IOWA CITY– In the wee hours of the morning April 16, when most people were asleep, a few hundred University of Iowa students were walking, hula-hooping, dancing, doing the limbo and sliding through pudding in the University’s old recreation building.
They were also fighting.
They were fighting on behalf of friends, family members and loved ones who have braved their own battles against cancer.
The 2011 University of Iowa Relay for Life event took place from the evening of April 15 to the morning of April 16, an annual fundraising event hosted by the American Cancer Society to raise awareness and dollars to benefit cancer research.
Two groups of 2010 Solon graduates and a few family members were also there to honor classmate and friend Brett Smith, a current senior at Solon High School, as he continued his own fight against AML leukemia in the hospital right across the street.
Since his diagnosis on Jan. 31, Brett had been in and out of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for inpatient treatment.
After repeated chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Brett came home for 10 days in early April, in order to rest up for a planned stem cell transplant, a risky but necessary measure to replace the damaged stem cells in his own body. He returned to the hospital April 11, and received the intravenous cell transplant on April 15.
During Brett’s hospitalization, Carmen was able to keep friends and family updated through a UIHC-sponsored website called Care Pages, at www.carepages.com , where she continues to post messages about Brett’s progress so people can view his status as well as send messages of love, hope, encouragement and caring back to Brett and his family.
There has been an outpouring of those feelings, Carmen said.
“It has been so overwhelming, to know what these kids are doing for Brett, how they are supporting him inside and outside of school,” she said. Family members have also been key supporters, she said.
“Our families have been very important to us in helping us get through this,” said Carmen. ”People have brought in food, the monetary donations have been spectacular, people have sent cards, and all the prayers that are being said– not only from Solon, but my home town of Oxford, my sister’s community of West Branch– it goes way beyond the realm of just here. Its unbelievable how many people have responded to this; it’s just awesome.”
In turn, Brett’s experience has had a profound effect on many in the small community of Solon; people have shaved their heads, donated locks of hair, worn bracelets, sported t-shirts, pledged money, given blood, knelt in prayer and even shed a few tears in show of support for Brett and his bravery. When it came time to do their part, nobody held back.
Even former Solon students felt inspired; that’s why Brett’s cousin, Brady Smith, and several of his friends who are freshmen at the University of Iowa, decided to garner pledges, collect donations and participate in April’s Relay for Life.
“We felt like we wanted to do something to show support for Brett, and to show we cared about what he was going through,” said participant Kearce Lindner. “We wanted to try to make a difference for others with cancer.”
In all, 13 current and former Solon students and a few of their family members walked the relay, during which teams of people camp out and take turns walking around the track. Each team is asked to have a representative on the track at all times during the event. Because cancer never sleeps, relays are overnight events. This year’s University of Iowa Relay for Life raised a collective $42,000 to support the American Cancer Society.
And, on April 30, just two weeks after Brett’s friends stayed up all night, walking and playing games and fulfilling their pledges to help keep cancer research efforts going strong, Brett was given the okay to return home for good. It was a joyous day for Brett, his parents, Carmen and Jeff, and sisters Becca and Katie. That evening, Brett was able to attend Solon’s post-prom festivities and spend time among his friends, many of whom he had not seen in three months.
“Brett was very excited to attend the after-prom party,” said Carmen. He was supposed to stay a minimum of 28 days after his stem cell transplant, but Brett implored his doctors to let him attend the event, and they agreed to discharge him a week early, after just 21 days. “He was out a week before he was supposed to be. He’s just done so well, and handled everything so well, as far as not being very sick, with all the chemo. He’s a very lucky boy.”
Carmen reports that from here on out, Brett’s treatments are expected to be done on an outpatient basis.
“It’s just easier to be home,” said Carmen. “So far so good, but Brett has probably a year’s worth of outpatient care to go, barring anything unforeseen, like a rejection. There are still a lot of things to worry about; it’s not over by any means.” For example, the doctors allowed Brett to participate in graduation and hold a graduation party, but Brett had to wear a mask around crowds, and he must be very careful that he does not catch any illness.
“We are very ‘germaphobic’ right now,” said Carmen. “I tell people to be sure and tell Brett he owes you a hug, as soon as he is able.”
At Solon schools, it has been a challenge to learn the impact of disease and the power of hope. At a big gymnasium in the small hours of the morning April 16, a relay team pulled together on behalf of a friend, who was simultaneously battling against illness. Since January at the Smith home, life has been no less than a marathon.
But one thing shines above all; in this race, everyone has behaved like winners.