By Celeste Baumgartner
OKEANA, Ohio – In July 2018, when he was taking part in the Butler County Fair, Trevor Zaenkert, age 16, complained to his mom about pain in his arm and shoulder.
“He went in for an X-Ray the next week and after that, everything happened real fast,” said Trevor’s mom, Jane Moorhead Zaenkert. “He was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma of the humerus. On Aug. 15 they started his first round of chemo.”
In the years since, Trevor has gone through rounds of chemo, multiple surgeries, infections, and negative diagnoses. And what has been his constant through all of that? Taking part in tractor pulls. He won his first trophy at age 7.
Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles including being told he would die if he left the hospital for a tractor pull, Trevor continues to win trophies with his V8 Hotrod 880 Cockshutt/Oliver and an antique Oliver 88. What keeps him going?
“The support of my family and friends,” he said. “And I’ve found that if I have a positive attitude toward everything, that makes it all go a lot smoother.”
His family, besides his mom, includes his dad, Fred Zaenkert, stepmom Beverly Zaenkert, siblings, Brittany Brabender, Aaron, Olivia, Michael, David Zaenkert, and a cousin, Jimmy Stanton. They give Trevor unfailing support. And tell his story in tag-team fashion.
“On his birthday, Nov. 9 of 2018, he got a cadaver bone in his arm,” said Fred Zaenkert III.
Brittany continues: “The cadaver bone lasted a little while but it became infected. They were going to take a bone from his leg and put it in his arm. They took the bone out of his leg then realized they couldn’t use it because his arm was infected so they put the bone back in his leg.”
He still doesn’t have a bone in his arm, Fred explained. Doctors put in a rod, supposedly short term, that is now poking through his skin. Because of this, he can’t fully extend his right arm. Fred made him a custom throttle for his Cockshutt.
“On Jan. 20, they found out it had spread to his lungs,” continued Fred. “By May 26, they told him there was nothing they could do beyond palliative treatment.”
Bob Huff has a Cowboy Church but he had quit having services. When Trevor got his diagnosis, he convinced Huff to restart the services and inspired many of his buddies to attend. He and his family went to the Memorial Day weekend service.
“After the service, the tumor started shrinking,” Fred said. “The next week he had a scan. The doctors said there was no way it could have shrunk down that much.”
Added Brittany, “He stayed on that same chemo treatment until Oct. 16, 2021. It reached the point of toxicity where your body can no longer dispel it. He had to go into ICU.”
Trevor was off chemo until doctors put him on a trial medication in Feb. 2022, Fred said. He had a bad reaction after one dose. Trevor decided he would take the summer off from treatment. His cancer stayed under control until December. Doctors started him on a different chemo treatment but it didn’t help. Around April, Trevor decided he would take another break.
“We were on a four-wheeler trip … he had a great time,” Fred said. “Two days after we got back they started his second trial. Within 10 days his tumor had grown three centimeters in every direction.”
Currently, Trevor is receiving radiation. The family is trying natural remedies and getting other opinions.
While this was all going on, Trevor’s dad and an uncle, Bob Zaenkert, helped Trevor acquire and fix up a hot rod Cockshutt. In January 2023, Trevor won his division at the Winter Nationals at Shipshewana, Ind. Originally called the “Cocky Bowtie,” Trevor later renamed the tractor “Life Changer” to reflect his journey in receiving a life-changing cancer diagnosis.
On June 18, Trevor took first place in his division at the Redkey, Ind., Tractor pull. That was after the doctors told him he would die if he left the hospital.
“On June 16, the doctor came in three times and told him he was not going to go tractor pulling,” Fred said. “Trevor told him the first time he came in that he was going no matter what. When they came in the third time, I finally said, ‘We don’t want any more negativity. There’s the door. If you have anything good to say, say it. Otherwise don’t come in.’”
The family called Redkey Trevor’s “hospital escape pull.”
“Trevor has five siblings,” Brittany continued. “All of us, our mom, our stepmom, our dad, we’re kind of all of us hands-on. We make sure he’s got everything he needs to keep him going so he can keep doing what he wants to do. The doctors can be negative, but I don’t think they realize the support that Trevor has.”
On July 7, Trevor had radiation and then had a lump removed from his back. That support helped him get to the Farm Power of the Past tractor show and pull that same day in Greenville. Out of 15 tractors, Trevor came away with the trophy.
After Trevor’s “hospital escape pull,” his buddies decided to put on a “Pulling for a Cure” pull for his benefit. The main coordinators were Nick Hesselbrock and Nate Pennekamp, but many helped.
“Within three weeks they put on this tractor pull at the Franklin County Fairgrounds,” Fred said. “They got a hold of the fair board, they got the sled, insurance they got people to bring food.”
On July 8, the day of the Pulling for a Cure Pull, a severe storm was guaranteed, Brittany said. The parking lot was packed. Jane Zaenkert couldn’t believe the number of friends who drove long distances to be there.
“There were so many folks,” Brittany said. They all stayed. We got maybe two minutes total of rain. It was as if God planned it that way. We heard reports all around; everybody got storms.”
They started pulling at 5 p.m. and finished up at 4 a.m. Trevor got a second out of 60 tractors with the Oliver 88.
“I think the biggest thing with Trevor is, he’s not like anybody else,” Brittany said. “The doctors tell you things and they make suggestions. Trevor got a lot of kickback for taking breaks from treatment but we realized a pattern: every time he tries this, it’s a setback, he tries that, it’s a setback. He gives himself time to do what he wants to do and follow his passions. No matter how bad he feels, no matter what he’s going through, or what somebody tells him … he’s still going to show up.”