’s recent advances and research findings in fighting various childhood cancers.

“We’re finally making progress,” he says. “Now we just need to speed it up.”

The Block Out Cancer initiative raises essential funding for groundbreaking childhood cancer research at U-M. Check out Maier’s fundraising team.