A police memorial car created by South Elgin resident Keith Kmieciak has made appearances at parades and other events all over the state, but few know the story behind it.
Kmieciak refurbished the 2004 Ford Crown Victoria, used by the South Elgin Police Department until 2012, last year as a way to distract himself from his harrowing cancer treatments.
"I won't lie to you, there were times I wanted to give up," said Kmieciak, who is in remission.
"But it really was a blessing. It really took my mind off my sickness."
The 59-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck in March 2013. He was off work for eight months, the first three while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin.
He is finally starting to regain some of the 30 pounds he lost, and his saliva glands and taste buds are beginning to heal, he said.
But during those long months of treatment -- when he got up to eight hours of chemo per day and 39 rounds of radiation -- he needed something to distract him.
"I was on a feeding tube and getting my nourishment through that, and it was a pain," he said. "I needed something to take my mind off the cancer."
The car, which he bought at an auction for $3,400, is dedicated to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C.
Kmieciak said he feels a kinship to law enforcement because of family members.
One of his sons is a police officer in South Elgin, while another son works as a deputy corrections officer for the Kane County sheriff's department. His son-in-law works for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, he said.
The memorial car honors four Illinois officers and state troopers who died since 2012 in the line of duty, plus the names of sisters Jessica and Kelli Uhl, of Collinsville, Ill., who were killed in 2007 in a car crash with a reportedly distracted state trooper, and Eric Schultz, a Wauconda police officer who died in March after battling cancer.
Kmieciak plans to add movable side panels in order to add more names in the future, he said.
Kmieciak customized the car with new lights and sirens, a hydraulic lift in the trunk outfitted with a 42-inch LCD screen, a Bluetooth DVD player and full surround-sound system.
That's so he can play the 2012 documentary "Heroes Behind the Badge," a collaboration between the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Modern City Entertainment.
There's also a video game system to keep kids distracted while he talks to the adults, he said.
"I have always been a little mechanical," he said. "I love motorcycles, but I can't ride anymore; I haven't gained my strength back."
The car, stored at Kmieciak's father-in-law's garage in Elgin, has been in parades, memorials, events such as National Night Out and law enforcement funerals since its debut at the South Elgin Fourth of July parade last summer, he said. The car again will be in the village's Fourth of July parade next month.
"We get calls for it every week," he said.
Cancer also inspired him to give back by volunteering at Advocate Sherman Hospital's Cancer Care Center on Monday mornings. Kmieciak works in customer service in St. Charles.
"The treatment I had was very, very rough. It was probably the roughest time I had in my life. But there's a lot of people going through a lot worse," he said. "I'm just there to encourage them. It's not a death sentence."
Kmieciak always had a positive attitude during his treatment, which studies show helps bring better results, said Stephanie Boecher, director of the Cancer Care Center.
"I'm thrilled to see people come back healthy and empowered," she said. "Keith is helping others now who are going through what he went through."
Kmieciak said he relied on his faith throughout the ordeal, which also helped him put behind the knowledge that his first doctor missed a pathology report about the tumor.
He eventually consulted a second doctor, who found the tumor in 10 minutes, he said.
"(The second doctor) just flippantly said, 'You've had the thing for 1½ years,' " he said. "Both my wife and I said, 'What are you talking about?' He pulled out the pathology report and we were both in shock and awe."
That shock is long over, he said.
"There's absolutely nothing that I can do about it. Because of my faith, once I was diagnosed, I turned everything over to God."