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The evening sun outlined the peaks encircling Copper Mountain Village, where 500 bicyclists, families and friends gathered to celebrate the end of the first day of the Courage Classic.
This perfect summer evening – all blue skies and weightless breezes – punctuated the massive demonstration of riders exerting themselves for children who are sick and for those who have been sick.
Cary Larger, Senior Vice President of Community Fundraising at Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation, had just finished a speech commemorating the 25th anniversary of the event, and then introduced Jason Kotas, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Outreach/Education Program Manager, to give a safety debrief.
Kotas took the stage, reporting that the day had been free from incident, and he thanked riders for being safe. He said, “Everyone at the Courage Classic is so special; everyone has unique stories.” Then he launched into his own.
In 1995, when Kotas was a 20-year-old college basketball player in Virginia, doctors found a tumor behind his lung. He flew to Denver, where his family had relocated, and consulted with oncology experts.
Even though he was a young adult, he chose treatment at Children’s Colorado because he “always felt like a big kid,” he said. David Campbell, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon, removed Kotas’ softball-sized tumor, which turned out to be Ewing’s Sarcoma. Dr. Campbell also removed three ribs and part of Kotas’ lung.
After the surgery, Kotas spent nearly a year at Children’s Colorado receiving chemotherapy and radiation. Kotas made the hospital his home and the staff and other patients his family. He speaks of the experience with unbelievable calm, acceptance and strength. His face emits hope.
Overcoming cancer inspired Kotas to pursue a career as an emergency medical technician (EMT). He then worked his way up to become the EMS manager at Children’s Colorado (17 years after his cancer diagnosis).
“Children’s Colorado saved my life back then,” Kotas told the captive audience at Copper Mountain. “And then it saved my life a second time when it brought Emily McNellis into my life.” He looked for McNellis in the crowd, who had vaguely expected such a gesture. She shook with nervous excitement as she went up on stage.
McNellis was there as an employee of Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation, where she secures sponsorships for the Courage Classic. A Colorado native, she grew up making gingerbread houses for inpatients during the holidays. Though she never needed the hospital’s services, she became inspired when, as an account executive for radio station Alice 105.9, she attended the hospital’s annual Radiothon. “I have to work here,” she remembers saying to herself, and soon she had a job with the Foundation. She has been there six years.
In 2012, the Foundation brought the Courage Classic’s EMS support in-house, reaching out to Kotas and his team at Children’s Colorado to facilitate medical support and coverage.
Kotas attended event meetings where he made acquaintances, and eventually friends, with staff from the Foundation, including McNellis.
One of McNellis’ least favorite parts of the job was stuffing medical bins at an off-site storage facility. It was boring and muggy. But when Kotas joined her, “It started to become fun,” McNellis remembers. Over the ensuing months, Kotas and McNellis spent many hours together, working in small teams.
A few weeks after the 2012 Courage Classic ended, Kotas and McNellis went on their first official date to a pre-season Broncos game.
Two years later, here they were, revisiting their beginning. When McNellis got onstage, Kotas went down on one knee. “Will you marry me?” he asked.
Wide-eyed and speechless, McNellis nodded, and the crowd cheered. “I don’t even remember if I said yes,” McNellis says. “It’s interesting when you think about your journey. You think about all these little moves you make in your life without knowing what it will mean later on. I was just so lucky to end up here.”
As for their future, McNellis and Kotas are hopeful. They haven’t set a wedding date yet, but plan to have a joint bachelor/bachelorette party at Lake Powell.
“One of the ways I know things are good is that I just love to go home at night,” Kotas says. “Hanging out with Emily, just cooking dinner, telling stories. I feel like our lives are incredibly wonderful. I don’t know that I would change anything.”
Someday, Kotas and McNellis hope to have one or two children, which wouldn’t have been possible without the fertility preservation program at Children’s Colorado’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Chemotherapy can affect patients’ ability to conceive later in life, so the clinic helps patients plan ahead before they begin treatment.
“I never would think our lives would be so entwined with an organization,” Kotas says. “I feel like this place is woven into the foundation of who we are.”
Article update: The Kotases are expecting their first child in the fall. A little boy is due to join Emily and Jason's family in October 2016.