By John Owens
An excited voice was on the other end of the phone.
It was Holly Howe, longtime PPA member and co-owner of Photographic Images, a high-end portrait studio in North Platte, Nebraska, which she operates with her husband, Keith.
"Thanks so much for the invite to participate in the Faces of PPA campaign!" she said. "I think it's great. We love PPA and love that you're showcasing members, but I don't think we can participate at this time. I definitely think we have a story to share, I just don't know if this is the right place or... It's not that we don't want to, we do, it's just... We wouldn't look our be--, becau--, well...
"Keith has cancer. We're actually at the hospital right now for treatment. And I've been reading everything you guys send out and I just want to tell you: There's a membership benefit you don't talk about..."
Keith Howe, 55, started getting sick November 2012. New and puzzling symptoms seemed to emerge with each passing day. Keith and Holly would go in to the doctor and he would say, "Well, this is weird. I'm worried" and they'd think well, yeah... us too.
In December, Keith felt a lymph node in his hip. He went in for a biopsy, but the pathologist couldn't make a diagnosis. Tissue samples were sent to the University of Nebraska for a second opinion, where he was told no, he had a granuloma (a bacterial inflammation). But Keith wasn't getting better. He continued to seek help.
He went to a neurologist, an infectious
disease specialist and was referred back to the University of Nebraska for a
third opinion. Keith underwent hundreds of blood tests on top of spinal taps,
biopsy's, MRI's and even brain scans.
Somewhere along the way, Keith actually started to get better. Still without answers, he was on the road to recovery. He built up his strength and started to resume his normal workload and life as a photographer. Then, one day when he was feeling about 95%, he went to run some errands and had a hemorrhagic stroke (a brain aneurysm). Keith was airlifted back to the University of Nebraska.
"You're not old enough," the doctors told him. "You're not overweight, you're not hyperactive... there's no reason for you to have a stroke."
After further inconclusive tests, Keith was sent home. A month later he went in for a follow-up. At an eye exam, the ophthalmologist noticed hemorrhaging in his eyes and said, "Well, that's not good." Keith was sent back to Omaha for a brain biopsy and repeated a bunch of the previous tests. After his third spinal tap and more blood work, he was sent home.
The brain biopsy again came back negative for cancer, but there was a silver lining: They had an answer. Keith was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, an auto-immune disease of unknown causes which produces granulomas. It seemed to fit the bill. After some initial treatment, Keith started to get better.
By September, he got worse.
Keith discovered new enlarged lymph nodes. He went back to Omaha for more MRI's and CAT scans. The doctors initially thought the new lumps were due to an infection from Keith's chemotherapy and steroid treatment. They wanted to remove the lymph nodes. He (underwent more tests. had another surgical biopsy)
Finally, the rheumatologist returned in tears, and told Keith he had lymphoma.
"It took him a long time to ask me out," recalls Holly. "We both had tremendous crushes. I even wrote in my journal at the time, I can't eat, I can't sleep, I just think about being with him.
"When people talk about love at first sight--this was it."
The Howes met back in college at Kearney State, now the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and the feelings were indeed mutual. Keith was just a bit shy and seemed to have some competition for Holly's affection.
"If I checked out the odds, things didn't look too good for me," said Keith. "She was on the phone with one guy and getting flowers from anoth--"
"Ohhh one was just a friend and the other was a bad date that I was never going out with again," arm-punched Holly, as if she had a thousand times before. "It took him a year to ask me out, but once we started dating we both knew."
Keith spent much of the first date talking about photography.
"We went out on a Saturday night, and the following Tuesday I started a part-time job at a local photography studio, Denny's Photography."
It was there that Keith learned about PPA.
"I planned to work until I had enough money to go to school for fine art photography, but Denny got me hooked up with the Professional Photographers of Nebraska (PPN) and sent me to seminars and conventions," he said. "I think I wound up getting a much better education that way. Photography school will teach you the technical aspects, but they don't tell you how to handle a two-year-old or a bride that has had too much champagne before the ceremony."
Holly was in school to become a child psychologist, but that quickly changed as she lost the emotional investment in her career path. Instead, she followed her heart and fell further in love with Keith and photography. After graduating, they married and opened their studio in 1980.
"Initially, we wanted to work together just to be together," she said. "I worked behind the scenes doing our marketing, sales, bookkeeping... vacuuming... all of that background stuff that goes into running a business. Then it became a creative outlet."
Over the years, they learned that Keith was actually better at sales and Holly at marketing promotions and design work. They work together behind the camera. The Howes quickly became known in the community and rapidly outgrew their cozy downtown studio, eventually settling on a home.
"Our reputation built over time because we continue to enter photographic competitions," said Keith, a nine-time Nebraska Wedding Photographer of the Year and three-time Nebraska Photographer of the Year along with Holly. "We've become known as the studio that wins awards. People assume that if we're in the paper, we won another award.
"If people have issues, we're the ones that get called. If other people aren't getting good images, they ask if we can work them in. If there's a big local event, we get brought in to cover it."
It doesn't hurt that they have each earned their master of photography degrees from PPA (Keith in 1991 and Holly in 1999).
"I don't know if a client ever says, 'I want to go to a master photographer,'" said Keith. "It's more about the process it took to earn the degrees. The continued excellence. We've been at the top of our field for years."
The fast-paced nature of a photo shoot is too much for Keith. He can't move fast enough anymore and will lose his balance and fall. He had to resign as a councilman for PPN. While he is on this much chemo, his immune system is weakened. He wears a mask when he is around large groups of people. He uses what strength and resources he has to get better and do what he can around the studio.
"We're big believers that there's a reason for everything," said Holly. "Now we know there's a reason why I learned so much more about photography, I needed to know how to light and how to set up a session on my own."
Throughout their 30+ years with PPA, the Howes have made countless connections. They regularly participate in photographic competition and Keith has been an affiliate judge for 22 years. They have established lifelong connections through mentoring across the country and Imaging USA.
They have given so much to other PPA members, that when word spread about Keith's health issues, it was time to give back.
The Howes annually photograph a local dance school each April, but after Keith's stroke, they didn't think they would be able to do it. There were whispers among the mothers that someone else would have to be brought in, but the Howes had an unexpected back-up plan.
Somewhere along the way, they had helped two PPA members from Wyoming start their studio. When they heard about the Howe's situation, they dropped everything and flew in to photograph in Keith's place so he and Holly would have that much needed income.
Insurance will cover Keith's treatment, but it won't take care of their day-to-day expenses. With their focus on his recovery, the Howes will shut down the studio for the next four to five months. When a friend and fellow PPA member learned that they wouldn't have any income, she set up a fund in Keith's honor to help with their expenses.
Donations have poured in from all over the world and to date, they have raised more than $6,000. But to the Howes, it's been about so much more than financial assistance.
"It's just that feeling of support and caring," said Keith. "Just knowing that all of these people from all over the country are pulling for me is a constant reminder to keep our spirits up and have a positive outlook."
The Howe's upbeat attitudes and candor are major components in their cancer-fighting arsenal.
"We're trying to stay light-hearted and find the humor in the weird things that are happening to Keith," said Holly.
When the chemo caused Keith to lose all of his hair, they dug through the attic and started taking pictures of Keith in funny hats. They created a modeling portfolio on Keith's Facebook, and it took on a life of its own.
Hats started arriving from all over the country. Members sent prop sunglasses with mustaches and stick-on eyebrows. They even received a box from a member now living in Japan.
"Almost every day we get a card or package from a friend through PPA, we've had so many thank you notes to send," said Keith. "Even the Archbishop of Quebec reached out. It's just amazing the people we know through this association."
"That's the benefit that no one talks about. PPA membership is so much more than equipment insurance or the indemnification trust. It's the lifelong connections you make, that heaven forbid, you might need sometime. I don't even know some of these people. But they are taking the time to send a silly package or a card. I can't describe how much that helps."
The Howes still don't know the source of Keith's cancer. Doctors re-examined his brain tissue and didn't find anything. They suspect transverse myelitis--an inflammation along the spinal cord. They've tested for multiple sclerosis and diseases you can only get in Asia and Africa.
"We fell in love at 19 and have been glued to each other's hips," said Holly, with a laugh. "Our friends were all very relieved to learn that he did not have HIV or syphilis."
Keith's lymphoma continues to only show up in his hip, but there had to be some explanation for his central nervous system issues. Doctors are treating him as if it is a reoccurrence to his lymphatic system. Although brain scans continue to show nothing, Keith is gearing up for a second round of aggressive chemotherapy.
"I said 'Let's just get it done.' Even though it's not showing up, something is going on."
Keith's treatment program is a 28-day cycle. It starts with a day of outpatient chemo, which is rough on the body and takes six hours to run in. Once it is finished flushing, he checks-in for inpatient treatment. For the next four days, his routine will consist of a 24-hour cocktail of three different kinds of chemo followed by a flush of saline. After that, he gets another kind of chemo and goes home for 16 days. He returns on day 21 for yet another round.
On day 29 he starts it all over again. Keith spends 10-12 out of each 28-day cycle in the hospital, always with Holly by his side.
"I'm doing pretty good considering," said Keith. "The legs don't work like I'd like them to, and I have some fatigue, but pretty good."
"He's definitely feeling much better than he should at this point, physically," said Holly.
Years back, the Howes decided to come up with a Christmas promotion that was different than your average photo with mall Santa.
"Christmas is a big deal for us," said Holly. "I mean, my name is Holly Joy..."
The idea eventually came from a speaker at Imaging USA, where they learned that people have a family dentist, doctor and mechanic, and when something comes up, they don't even think about it, it's where they go immediately. For photographers, it takes three times to establish that trust. The third time someone comes into your studio, you're now their photographer.
Holly thought: How can we get them back a second or third time in one year?
She came up with a low-priced, themed Santa Claus session. Each year, they decorate the studio with a different twist. One year, it was Woodlands Santa, made to look like he built everything. Another year, Santa wore an apron and a chef hat. Last year, they went with a giant gingerbread house.
"I want real reindeer but I don't think PhotoCare covers live animals," joked Holly.
This year, they declared they would forge ahead in the middle of Keith's first round of chemo. Keith mostly had to keep his distance, so once again a friend and PPA member took two days out of their life and stepped-in to photograph in his stead. They went with a vintage 1930s Santa and Christmas tree, complete with period-accurate thin flannel Santa suit and a tree adorned with antique ornaments and popcorn strings.
The Santa session brings people into the studio that would normally find a full-session with the Howes to be out of their budget. It shows them what the Howes can do and helps them understand the value in a high-end studio. It also has become a Christmas tradition for many of their clients. One 19-year-old has been coming since she was a newborn.
"It's a fun, hectic couple of days," said Holly. "A lot of people said 'Thank you for doing this.' There was no way we could not do it while Keith was sick. It's our tradition too."
The Howe's will miss Imaging USA this year, which hits extra hard since Keith is sponsoring two photographers who will receive their master of photography degrees.
"It's hard to sit here and know we can't go." said Keith. "They feel like my little sisters. I wanted to be there to hang the ribbon around their necks, but I had to call and say I can't."
"These are the things we get excited about celebrating--the WOW moments," said Holly. "Those times are still exciting. It still feels good to win a trophy or have a great sale, but it's not as exciting as those first few times. So what's the adrenaline rush now? It's seeing someone else achieving those accomplishments and knowing you helped them get there. These two young women are having their moments and we don't get to be there and that's hard."
Keith and Holly will spend Christmas in the hospital, but they won't let it hurt their spirit. They're making stockings and passing them out to the other oncology patients. They have each other. They have their support system.
"I'm so grateful for all of the experiences I've had through PPA," said Keith. "We've learned a lot, gone places and done things we never dreamed we would. Without PPA we never would have had those opportunities."
"Where would we be?" asked Holly. "We'd probably still have a business, but where would we be without the support?"
It also helps to have something to look forward to. The light at the end of the chemo tunnel comes in May, when their eldest son (they have two) is set to be married. Keith vows to be there, and although he photographed his first wedding at age 14, he promises to leave the camera at home.
As the Howes push forward, their support system remains steadfast. In January, PPN will hold a print auction in Keith's honor. The Wyoming photographers already have the dance school on their calendar for April. Donations keep rolling in on the fundraising site. Cards and packages continue to arrive, many from total strangers. Every little bit helps Keith stay strong. Even just the power of a few words.
You don't know me, but photographers have to stick together.