Friends mourn death of Lamb

After fighting the effects of spina bifida, a congenital disorder that left him paralyzed from the waist down for all of his 19 years, Douglas County resident James Lamb died of complications from cancer on Sept. 13.

Those who knew him spoke first of his strength, courage and ability to give to those around him, despite his challenges.

"Jamie was a very strong young man who always put himself last," said family friend Marlene Koehler.

She remembered the day not long ago when the Douglas High School football team and cheerleaders spent time with him. James requested a few minutes alone with the team.

"He shared with them how short life can be and how important it is to be an honorable and honest human being," Koehler said. "He ministered to them and told them they should love the Lord because, 'as you can see with me, you don't know when He will take you.'"

"James was a beautiful kid and we are heartbroken," said Mike Rippee, Douglas High School's football coach. "He loved this football program and he loved this school. He meant a lot to this team. We loved seeing him on our sidelines. We are going to miss him dearly."

James helped put things into perspective. There are bigger things out there than playing football, Rippee said.

"These kids are privileged to even have the chance to play the game," he said. "We're out there fighting a very small battle compared to the kind of battle James was fighting."

Born June 3, 1988 in Woodlands, Texas, to James and Shaw Lamb, James Jr. had more than 41 surgeries in his life, most to correct problems associated with spina bifida.

The family moved to Douglas County in 1990, right after he turned 2. James was a loner from the fourth through seventh grades, but high school brightened his world, said mom Shaw Lamb.

"The high school students embraced him. They considered him one of their own," she said. "When he was at Douglas High School, everything was as it is supposed to be."

He was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in January 2006. The cancer, which primarily affects children, has a good prognosis for otherwise healthy kids, but James' spina bifida complicated the picture.

Following the diagnosis, he spent about 14 months at the University of California in San Francisco where he underwent aggressive radiation and chemotherapy.

The pain medication combined with three types of chemotherapy, scarred his lungs, leaving him with acute respiratory depression that ultimately put him in a coma. The chemotherapy also compromised his kidney function.

James prevailed despite those challenges and last January, he came home. Tests in April showed no cancer, but seven weeks later he returned to the hospital with a gastrointestinal bleed. Tests revealed a tumor that extended from the lymph nodes in his spine to his kidney and wrapped around his heart and aorta, James Lamb Sr. said.

"His first treatment was so aggressive they (physicians) couldn't do it again," he said. "Starting again would have ended his life."

Recurrence of the cancer made James angry for a while, an anger he took out on targets at the shooting range, James Lamb Sr. said.

"He believed the first time he was cancer-free that God had healed him," he said. "He still believed he will be healed, whether here or in heaven."

James Bertucci, youth pastor with Valley Christian Fellowship, said James' faith made him strong.

"We encouraged him to stay strong in his faith and he did," Bertucci said. "He was able to understand this life was ending, but his real life was just beginning.

"That was his gift to me, and I'm grateful to have known such a strong young man."

Douglas County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Biaggini, who has battled cancer three times, said he shared more than just time with James.

"He and I talked about the pain he was going through. The best I could do was let him know it's OK. You're going to go to a better place and be out of this pain. I told him, 'I know you believe in God, you'll be in God's hands soon.'"

Biaggini said that at one point James was afraid to take his medication because he thought he might not wake up.

"I told him 'Don't do that. Stay ahead of the pain,'" he said.

Biaggini said the boy was upset he didn't get to do the things he wanted, and he felt that way about his life. It was a disappointment to him.

Biaggini watches kids who have everything in the world throw their lives away because they get into trouble or drugs. Then he looked at James, who strived and wished to do certain things his entire life but was never close to achieving those goals because of the cards he was dealt.

When James talked to his peers about his experiences or cheered the team from the sidelines, they saw his courage and stamina, Biaggini said.

"You are one of the bravest people I know," he told James. "Believe me, they will remember James Lamb for the rest of their lives."

Through the surgeries, the pain and the inaccessibility to events because he was in a wheelchair, James never complained. He took life for what it was, James Lamb Sr. said.

"He told his friends it didn't matter how much time you have, but what you do with the days you have," he said. "He taught people not to be scared of folks who are different, and not to be afraid to ask them questions."

The Lamb family will be attending Friday night's Douglas High School football team. James Lamb Sr. will be taking James' seat with the team.

Susie Vasquez can be reached at or 782-5121, ext. 211.


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