9-year-old cancer patient takes flight
July 17, 2012
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (July 17, 2012) -- As he perched eagerly in a chair at the Fort Campbell flight simulator July 17, it would be easy to mistake 9-year-old Adam Crider for any other boy his age. His slightly shaggy blond hair and baby-blue eyes that light up as quickly as his infectious smile spreads across his face belie the 18-month battle Adam and his family have endured.
Adam arrived at Fort Campbell at the invitation of Lt. Col. Scott Gerblick, the former commander of 7th General Support Aviation Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade. The two grew to know each other after Adam's 3rd grade-class at Jack Anderson Elementary School sent a bundle of letters to Gerblick's unit while they were deployed to Afghanistan between January 2011 and January 2012.
"Hi. I'm Adam. I have cancer but life goes on," Adam wrote Sept. 8, 2011.
"Here I was, halfway through deployment, living in a plywood building, and I realized life's not so bad," said Gerblick, as he recalled reading Adam's letter for the first time.
Adam was already on antibiotics for strep throat, and he was a bit sluggish -- not at all typical of a child on Christmas day. Throughout the day his temperature fluctuated, peaking as high as 103.3 degrees, his father, Ken, recalled.
"His face was white as the floor," Ken said as he gestured to the linoleum floor of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Aviation Headquarters building. This was the first sign to Ken and his wife, Sue, that something was wrong.
By 6 a.m. the next day, Sue was searching for someplace to take Adam for a chest X-ray, convinced by his slight cough that he had pneumonia. In actuality, he had a softball-sized mass in his chest that was making it difficult to breathe.
"The doctors said it was fairly fast growing," Ken said. "They said it had probably only been there three or four months."
Ken said he and Sue re-examined it with each other, trying to figure out if they could have missed something that would have given them an earlier indicator, but the fever and cough were truly their only and earliest signs that Adam had T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
From the time he was diagnosed, there was only one choice, "Be strong," Adam said.
Adam immediately entered into an aggressive treatment plan through Vanderbilt Hospital. Within a week, he'd already started treatment.
"Most people don't have any idea; If you don't have a sick kid, you don't know," said Sue.
Within six weeks, Sue said his hair had completely fallen out.
"He held onto it," she said. "When it was down to just the stragglers, we told him he looked like Charlie Brown, and it was probably time to let go."
Ken explained the spinal taps Adam frequently endured, one way for the doctors to ensure the disease wasn't manifesting in another part of his body.
"Do I get my Icee when I wake up?" Adam would ask before his sessions.
Weekends were the worst. While Adam's friends were most likely out playing sports, which he'd been forced to give up, along with school, Adam was home retching up whatever may have been left in his stomach -- the brutal aftermath of his Friday treatments.
"He'd take his medicine at 9 (p.m.)," said Sue. "He'd say 'No, I don't want to take it.'"
But he always did, and they said he always stayed positive. Meanwhile, they were facing their own struggle as parents, determined not to let him see their weakness. They would discuss the illness out of earshot, or they just wouldn't use "the C-word," as Adam dubbed it.
"Kids don't have our same fears," Ken said.
The two parents would take turns at the hospital, or they would go together when they could.
"You have to do it," Sue said. "It's your child, so you do whatever you have to."
Ken said one of the things that kept the family going was the optimism from their doctors.
"They always said the cure rate is 100%," he said. "That's what kept us going."
KEEPING THE FAMILY STRONG
While the Criders had to keep going and supporting Adam to the fullest extent, they also had the challenge of balancing their attention with their oldest son, Kody. Now 13, Kody is entering 8th grade at Station Camp Middle School.
"It was important that we keep that open communication with him," Sue said. "We always made sure we did things with him too."
Of course, Adam's compassionate nature made it a little easier.
"Even before he got sick, he was always thinking of other people," Sue said. "If we went to the store, he'd say 'We've got to get something for Bubby' -- that's his nickname for Kody."
It was only natural that Kody would join Adam in the flight simulator, an adventure he exited with an ear-to-ear grin.
After Gerblick read Adam's first letter, he wrote back with a deal.
"If you keep fighting your cancer, then I'll keep fighting the bad guys here," Gerblick wrote.
"When I come home, I'll take you flying in a helicopter flight simulator."
Ken said Adam received the offer with a grin that extended perhaps a half-inch wider than normal.
"I figured most kids liked video games, and the flight simulator really does replicate what we do as pilots," Gerblick said.
While it seemed like a pretty straightforward, simple offer to Gerblick, it helped motivate Adam.
"It helped him put all the stuff he's been through behind him and gave him something to look forward to," Ken said.
The Criders didn't know how much it was doing the same for Gerblick, who was supporting a war on the other side of the world.
"I made a promise," Gerblick said, "and I was going to keep that promise."
With his cancer in remission for nearly a year, and just over six months left of treatment, Adam entered the flight simulator with an enthusiasm and energy that can only be found in a child. He was about to fly over Colorado, home of his favorite football team.
"It was fun!" Adam exclaimed as he posed for a picture in front of the simulator. He said he's not sure what he wants to do with his life when he grows up, but becoming a pilot may definitely be an option after this experience.
While Adam looks fearlessly to the future, his family continues to embrace the little things, heeding Gerblick's words "Life's too short." They tuck their fears to the back of their mind.
"There's always that little bit of worry," Sue said as she choked back tears. "You always hope it doesn't come back."
In the meantime, they continue to appreciate the little things. As she left the simulator with Adam, Sue said, "Just to see his face, his smile -- that was great."