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Two young friends, forever dreaming

Sun columnist

Back then, it was just two girls sitting on a bed, each with a dream beating deep inside.

There was Kimmie Meissner, just 14 years old at the time, brown hair past her shoulders. Her dream was to figure skate in the Olympics.

And there was Kati Fisher, also 14, no hair left. Anyone else in her position would have been content just walking, but her dream was always to run. Kati knew that running would raise money to fund the battle against the disease that was sapping the life from her.

They came together by chance, their friendship sprouting at the speed of two teenage girls chatting. And now, two years later -- with Kimmie a day away from competing in the Turin Games -- both dreams are close to realization.

  • Let's back up a couple of steps, before the letters and the phone calls and the tears. Kati had heard of Kimmie Meissner, the successful figure skater from Bel Air. Meissner had been making a name for herself internationally as one of the top junior skaters. Kati couldn't skate. She had been diagnosed in January 2000 with leukemia. What followed was a parent's nightmare -- radiation, shots, medication and 109 weeks of chemotherapy. The outlook was grim, and she barely made it out of the first month. "I remember somebody talking to her, and they asked her, 'What's the toughest part about being sick?'" says Richard Fisher, her father. "She didn't even hesitate. 'To see another kid get a treatment. I can't stand to see someone else go through these things.'" Kati returned to school for her fifth-grade graduation, bald, 45 pounds and a nasal tube taped to her face. She kept fighting, though, her smile brightening the hallways of Johns Hopkins Hospital. In early 2002, the cancer had gone into remission. She slowly regained her strength and excitedly talked about a new beginning. Kati wanted to run marathons. It was about this time that Kimmie's life began speeding up, too. She found the figure-skating podium eight times in 2002 and 2003, first in novice competitions and then junior. Kimmie is bright and friendly. She has three older brothers, a mother who's never too far away and a father who works as a podiatrist in Cockeysville. In early 2004, a patient came in to see Paul Meissner. He talked about a buddy's daughter, this tiny ball of light in the middle of every room, who had recently relapsed. Paul Meissner got home and told his daughter about Kati, this sick girl from Glen Burnie who had already beaten back cancer once. Kimmie went to the telephone, and the two girls talked. Not long after, they talked again. And then again. They hopped from topic to topic -- Harry Potter, 7th Heaven, Orlando Bloom. Soon after, Kimmie found herself in the Netherlands competing in the 2004 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. She dedicated the performance to her new friend. Kimmie finished second, raising eyebrows throughout the skating community. When she returned to Maryland, she couldn't wait to visit Kati in the hospital. A goal to run Kati's memory had been slipping. And her strength was mostly gone. Doctors were doing everything they could. And still the weak little girl kept talking about running, of all things. It was near the end of 2000 when the Fisher family had first learned about Team in Training. Officials with the program approached Kati and asked her to be an honorary teammate. Team in Training is an organization that runs in marathons around the country, finding sponsors that will donate money to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They wanted Kati to help put a face on the disease and encourage sponsors to open their checkbooks. Kati had never run a race, but she fell in love with Team in Training. She liked the mission, the people and their enthusiasm for battling her disease. 'I can do this' The folks at the Make-a-Wish Foundation asked Kati what she wanted more than anything. She didn't even consider visiting Walt Disney World, meeting a celebrity or watching a rock concert. Kati wanted to go to California to cheer on Team in Training at the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. "Dad, I can do this," she told her father. "I can run a marathon." "Well, OK, but you realize ..." he started. "No, I'm serious. I can do it." Kati did some research and learned that she needed to be 16 years old to run the marathon. That meant June 2006. Still years away, Kati went to school counselors to make sure she could miss class. That's how serious she was. In the meantime, she wanted to be around runners as much as possible. When his daughter became set on her dream, Richard Fisher opened a running store in Glen Burnie. "Oh, no!" she told him one day, sitting in the shop and flipping through a running magazine. "Rhode Island has dropped their marathon. How am I going to do one in all 50 states if Rhode Island doesn't have one?" 'Old friends' Before the 2004 championships, the Meissners bought a stuffed teddy bear, and Kimmie put a special hat in a bag. She had made sure to get all of the top figure skaters to sign it, skating celebs like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen. When they walked through the doors on the eighth floor of the Oncology Unit, Kimmie went right over to Kati and sidled up next to her on the bed. "It was like they were old friends," says Judy Meissner, Kimmie's mother. The two girls rattled on -- boys, school, skating. Kati would make jokes about her bald head. Kimmie's giggle bounced off the hospital room walls. "Both of us like to laugh," Kimmie says, "so that's what we did." Others had passed through the hospital before, but Kimmie was the one who really touched Kati. And a funny thing happened. Kimmie was touched, too. The parents looked on in amazement. One girl was stuck in bed, a web of wires, tubes and needles keeping her alive. The other was boundless energy, a girl who could effortlessly fly around an ice rink as though a puppeteer were pulling strings high above. "It was just incredible," says Richard Fisher. "There are all these things separating these two girls, things that set them apart from each other. But none of that changed who either one was on the inside." Kimmie told her parents how inspiring Kati was. It would help her skate. And Kati told her father how inspiring Kimmie was. It would help her fight. There would be more phone calls and more visits, of course. Kati would talk openly about her health. Before she'd hang up, Kimmie would make sure Kati would stay healthy enough for the next phone call and for the next visit. End of the battle In early March 2004, Kati's condition took a turn for the worse. She made her father promise that even if she couldn't run in that San Diego marathon, he'd push her in a wheelchair. "Of course I will," he said. There was a lung infection and a medical coma. The young girl was unresponsive, but her father was still hearing her voice. "You know, Dad, I've lived a pretty full life," she said one time. "I may not have been everywhere, but I've felt everything." In the early morning, on March 31, 2004, Kati Fisher lost her battle. Richard Fisher went home to talk with his other daughter, Sara. Several weeks before, Kati had confided a secret to her sister. She'd written a couple of letters. Kati hid them in a secret journal and made Sara promise to wait before reading them. So that morning, just a few hours after he lost his daughter, Fisher heard from her one last time. Kati told him that she loved him, and she asked him to take care of her sister. And, at the end, Kati asked her dad to "never stop fighting to find a cure." Later in the day, after Kimmie had finished school and finished skating, her mom broke the news. Kimmie started crying. She said life was unfair. She begged for one last chance to talk with her friend. "I never really thought that she wouldn't make it," Kimmie says. "She was getting better, and I thought she would be all right." Celebrating Kati On April 4, 2004, more than 400 people gathered for Kati's celebration of life ceremony. Kimmie was there with eyes full of tears. Inside, her emotions were chasing each other in circles. She felt guilt. "I don't know why my life took this path and hers took that path," she told her mother. "We're both the same age and she went that way, and I'm going this way. Why?" Nearly two years have passed, and the two dreams are still very much alive. Kati's big race is just a couple of months away. Her father is planning to run in June on behalf of his daughter. So are 75 others. Each one is seeking pledges, continuing the fight. Cancer "gave her a different outlook," Kati's father says. "She'd always say, 'Everybody has problems. Cancer just happens to be mine.' I like to tell people that she loved her life more than she hated her circumstances." A few weeks ago, Richard Fisher scribbled out a note and mailed it to the Meissners in Bel Air. Kimmie had just finished up at the U.S. championships, where she took second place and earned a spot on the Olympic team. Her dream was coming true. Kimmie got the letter a couple of days later. She opened it and began crying. Kati's father wished Kimmie good luck in Turin. He told Kimmie that he'd be thinking of her and that there would be an angel above watching her skate. "I don't understand what God or what fate brought them together," says Judy Meissner, "I hope that in some way, it brought a little bit of happiness to Kati. ... I just know that for our child, this changed her life in a way I can't explain. I know that they were brought together for a purpose." Kimmie immediately hung Fisher's note on the wall above her bed. "I always think about Kati if I'm down or something," Kimmie says. "It helps me. She had such a great approach to life." Next to the note on her bedroom wall, a picture hangs. The friends are forever seated on a hospital bed, two young girls, two smiles and two dreams.
    Tribute to Kati Richard Fisher and 75 others will be running in the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon on behalf of his daughter, Kati Fisher, in June. The runners are hoping to raise at least $250,000. The money benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For information about Team in Training, visit
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