Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 1, 2002


Chemotherapy begun in little Zoey’s battle with acute leukemia


            One of the finest things about Alabama is the Children’s Hospital and its splendid staff. I had heard people sing the praises of this Birmingham hospital for years. Now I add my voice to the chorus.

            Our great granddaughter, Zoey Albritton, is in good hands there. None of her family members is complaining about having to take her there for treatment twice a week. There are plenty of volunteers willing to make the 200-mile trip.

            After extensive tests were completed, the doctors diagnosed Zoey’s illness as acute lymphocytic leukemia. This was the bad news.

The good news, however, was that treatment results in remission and recovery in about 70 per cent of the cases. There is a worse kind of leukemia for which there is only a 45 per cent chance of recovery.

A popular commercial asks the question, “How do you spell relief?” When you are not sure whether your sick child is going to live or die, relief is hearing a caring, competent doctor say, “We believe there is a good chance your child can recover through the medical treatment we are prescribing.”

So chemotherapy treatments began the day after the diagnosis. They will continue for 30 days. After a month of chemo, the doctors should be able to determine if the medicine will cause a remission of the disease.

If it does, then the treatment will continue for probably two and a half years. If there is not a remission, then more stringent measures will be taken -- mainly the use of radiation along with the chemotherapy.

Having the hope of recovery is a great blessing. As a pastor I have sat with many people in consultation rooms when a grim-faced doctor had to say, “I regret so much that I must tell you there is no chance of recovery for your loved one.”

There are incurable illnesses. There are times when even the most skilled doctor cannot prevent the death of a patient.

So to learn that Zoey has a 70 percent chance of recovery lifted our spirits. None of us wants her to endure the pain of needles and treatments for more than two years, but we can embrace that if it is the price of her healing.

How well I remember when my wife and I sat down across the table from a kind doctor in Baptist Hospital in Nashville many years ago. What we heard was the most devastating news we had ever heard.

What was worse we had not seen it coming. We knew our little son, David, was sick, but never for a moment had we suspected the news would be a death sentence.

“David has leukemia,” the doctor said. “There is no treatment that can cure it; we can only make him as comfortable as possible until the end.”

“You mean he is going to die?” I asked with my voice trembling. The doctor said nothing but nodded to confirm my greatest fear.

After several moments of silence, as tears filled our eyes, I asked, “How long before he dies?”

The doctor explained that there was no way of knowing for sure. Then he said, “My best guess is that he could live from two weeks to two years.”

The only hope that kindly doctor could offer us was the possibility there might be a breakthrough in medical research and a cure discovered before David died.

In the weeks that followed David received some temporary relief from blood transfusions. Each one was strongly resisted by David who, then in his third year, kept begging me not to let the nurses hurt him. I choked so many times on the words, “It’s for your own good, son.” I am sure he never understood why I permitted the nurses to hurt him.

As David’s condition worsened, the transfusions became more frequent, until finally we were told there was no reason to do them any longer. They had done all the good they could do. David was relieved, not realizing that this decision signaled the nearing of the end of his life.

He died in my arms at daybreak one morning in May, a little more than three years old. He had lived nine months since his diagnosis with acute leukemia.

 While Dean and I were heartbroken by his death, we were also relieved that David’s days of pain and misery were finally over. Leukemia, a word we had come to hate, and a word we can never forget, had won. We had lost in our desperate effort to keep David alive.

Since David’s death Dean and I have helped with at least a score of drives to raise money for leukemia research. Research has paid off. A diagnosis of leukemia is no longer a death sentence for a child or an adult.

Perhaps the few dollars we have given and helped to raise for the Leukemia Foundation have helped a little in the search for a cure for leukemia. We hope so.

The breakthrough Dr. T. Forte Bridges spoke to us about did not come in time to help our David. But it has come in recent years. And while a complete cure has not been found yet, the chance of recovery is now greater than ever before.

How fortunate, then, that children like our little Zoey now have a good chance for remission, recovery, and a normal life beyond the dreadful struggle with that demon called leukemia.

How blessed are we also that children stricken with diseases like leukemia can receive the finest treatment available anywhere at our own Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.