That’s the opinion of Athens District High School Prime Minister Myranda Morrison and Speaker Taylor Spyk after the hour-long presentation by celebrated speaker Gruen von Behrens.
“I believe it will make a difference with students who smoke,” said Spyk, noting von Behrens’s personal nemesis -chewing tobacco -is used by several students who were shaken by the presentation.
Morrison said there was evidence even before von Behrens’s presentation that some student users were looking at the habit in a different way.
But after the presentation, she wondered how they could resist reconsidering their tobacco use.
“It’s amazing what (von Behrens) has chosen to do,” said Morrison, referring to the speaker’s comments that he could have taken another career choice and stayed out of the limelight but felt compelled to warn others against using tobacco.
“Thank goodness there are people like him who choose this.”
Morrison said von Behrens made her laugh and cry, like many other students at the presentation.
She was especially touched when von Behrens spoke of the pain he felt for putting his mother, a single parent, through an ordeal caused by his “stupid decision” to start chewing tobacco at the age of 13.
“I’ve been raised by a single mother and I thought of how that would hurt her. I can relate to that and the disappointment she would feel,” said Morrison.
Von Behrens, now 33 and married with two young children, grew up in a small town in Illinois and was a high school baseball star looking at scholarship offers when he discovered white spots on his tongue.
As the symptoms grew worse and his mother began questioning his tendency to drool and slur his speech, von Behrens reassured her that he was having trouble with his wisdom teeth, even as he suspected he had developed cancer.
One day, she asked him to accompany her shopping but passed by the mall and instead drove to see his doctor and demand the teeth be pulled.
Only then did von Behrens acknowledge to others what he truly suspected.
“I said, ‘Doc, that’s not my teeth. I think I have cancer,'” he told the crowd.
The reaction of his mother when the doctor reinforced the diagnosis was devastating, said von Behrens.
“Until then, I had never seen my mom cry. It ripped her heart out.”
What followed within days was the first of 34 painful surgeries -a 13-hour marathon where half his tongue was removed and his neck skin was peeled back to look for cancer elsewhere.
It took a month to recover in hospital and during that time, he received his food through intravenous tubes, he said.
Other surgeries followed over the years in addition to many hundreds of treatments that included radiation sessions which left him unable to drink even a glass of water without feeling severe pain.
Drinking a coke or using ketchup was like having a mouthful of hot peppers, said von Behrens.
Meanwhile, the once-muscular 5-foot, 10-inch athlete dropped from 190 lbs. to 130 and waved his baseball career goodbye.
In the 16 years since, it has cost $3 million in health-care services to reach a point where he is now five years cancer-free, although still facing at least one more reconstructive facial surgery.
And he warned tobacco users in the audience they risk the same threats he has faced.
“All these carcinogens (in tobacco) hit you right here first,” he said, pointing to his mouth.
But von Behrens said he was never one to pick on classmates who looked different and has accepted the fact people will react to the way he looks when he goes out in public.
He said his own reaction to his appearance after the initial surgery was also harsh.
“I hated the mirror. I felt that I was the weirdo. I was the freak,” he said.
But his mother remained supportive and friends came around to take him on outings, and von Behrens realized he had more going for him than a disfigured outward appearance.
“They showed me they didn’t care about this,” he said, noting he doesn’t spend time worrying what people think of his looks.
“Just be yourself. People are going to love you and respect you if you accept who you are.
“And please remember, no matter how bad it gets for you … somebody else is a lot worse off.
“I hate my face and my voice and I cringe at the thought of more surgery, but I am still thankful for the blessings and gifts God gives me.”
Moreover, von Behrens is intent on sharing a message to prevent others from going down the same path.
“I want everybody to take a good long look at my face and I hope that image will stick when you want to try tobacco.
“God knows, I wish I would have known.”
Von Behrens also spoke to students at Rideau District High School in Elgin Monday and will be at TISS in Brockviille and North Grenville District High School in Kemptville today for more presentations sponsored by the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit.
Yves Decoste, tobacco program coordinator for the local health unit, said the presentations are funded by the province and promoted on a regional basis by several health units.
“We hope the message gets across,” said Decoste, who feels the presentation will prevent some students from starting to use tobacco products while also fuelling others to quit.
Public health nurse Diana Stedman said it’s apparent von Behrens has an impact on the students.
At Rideau High School, “students were captivated” by the presentation, said Stedman.
Also, 100 students signed a petition urging the federal government to ban candy-flavoured smoking products aimed at youths, she said.
Athens principal Gord Phillips expected a similar reaction among students at his school.
“It brings to light that this is a real concern with real consequences,” he said.