William Christopher Caldwell

“I hope your child never has cancer” are tough advertisements for me to watch over and over during the Dodger games.  Children’s Hospital has become one of the more prominent Dodger sponsors on SportsNetLA. The children in the photos are all too familiar to me and every time I see the commercials it just reminds of the children who didn’t survive.

A few weeks ago I went to a game with David Young and Jay Stalling. Dave and I got there early enough they were doing the first pitch ceremony. The ball was going to be thrown out by a child with Leukemia. They tried to put on a good face, but eventually, the mother simply started crying. Unknown to David I was dying inside. I don’t pray, it seems like a useless endeavor, but I do hope, and I hoped that mother would have a better ending for her son than my best friends son.

I first wrote about William for TrueBlueLA back on Sept 05, 2007. It was one of the first things I ever wrote about. No one read TBLA at the time, and no one reads this blog so it seems like a perfect time to write about him today because those commercials and that game have put him back into my mind.

I’m not a deeply emotional person, very surface oriented, nothing really hit me in my heart over my lifetime until I was 46 when my best friend’s son died of Leukemia at the age of four.  Byron and I had done many things together since we first met at work when he became my boss around 1987. Softball, old man basketball, scuba diving, river rafting, skiing, two-man beach volleyball, you name the sport we did it together. He was the best man at my wedding, I was the best man at his wedding.  We did most of that before he got married, but after that,  it was pretty much just weekly softball. Byron got married late in life but with a younger wife was able to start a family just about from the get go.  We don’t have children and for whatever reasons, we didn’t really bond with Byron’s family. I would see the children when he brought them to the softball games, but that was about the extent of our interaction. Not having children of our own, his wife being much younger than my wife, it just didn’t happen.

That all changed the spring of 2004. Byron called to tell me that his oldest son William had been diagnosed with Leukemia and as you’d expect was very shaken up about it. His wife worked at Cedars-Sinai  as a nurse so William was going to get the best care and treatment. We talked for a long time, and he asked me if would get tested to see if I could donate platelets for William. I eagerly agreed because I’d have done anything to help. At this point, my rare interactions with William were when Byron brought him to the softball games or the occasional social gathering. We had never bonded as sometimes friends do with their best friends children.  Given what Byron had told me I was very confident at the time that William would beat this and live a long life.  I got tested and was lucky enough to be a perfect match for donating platelets to William. I don’t remember why, but neither his parents nor sisters were able to do so. They have strict requirements for being able to donate and evidently the chaste life I lived had helped me. No sex outside of marriage, no tattoos, no drugs, no smoking. Hey, I was finally going to get rewarded for being Mr. Boring.

As he started his chemo treatments I marched to Cedars-Sinai  to do my bit. They had wasted no time, as soon as he been diagnosed he was undergoing chemo. I was lucky enough at the time to be working at home as a consultant and go could to the hospital whenever they needed me. Turns out they needed me a lot. Each time I went I’d visit William in the cancer center and at first, the meeting was awkward. The first few times I just sat there with him. He didn’t say anything I didn’t offer much small talk. I had talked Byron into letting him watch the Pixar movie Monsters. At first being only four they felt it was too much for him but they relented and on my second visit I popped it in the DVD and watched it with him. He laughed and laughed and laughed and once it was over we were best friends.  We watched that video just about every day I visited and then we’d play with his toys on his bed, take a walk around the cancer center. They were both the best and worst days of my life. Byron had just started a new job the exact same day his son had been diagnosed so he’d do the night visits and I’d do the day visits.  With his mom working at the hospital and her numerous sisters he rarely went without someone being with him. Once the first chemo round was done, he got to go home, and this time, we made sure we were part of their family. I had fallen for the boy and I wasn’t about to lose that connection.

Months passed and more rounds of chemo kept coming at him. I had built up this image in my mind that I was helping save him with my super platelets cause each time he got my platelets they said his cell count improved.  One day in December they declared him in remission and he had been approved for a bone marrow transplant. He and his sister came to our softball game and after the game, we took this photo after we had been playing in the playground for a long while after the game.

williamcaldwellbestday

That photo was the happiest day of my life.  Shortly after that, leukemia came back harder than the first time. They couldn’t’ do the bone marrow transplant therapy unless he was in remission.  Things went from optimistic to hopeless so fast my head was spinning.

Make a Wish came through and took William and his family up to the snow at Big Bear. With all his extended family around and adult family friends we romped in the snow, but he was simply too sick to do anything but watch. At one point Byron needed to put him down and several sisters reached for him, but he reached out for me.  I held him so tenderly because I knew his whole body was wracked with pain. I’ve never felt so deeply as I felt at that moment.

The ride home with my wife was the saddest two hours I’d had. Within a few weeks of that event, William passed away. I wrote this to everyone I knew who had known Bryon.

William Christopher Caldwell passed away last night at
09:21. His bravery the last nine months will never be
forgotten and he will be greatly missed by family and
friends. William’s candle only burned for 4 1/2 years
but it was a bright flame and the world will be a
sadder place without him in it. I only hope his smile
and laughter will stay in my memory and not be taken
away by time.

Time has taken it away.  I can barely remember what we did when I visited. That time was such a blur, my mind was rarely focused. It stayed that way for several years. Byron was able to undo a Vasectomy that he’d gotten after his 2nd child. Amazingly they quickly conceived and even before William had passed away we had gotten news that Carmen was pregnant again. Eventually, they would have two more children which certainly helped them with their loss. They moved away from Los Angeles, away from the memories and started a new life in Kansas City, Kansas where Byron was from.  We don’t stay in touch but maybe once a year but we were so close that it is as though no times has passed at all.

It turns out for me that was a once in a lifetime bonding and I’m much richer and sadder for it.

I echo the mantra of the CHS commercials. “I hope your child never has cancer”. I also hope any child you are close too never has cancer. I hope that mother I saw that day at the game can cry tears of joy when she finds out her son’s remission is complete and she can hold him again without fear of it being the last time she ever gets to hold him.

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6 Comments

  1. Cheryl

    Phil, You are an amazing man. What a wonderful gift you gave this child. Not only your palettes but your time, love and compassion. We need more Phillips in the world. This memory you’ve shared made me smile and cry. Thank you for sharing again your first post drew the same reactions. I am proud of you and very happy I can call you my Brother In Law.

    Like

  2. 68elcamino427

    When the commercial comes on, I hit the mute button, because I can answer yes to every question they ask.

    My daughter was born with a hole in her heart. The doctor said she would need an open heart surgery to correct it by the time she was three years old. Somehow, the hole healed. I can still see the look of amazement on the doctor’s face as he was doing the ultra sound and discovered the hole was gone when she was two and a half. He said it was one for the books. We attribute prayer for this.

    In October 2013 the biopsy on my prostrate showed that I had cancer. It was the slow growing type and the doctor said it was OK for me to do “watchful waiting.” The very next day, Robert said,
    “Dad, I have something to tell you, I have cancer.” Twentynine years old, boom.

    Robert was treated for testicular cancer. The surgeon did a great job and everything looked great.
    But things were not great. A month later in mid November He started having sciatica symptoms.
    By Christmas, Robert was having trouble with both legs. The urologist didn’t think there was any way the pain was related to the testicular cancer. He was wrong. I had to force my way into an MRI for Robert.
    He was starting to lose the function of his legs. Turns out that he had.a tumor tenting up inside his C5 vertebrae, crushing the nerves. He was on the verge of losing the ability to control his bowels.

    It was 6 PM when I took Robert across the street from the doctor’s office to the hospital for surgery.
    On the way out of the elevator as I pushed the wheelchair, a kindly little old lady was walking through the lobby and asked, “Going for treatment?” My reply, with a smile, “No, we are going for a healing!”

    At midnight, Robert had a laminectomy of his C5, they removed the top half of the vertebrae, removed the tumor, and debrided growth on the C4 and C3 too. The incision on his back was a foot long. On the third day in the hospital at 10 AM the oncologist said this was from the testicular cancer and that three weeks of chemo would clean it up and they were getting a room ready for him upstairs.
    At 5:30 PM that day, the doctor said that the diagnosis had changed. Now he said Robert had Rhabdosarcoma, a very rare cancer. He said he interned at USC Norris and they might be able to help him. Things looked very grim. Robert was scared. I told him he needed to make up his mind that he was going to be in the top 1% who succeed. At midnight that Friday he was on a gurney in an ambulance headed to USC Norris. I drove over.

    I arrived at USC Norris at 12:30 AM. I will never forget the woman who was by the front door waiting for me. “You must be Robert’s dad, we’re getting a room ready for him upstairs, come with me, you can wait for him there.” At 1:15 AM, they wheeled him in, all 143 pounds of him, with a fresh back surgery. My boy whose normal walking around weight is 210. I didn’t trust the EMTs to transfer him to the bed after what we went through getting him on the gurney. I picked him up and moved him myself. This was the first of many times that I would do this over the next two months as Robert needed to go to different parts of the hospital for various scans, also lifting him in and out of the back seat of the Expedition, where he could lay down on our trips to and from the hospital.

    They began chemo immediately. Said they didn’t want to with such a fresh wound, but they had no choice. Robert began a regimen of chemo that Saturday morning of two days on, two weeks off, five days on, two weeks off. This continued until March, when they gave him a three week break in between. Robert completed the treatments in mid August. In all he took 222 chemo infusions. He needed red blood cells boosters every time and white blood cells boosters every time and lots of other chemicals agents to help his body cope with the poisons they were infusing his body with to kill the cancer. After four blood transfusions, I stopped counting..

    On that first Sunday afternoon, the nurse said to me, “I’m so glad that you are here. I don’t think anyone should have to go through this alone.” The look on her face convinced me that I would be there every day for Robert. I think that I have seen just about everything the 3rd and 4th floors of USC Norris have to offer. I mastered Suduko and Candy Crush too.

    After seeing what the prostate patients had to endure, I made up my mind to set the watchful waiting aside. My plan was to get that sucker removed when Robert completed his treatments, which would include 35 radiation treatments that he finished that November. But I had to modify my plans when Robert’s brother, Gary Jr., eighteen months older than Robert had a couple of seizures.

    The first one happened in his sleep, I went with him to see the doctor and the neurologist.
    The second one happened a couple of weeks later in the bathroom of a taco stand where he and I stopped to get lunch after hitting some golf balls. Back in the ambulance, back to the hospital. The MRI revealed a brain tumor, a glioma, an astrocytoma. Brain surgery, 35 radiation treatments. Anticonvulsant medication. He is doing good, with no motor deficiencies.
    His doctor told me the odds of two siblings having this occur were over 38 million to one.
    The gene study at USC Norris indicated that their mom had passed on a faulty gene.

    By the first of February 2015, both of the boys were in the clear enough that I could schedule my stuff.
    The main man of robotics at USC Norris took care of me. Cancer wise, everything confirmed the slow growing type of cancer and that everything should be OK. So far, so good. He also told me that of the 4,000 plus of the prostrates he had removed, mine was the largest that they had ever pulled out.
    It’s a lot easier to pee now. I had the surgery March 4 and started playing baseball May 15th.
    Probably could have waited another couple of months to start that, but you know what they say,
    SERENITY NOW!

    The physical therapist who worked with Robert began coming to the house as soon as Robert got home from that first chemo session. Robert was staying in a hospital bed downstairs, he could stand, but could barely move his legs and used a walker with my help.
    At first, the man just took Robert’s feet in his hands and moved them for him. Gradually, the function began to return. This man continued to come and work with Robert twice a week until Robert completed his radiation treatments. Many times he came to help when the insurance had not approved the visit. Robert still does not enjoy full sensation in his legs or feet, but he does walk about five miles a day in his job at King Shocks, coordinating production. He is still experiencing improvement now. His brother only missed three weeks of work in his ordeal and just got engaged to be married to a very sweet woman.

    Robert just completed his two year in remission mark.
    There is more behind all of the things he has gone through in his recovery, but I’ve gone on long enough.

    The last few check ups the doctor has told Robert that he is now the healthiest patient at the hospital.
    A couple of months ago the doctor also told us that they almost didn’t take Robert’s case because he was so bad off at the beginning.
    Yes, I still drive him there every time.

    I wish that you could have seen them play some baseball when they were whole.
    They would dominate in the old man league.

    BTW, Robert attributes his recovery to the good work of the doctors and to prayer, says he made an agreement with God.

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    • Thanks for the detailed story Gary. We all know your children had cancer, but I don’t think any of us knew the amazing story of what it took for them to be cancer free. I wish this comment could be seen by everyone instead of just the few who pop over here. I hope you and your children remain cancer free, they were lucky to have you as their father and I’ve felt lucky to have stumbled upon you from Dodger Thoughts.

      Like

      • 68elcamino427

        Thanks Phil,

        I love your story.
        It is one of the finest pieces you have offered.

        Like

  3. Brent Knapp

    Moving piece Phil, thanks for sharing. It sounds like he was a wonderful little boy.

    Like

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