WATERTOWN — Two-and-a-half year old Alton Sessions was diagnosed with leukemia on Aug. 9, and for the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the diagnosis sounded all too familiar.
Sammy Shelton, whose parents are also members of the church, was diagnosed with leukemia on Oct. 3.
Also, the granddaughter of a church member was diagnosed with the disease on March 28, making it a trio of childhood blood/bone cancer cases faced by congregation members.
“When we heard about the last child, Alton Sessions, it kind of floored me,” said Dr. Logan Curtis, bishop of Watertown’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ives Street. “It’s unusual to just have two. The first thought is how unusual it is to have it happen to three.”
The diagnoses have brought a flood of prayers and support by the faithful at the church.
“In some ways, it’s a blessing to say, ‘We’ll be able to help you and support you in a lot of different ways,’” Bishop Curtis said. But he added, “The entire congregation has definitely been blessed. We’ve grown a lot closer together.”
Bishop Curtis said most of the assistance to the families involves “emotional support.”
“We’re just trying to be there for them,” he said.
“Being there” also includes “service projects” at homes, ranging from lawn care to shoveling snow off roofs.
“And often times, taking meals to Syracuse,” Bishop Curtis said.
The three children are primarily being treated at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital, Syracuse. It’s there where help for basic things is especially appreciated.
“At the hospital, there’s a laundry machine, but it takes quarters, and it takes a lot of quarters,” Bishop Curtis said. “We’ve done a couple of quarter drives at the church. Each of the families have been different in the things that they needed or asked for.”
The faith shown by the families directly affected by the illnesses has inspired Bishop Curtis.
“I’ve seen them faced with so many difficult decisions,” he said. “Seeing their children suffer and going through this, I’ve been so impressed by the faith they have and the optimism they’ve been able to show to the people around them.”
The bishop said he can think of several instances where the families of the sick children reached out to help others.
“To me, that’s a really strong example of faith,” he said. “They’re going through something difficult, but they still find the time to reach out to other people.”
DIFFICULT FIRST YEAR
Alton Sessions is the son of Dr. Daniel and Celeste Sessions and the youngest of their six children. Until early August, Dr. Sessions had been an active duty physician at Fort Drum, where he served for the past three years.
Before Alton’s diagnosis on Aug. 9, the couple first noticed bruises on his legs that didn’t go away.
“I’m a physician myself, but I was pretty concerned,” Dr. Sessions said. “We didn’t want him to ride in an ambulance or go from place to place so we took him directly to the only paediatric emergency room (Golisano, Syracuse) in the area. That was a good decision because they took us right in and about an hour or two later, they had a diagnosis after some lab work.”
Alton has ALL: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His bone marrow is making too many of a type of white blood cells. The Mayo Clinic calls it “the most common type of cancer in children, and treatments result in a good chance for a cure.”
“We’ve learned that it has a very good prognosis with a 90 percent cure rate, but a very, very difficult first year,” Dr. Sessions said. “It requires three years of treatment, but it has a very difficult first year with lots of transfusions, very high risk for infections and lots of hospitalizations.”
Those hospitalizations face a twist in Alton’s case. Dr. Sessions, as planned, left active Army duty in early August to join a high-risk obstetrics group in Spokane, Wash. Mrs. Sessions stayed behind in August in Watertown with Alton so he could continue his first month of treatment in Syracuse. The two then planned to rejoin Dr. Sessions and the rest of the family in Spokane.
“We’ve had an amazing response from our friends at the church and our family members to help us to do all of this,” Mrs. Sessions said. “It’s been pretty incredible. So many friends have reached out to us and provided meals, paid us visits to the hospital and left messages of encouragement and support.”
Dr. Sessions said faith has also been powerful for the family.
“It’s meant the world to us,” he said. “Our faith in Christ and knowing that this life is difficult, but also wonderful. We just take it day by day and our faith is getting us through it.”
Alton’s parents say he enjoys anything that “makes noise,” such as trucks, trains and race cars. He also liked to scoot around in a toy race car at Golisano hospital.
DONATING AND ‘MATCHING’
Alton has a rare blood type, and many people responded by donating blood to the American Red Cross.
“It’s been really important to be able to boost up that blood supply so that it’s available for kids, not just like our son, but for a lot of kids who are depending on that who are fighting cancer,” Mrs. Sessions said.
Many acquittances and strangers have also been made aware of the Be the Match program through Alton’s case, his parents said.
Be the Match is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program. It manages the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. A swab check of a potential donor’s cheek is used and stored by Be the Match to assist patients searching for their genetic match to donate life-saving blood stem cells.
‘NATALIE THE BRAVE’
Natalie Grace Gondek was born in April of 2017 to Marci L. and Matthew P. Gondek of Clayton. They are not members of the Watertown Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but Marci’s grandmother, Jackie M. Lashomb, Clayton, is.
Natalie was diagnosed with “high-risk B-cell” acute lymphoblastic leukemia in late March, two weeks after Marci gave birth to son Kyler M. Natalie spent her second birthday in the hospital. Marci and Matthew have another child, Chase, age 9.
Mrs. Gondek said that the one thing that’s guaranteed to soothe Natalie are their walks along Clayton’s waterfront. It finally has full access following this year’s flood prevention measures.
“That will put a huge smile on her face,” Mrs. Gondek said. “The River Walk finally opened. I think that’s the best present you can have.”
Mrs. Gondek’s mother and Natalie’s grandmother, Mrs. Lashomb, is an active member in the Watertown Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She lives next door to the Gondeks in the village of Clayton.
“Natalie’s mom and dad have just been phenomenal parents,” Mrs. Lashomb said. “They have a little baby and a 9-year-old and so they’re trying to juggle everyone’s needs.”
The support from the church, and also from members of the community, has been “amazing,” Mrs. Lashomb said.
“For the members of the church, it’s not unusual for them to help out one family. But three at a time? They’re really sacrificing their own needs for helping these little children and their families.”
The support has been emotional for Mrs. Lashomb.
“It’s heart-wrenching to see how she (Natalie) was such a vivacious little girl and as the chemo started to take its effect, how she wasn’t able to walk,” she said. “As the chemo wanes down, she builds her strength back up and she has to learn to do those things all over again.”
A fundraiser for Natalie has been scheduled for 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 19 at Cavallario’s Steak House in Alexandria Bay. A Facebook page and a GoFundMe online account linked to her case are dubbed “Natalie the Brave.”
ACUTE MYELOID LEUKEMIA
Sammy Shelton of Watertown is the 19-month-old son of Stacie M. Shelton, a teacher in the Watertown City School District and Army veteran Caleb K. Shelton, a registered respiratory therapist at Samaritan Medical Center. They have two other children, Hudson, 7 and Benjamin, 5.
In October, Sammy was diagnosed with AML — acute myeloid leukemia. He’s about to undergo a bone marrow transplant. Sammy’s GoFundMe page is called, -SuperSammyStrong.
The Cleveland Clinic’s website notes that patients treated for AML have a 60% to 70% chance of remission; about 30% of those survive at least three years, with a possibility of a full cure. AML usually strikes adults.
“With Sammy, we basically lived at the hospital from October 1st when he was diagnosed to April 1st,” Mrs. Shelton said in an emailed response to questions. “SUNY Golisano Children’s Hospital became my second home.”
Mr. and Mrs. Shelton had brief stays at home for up to a week between each of Sammy’s five cycles of chemotherapy. “But we stayed on average about 30 days in-patient at a time,” she said.
Earlier this year, Sammy was in remission.
“However, at the end of May our family was on vacation at an oncology camp in Maine (Camp Sunshine) and all was well,” Mrs. Shelton said. “I put Sammy to bed one night and when he woke up the next morning, part of his face was paralyzed. We immediately rushed him to the clinic at the camp.”
Sammy’s paralysis became worse, so the family headed home and to the cancer clinic at Golisano where it was discovered that Sammy’s cancer had returned.
“We just finished two rounds of chemo in Syracuse and we will be headed to Rochester for a bone marrow transplant,” Mrs. Shelton wrote on Wednesday morning.
An “international donor” has been found for Sammy.
Mrs. Shelton said her family is grateful for the support from her church and community and that “no words of appreciation” could reflect her gratitude.
“The church supplied us with meals to help while we were in the hospital,” she said. “They helped, with our neighbor, to do snow removal. They’ve watered our garden, taken care of our flowers, our mail, mowed our lawn and sent texts and notes.”
But most of all, Mrs. Shelton said, people have been praying — “from the youngest to the oldest member of the congregation.”
And she has prayed, and done more, for others.
“I’m grateful I’ve been able to be a support to the other families going through this,” Mrs. Shelton said. “The connection you feel with another cancer family is unexplainable. They just get it.”
The situation of the three sick children linked to congregation members often raises a question — “Why?,” said Mrs. Lashomb, Natalie’s grandmother.
“But actually, it’s been a faith-promoting experience and we’re just praying it all works out for each of the kids.”