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
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
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
"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
"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
"We went out on a Saturday night, and the
following Tuesday I started a part-time job at a local photography studio,
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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.