J.P. Kullman | June 10, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 10, 2011

J.P. Kullman

'Keep your head up'

Staring down cancer is not one of the stresses normally associated with high school.

But for new Palo Alto High School graduate J.P. Kullman, fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma was the paramount challenge of his freshman, sophomore and junior years.

Everything else — from academics to wrestling to singing tenor in the Paly choir — had to come second.

Kullman attributes his on-time graduation from Paly this week to the Hospital School, a little-known program of the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Since 1924, the district has operated the K-12 hospital-based program, now located in two cheerful classrooms on the third floor of Packard Children's Hospital.

"I probably wouldn't be graduating now without it," Kullman said in an interview last week.

As he endured infections, fevers, chemotherapy — and, ultimately the autologous bone-marrow transplant that cured him — the Hospital School's teachers and volunteers guided him through much of his course work.

Whether he was an inpatient or an outpatient, "the Hospital School gave me opportunities when I wasn't ready to go back to regular school," he said.

"It's a lot like independent study, with resources like volunteers who are qualified teachers to help you understand things if you need help."

Kullman was a Paly freshman, running eight miles a day as part of training for wrestling, when extreme itchiness from head to toe sent him to the doctor.

After multiple visits to dermatology, he also developed a persistent cough — and an X-ray ordered by his Kaiser Permanente pediatrician revealed a grapefruit-sized chest tumor.

Kullman completed chemotherapy at a new Kaiser oncology center in Santa Clara. But when the cancer reappeared some months later, he was sent to Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford for the bone-marrow transplant.

"Whatever we needed, the people at the Hospital School were really supportive," he said.

"If you weren't feeling well one day, you could just call in and say, 'I'll see you tomorrow.'

"I had plenty of friends there. There was one guy from Gunn, and we were always yapping about sports because we're rival schools, of course. We had the same disease, so we've kept in touch."

One year, Kullman even took a fellow patient to the Hospital School prom.

By second semester of his junior year, he was back at Paly for good.

Kullman says what he'll miss most about high school is the Paly choir, where he sang all four years and with whom he traveled to Budapest, Vienna and Prague last summer.

He'll least miss what he calls "the Palo Alto entitlement, or Shallow Alto.

"Not everybody around here, but some people, are not thankful for what they have," he explained.

After some summer camping with his family, Kullman aims to attend community college and eventually to become an oncology nurse.

"If you have a nurse that's friendly, interacting with you and treating you like an actual human being it's really nice, and I want to do that for people," he said.

His advice to a young cancer patient, or for any young person coming to Paly: "Keep your head up. Things could always be worse. Cherish every moment that you have, and try to get through the day and stay positive."

—Chris Kenrick