As Catie Glossmann rushed to an exam during her undergraduate years at Oakland University, a campus policeman stopped her. He demanded to know why she had parked in a handicapped space, even though a handicapped decal hung from her rearview mirror.
“‘You don’t look handicapped,'” she recalls him saying. And he was right. She was a beautiful co-ed with a normal-looking gait. No wheelchair, no crutches, no obvious disability.
“Do you know what handicapped looks like?” she recalls replying in a sarcastic tone. “Because I don’t.”
Ten years ago, Catie Hormel (now Glossmann) graced the cover of Hour Detroit magazine (right). At 17, she looked every bit the typical cover model. But in this instance, too, her appearance hid the truth. Catie at the time was recovering from surgery to remove a rare malignant tumor from her brain. She was bald. She had lost her short-term memory. She could barely stand, so the high-heeled Prada shoes that a stylist wanted her to wear didn’t make the cut.
That 2003 cover was for one of the earliest Best of Detroit issues. It was also the only one in the history of the magazine born out of an improbable request. Through the Rainbow Connection, an organization that grants wishes to Michigan children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, Catie’s wish was to be on the cover of a magazine. “I get calls like this all the time,” recalls Hour Detroit publisher John Balardo. To say yes, he says, was “a highly unusual thing.”
But this time it was different. No public-relations plan. No self-promotion. In fact, Catie, who had dreams of becoming a professional dancer in New York, didn’t care at all about being a model. She told Ric Bohy, Hour Detroit’s editor at the time, that she only wanted to draw attention to the challenges of young people with cancer. In his editor’s letter, Bohy described Catie as “more than a pretty face.”
When I met Catie recently at Commonwealth in Birmingham, I wondered if I would see the young woman in the photo. It’s not unlike the photo she shows me on her iPhone. A thick, dark mane from her Italian heritage flows over her shoulders at a high school dance. The young woman sitting in front of me a decade later is a bleach-blonde with a pixie haircut and a sweep of bright pink lipstick.
Though nearly unrecognizable from her decade-old cover shoot, Catie is still beautiful. She’s 27, a college graduate, a professional volunteer married to a man she met at church. She’s living the life she’s meant to live, she says, and yet, still reconciling with an altered version of herself. There are the things that are obvious to the outside world, like permanently losing her hair in some places from radiation (a stylist suggested that keeping her hair short and blonde would help camouflage the hair transplants she’s received). Other things are hidden, but are nevertheless powerful reminders of how her medical ordeal changed her. Among them, the lingering neurological side effects from the tumor and surgery — Catie cannot walk long distances, and she continues to struggle to keep her balance.
“People still look at me funny every day when they see me park in a handicapped spot. They don’t think I have a right to be there,” she says. “People judge you by how you look. They say they don’t, but they do.”
Catie knows how to deal with that universal paradigm now, but as a teen whose cancer fundamentally changed the way she looked, she says it wasn’t easy to be different at a time when looks meant everything. “We live in a world that a lot of people don’t get,” she says of herself and other people who’ve grown up with cancer. “It absolutely sucks to lose your hair.”
And so, with her diagnosis at 16 — and an on-time high school and college graduation despite school officials who said she couldn’t do it — Catie began a decade-long career that’s still going strong as an advocate for kids with cancer. She was the first to start a group called “Teen Chat” through Gilda’s Club, a prominent cancer-support organization that had not previously focused on support geared exclusively to teenagers. Much of Catie’s subsequent work would focus specifically on helping young people get wigs that they would actually want to wear in public. She remembers most of the ones she tried on being “so ugly, so horrible” — the kind that “not even an old lady would wear.”
“I thought that there was really such a lost focus on young adults and teens,” she says. “Here you’re trying to create a life. Trying to get a job. Trying to date. And at the same time, you’re dealing with all these weird issues related to cancer.”
Today, the Birmingham resident has amassed a huge body of charity work and is an expert at raising money for her causes. Catie plans to use that experience to launch her own charity called “Support the Cause,” which she envisions as a national network that will focus on helping other people reach their charitable goals.
Like her initial request to be an Hour Detroit cover girl, Catie isn’t sure where it will go, but she’s optimistic about its potential.
“I want this to be big,” she says.