It was perhaps one of the most widely circulated photos of the Internet around Valentine’s Day. A young college couple from Overland Park — Riley Nicolay and Deidre Sechi — smile fondly into each other’s eyes, their shaved, bald heads forming the outline of a heart.
It got over a million views on the social news site Reddit after Riley posted it Feb. 12, as well as stories in national and international news outlets. The Huffington Post, newspapers in London, even a producer from the Ellen DeGeneres Show have contacted them, says Riley’s mother, Jane. In fact, Jane Nicolay has temporarily taken over talking to the press so the kids can have a break.
And so Deidre can save her strength for chemotherapy.
Deidre and Riley, both 18, have been dating since they met through a mutual friend their junior year at Blue Valley Northwest. Around school, Deidre was known as a dance team member who appeared in some of the school plays, Nicolay said. The couple went to prom together.
Last fall, both headed for Iowa State University in Ames to major in mechanical engineering. But Deidre didn’t feel well much of the time, Jane Nicolay said. She saw a doctor during her visit home at winter break and hasn’t been back to school since.
As it turned out, Deidre’s illness was due to a tumor in her abdomen, a desmoplastic small round cell tumor. Nicolay said that type of cancer is a childhood cancer most often found in boys. She was told there are only about 200 documented cases.
“Obviously, it’s been devastating,” Nicolay said. The couple and their families are doing their best to stay positive. “It was scary for them. But she’s a very positive person and upbeat. That has just helped a lot. She’s said, ‘I’m going to beat it.’ ”
Although Riley remained in school, he wanted to stay supportive of Deidre as she started an undetermined number of chemotherapy treatments and prepares for eventual surgery. So, as a show of solidarity, he decided to shave his own head.
And to make it a little less gloomy, Nicolay said the couple opted to get rid of their coifs together and by stages the weekend before Valentine’s Day — before any of Deidre’s hair actually started to fall out. As they progressed through mullets and Mohawks, Riley posted pictures on Facebook, where they attracted a lot of attention. Deidre said it would be fun if Ellen DeGeneres saw them.
So Riley put the now-famous picture up on Reddit.
And voila . Overnight the picture was viewed a million times, said Jane Nicolay. In 24 hours, the media started calling. Even a representative of the DeGeneres show called and talked to both, but they don’t know whether anything will come of it, she said.
All that attention does have a flip side, though. A few of the 960 Reddit commentors have been hurtful, Nicolay said. But Riley is careful to cull through them and read only the nice ones to Deidre, she said.
In the meantime, Deidre’s dad, Marvin, and Riley’s dad, Chuck, also have shaved their heads in support.
Once Deidre is ready for surgery, she probably will go to a hospital in Houston where doctors have some experience in fighting the rare and aggressive cancer, Nicolay said. In the meantime, the families are keeping their chins up, despite discouraging survival rates.
“It doesn’t matter what the statistics say. She can be one of the survivors,” Nicolay said. “We’re taking this head on.”