When Kelly Rothe walked into the Red Wings’ locker room, she nearly spoiled the surprise that was waiting for her.
While the original plan had been to save her favorite player’s locker for last, Kelly made a bee line for the "Howard" nameplate before anyone could even think about stopping her.
Filled with sheer joy, Kelly began rummaging through a gift bag that sat at the bottom of the goaltender’s locker, and nearly jumped out of her shoes when she looked up and saw who stood before her.
"These are for you," said Jimmy Howard, handing a beautiful bouquet of flowers to his biggest fan.
Kelly’s reaction was priceless.
Oh my God, Jimmy Howard just gave me flowers.
"Oh my God, Jimmy Howard just gave me flowers," she said, tears beginning to fill her eyes.
Tears, smiles and laughter filled the room as Kelly and her family enjoyed the entire experience.
Just for a moment, they could forget about the disease that changed their lives forever and the ticking bomb on the 20-year-old’s chest.
Kelly inherited the BRCA1 gene, which greatly increases the likelihood that she will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
Nancy Rothe, Kelly’s mother, lost her four-and-a-half-year battle with breast cancer nearly 12 years ago, leaving behind 9-year-old Kelly and 6-year-old twins, Samantha and Evan.
Kelly’s father, Bob, knew his daughters had a 50-50 chance of contracting the disease as well.
"You’re kind of prepared all along for it to be positive and if it turned out negative we would’ve been greatly appreciative, but we were prepared," said Bob. "When my sister-in-law was diagnosed, that’s when we kind of knew that my wife had the gene also. It was not a question of if, it was just when Kelly wanted to be tested, and she wanted to be tested right away."
Kelly was tested three years ago, confirming the family’s worst fears.
Kelly decided to take a preventative measure to ensure she could be an active mother and her children would never have to see her suffer.
"I watched my mom die in front of me," Kelly said. "Granted, my kids wouldn’t watch that, it would be a completely different situation, but I want to be an active mom, I want to be actively involved in my children’s lives, and I not being able to hold them for six weeks is just too much. Nothing is worth that."
It was an incredibly brave decision, but one that didn’t come as a surprise to her family.
"It proves everything we already knew about her," said Samantha. "She’s showing the world how brave and amazing she is. She’s not doing this just for herself, to help make sure she can live to see her kids grow up; she’s doing this to open the eyes of other people, to help them. She’s saving lives right now."
Including her younger sister’s. At 17 years old, Samantha is too young to be tested for the gene, but will have the test performed as soon as she is able to.
While her sister continues to wait, Kelly decided she couldn’t. Kelly will be entering her senior year at Eastern Michigan University this fall, where she is studying special education. A healthy young woman with dreams of being an active mother, she couldn’t think of a better time to have the surgery.
It wasn’t easy to persuade a surgeon to perform a double mastectomy on a 20-year-old woman, though.
"She walks in the room and she goes, ‘Kelly, I don’t know why you’re here. Never in a million years would I do a mastectomy on a 20-year-old,’" Kelly said of the first appointment with her surgeon.
"And then I said, ‘OK, listen, this is my family. You’ve treated them, you know my family history, this is why I’m doing this now, and I need to know are you going to do this or do I need a referral for another surgeon?’"
Kelly had made her point clear, and the double mastectomy was scheduled for May 9.
That was where the Red Wings came in.
After having a private dinner in the Olympia Club where her family was serenaded by the local band Kaleido, Kelly, an avid Wings fan, met her favorite player.
On the eve of one of the most important days of her life, she could barely put into words what the act of kindness meant to her.
"First off, he’s better-looking in person," Kelly said with a laugh. "I was just overwhelmed; it’s offseason, he came to The Joe just for me. I was talking to his agent and apparently he got on a flight last night (Friday) to go somewhere else, so he stayed around in Michigan an extra day just to see me and to wish me good luck, and that is a wonderful feeling."
Kelly underwent surgery Friday, and hopes her experience will help educate others about the BRCA gene and the risks it’s associated with.
Although she lost her mother to breast cancer, the tragedy made Kelly aware of the gene and possibly saved her life, and she feels closer than ever to the woman who was taken from her far too soon.
"If possible, she means more to me now than when she was around and when she was alive," Kelly said.
"I feel very close to her, especially after this; and I know she would be proud of me and I know she was looking over me during the surgery as well as beforehand in making this decision."