Cancer survivor Whitney Wickesberg shares a deep bond with the Beetle she restored herself
“Even though he doesn’t go very fast, and sometimes he’s fussy, he has a new lease on life—like I do—and that makes me so happy,” is how 30-year-old Whitney Wickesberg characterizes Barkley the Beetle. Barkley is her nickname for the 1966 Volkswagen Type 1 that she bought and restored to help her get through a lymphoma diagnosis.
Wickesberg has been a VW fan since her youth. Her father owned an orange Super Beetle that she dreamed of driving once she got her driver’s license, but before she could even get her learner’s permit, the car was sold. She channeled her heartbreak into becoming a fully-fledged VW fan, filling her bedroom with scale model Bugs and a large poster of a Beetle. Later, as a young adult, owning a vintage VW landed on her bucket list.
That list was set aside until 2016, when Wickesberg came down with what she thought was a bad cold that she couldn’t shake, until she found a lump in her neck. Doctors determined that she had lymphoma, cancer of the immune system’s lymph glands, and prescribed chemotherapy. To protect her compromised immune system following her chemo treatments, she had to stay housebound for almost half a year.
Facing possible death at the young age of 27, Wickesberg decided that something on her bucket list needed checking off. She used her time indoors to search for her dream car, eventually finding a ’66 Beetle in Wisconsin. After family members checked it out for her, she bought it and had it shipped to Texas, where she lives.
At that point, though, the Beetle took on more significance. It provided Wickesberg with hope that she would survive the ordeal. “It gave me something to look forward to, and I could start envisioning my future,” she explained.
The Bug, though, needed some work. The upholstery was worn, the headlights didn’t work, and there were some engine problems. Still recuperating from her treatments, Wickesberg started watching car repair videos on YouTube and reading VW repair manuals to learn how to do the work herself. Her husband, who calls himself a Volkswagen nut, offered his assistance, but Whitney wanted to succeed or fail on her own.
She ordered a hazmat suit so she could work on the car without exposing herself to harmful chemicals while still weakened from chemotherapy. Progressing from simple things like changing the oil, she learned how to do interior and then mechanical work. There’s even a photo of Wickesberg, her hair still short and growing back after chemo, powder-coating a small panel.
Her life may have been at risk, but she said it was one of the best times she’s had.
“I was having the time of my life looking at, and learning about, all its components,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘I could never learn that [or] I could never do that,’ but it just goes to show that if you want to learn something bad enough, you can. It may not be easy at first … but in the end, I can promise you, it is so rewarding. It sounds crazy, but even though I had on this ridiculous hazmat suit, in that moment I felt completely normal, like I wasn’t going through cancer, I only had the future to look forward to.”
While traveling with her mother to her oncologist’s office for a follow-up exam about a year and a half after receiving her original diagnosis, Wickesberg happened to notice a blue VW Beetle, a 1966 model just like Barkley. She said to her mom, “This is a sign. I know it’s going to be okay.” That blue Beetle did turn out to be a good omen. Scans that day showed no signs of the cancer, and years later, she remains cancer-free.
As a kid, Wickesberg dreamed of owning a VW Bug. Threatened by the nightmare of cancer, she made that dream a reality and now looks forward to a lifetime of adventure with Barkley the Beetle. Ecstatic on how things turned out, Wickesberg, now 30, says, “Driving [him] for me is one of the best feelings in the world.”