To the Rescue

updated 09/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At first no one took it too seriously. The plum-size bump on the back of 11-year-old Peter Partaker's right leg last fall was probably just a routine playground injury. Then a playful kick from his 9-year-old sister Susan left the boy writhing in pain. On Dec. 10, after a battery of tests, Peter learned what his family feared most: He was suffering from an aggressive form of soft-tissue cancer that would require prolonged treatment. Terrified, and weary of being probed by doctors, Peter had had enough. "When Peter woke in the hospital after his biopsy," says his mother, Sue, "he told me, 'I just want to come home.' "

In fact, home meant something special to Peter. The Partaker family had spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours remodeling the four-bedroom Tudor-style house in Edgebrook, a section of Chicago. "We worked on it for so long, and now we were actually going to be able to relax and enjoy it," says Peter, who had helped break down walls for the redesign.

But suddenly, even "home" was in jeopardy. Though friends and the community came to their aid with benefits, meals and help around the house, the Partakers worried that their medical insurance wouldn't keep pace with Peter's staggering bills. Feeling it was the only way to raise money quickly, Peter's father, Dave, 56, a government building inspector for the city of Chicago, put the $600,000 house up for sale.

But even as their spirits sank, the Partakers received word that help was on the way—and from a most unlikely source. Across town one day in April, commodities broker Jim Place, feeling sorry for himself after a bad day at the market, read a local newspaper story about the Partakers' plight. "You think you have problems until you see things like this," Place, 41, remembers telling his wife, Mary.

The next day, Place began enlisting friends at Chicago's Mercantile Exchange—renowned for its cutthroat traders in commodity futures—to contribute a minimum of $25 a month. Within hours, he had 25 commitments, enough to cover the first and second mortgages on the Partakers' house for an unlimited time. "We work fast," says Place of brokers. "We're impatient people used to getting things done quickly."

The Partakers received the first mortgage payment of $2,700 on May 15. So far, Place has contributed several thousand dollars of his own money and is prepared to write a check for the whole amount if need be. "It's all about children," says Place, the father of five. "Children give you a feeling you are needed."

Initially, the Partakers were guarded when Place phoned them with his offer. "There were people who wanted me to take Peter off chemo and put him on herbal tea," says Sue, 43, of the many oddball suggestions that the family received. "I thought it was another one of those calls." But Place reassured her, and in late May the two families celebrated with a barbeque at the Places' home. "Before you knew it, it was as if we'd known them forever," says Jim.

Then, a day later, tragedy struck the Places, when their youngest son, Jimmy, 4, died in a drowning accident. "It doesn't seem fair," says Dave Partaker. "Jim is trying to help someone else, and then this happens to his family." Since the accident, Jimmy's somber father has tried to find meaning in his son's premature death. "None of us will ever be 100 percent the same," he says, recalling his son's independent spirit and boundless optimism.

In the meantime, Peter, the second of four children, has completed his enervating course of chemotherapy and radiation. Historically, the cure rate for his type of cancer (alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma), which has spread to the lining of his brain, has not been encouraging. Yet doctors remain hopeful. When Peter isn't in the hospital for treatments or tests, he attends Cubs games, plays sports with his friends and has started attending sixth grade. He rarely complains and seems philosophical beyond his years. "Everybody has to go through a battle in life, and this is my battle," says Peter. "What I want most now is to get back to normal—to get up in the morning and go to school. Just a normal life."

Nick Charles
Barbara Sandler in Chicago

From Our Partners