‘Hero’s homecoming’: Local 5-year-old beats cancer for second time
STAMFORD — When Mary Pat Caldwell and her 5-year-old twin boys Zach and Teddy pulled into their driveway last week for the first time in six months, the first thing she did was get out of the car and kiss the ground.
Met by cheers and hugs from approximately 25 friends and family who had gathered with signs and balloons to welcome the family, Caldwell threw her hands up in the air and cried, “We’re home!”
For the Caldwell family, the journey home marked the end of a dark period as Zach battled leukemia for the second time — a battle that was won thanks to a bone marrow transplant from Teddy.
“It is literally the most amazing day of my life,” she said. “We are just so happy to be home and excited to get back to living life.”
When Zach and Teddy were born, Caldwell said it was the happiest moment of her life, calling the boys her “miracle twins.” The boys were healthy, and for nearly two years, Caldwell said she lived in a state of blissful motherhood.
“I had these miracle twins later in life and it was like the most amazing 22 months.” She said. “Then one day I picked Zach up … from his crib and he was limping.”
At first, Caldwell said she didn’t think much of it, but the limp didn’t go away. Then Zach started getting sick. At first, it was a cold he couldn’t shake. Then came a fever.
“He had never gotten sick before and he was really miserable,” she said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it’s sticking around for a long time.’”
Caldwell rushed Zach to the pediatrician, and as she undressed him, Caldwell said she noticed “his whole belly was distended.” The pediatrician also noticed several bruises on Zach’s body during the examination.
That’s when Zach was sent for further tests at Stamford Hospital, which sent him to Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“I just thought it was going to be like, ‘Give him this medicine and go home,’ ” she said. “I never thought it was going to be leukemia.”
After his diagnosis, Caldwell took Zach to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he underwent nearly two years of treatment, spending five weeks as an inpatient followed by regular outpatient treatments.
With Zach’s prognosis, Caldwell said doctors estimated there was a 90 percent chance of success.
“All in all, he did really well with the treatments,” she said. “When he was done with treatment, we had gotten the OK from his doctors and we thought we were done.”
And for one year, the family was “done,” and life returned to normal.
“For a year, he was fine,” she said. “He started doing things he had never been able to do before. He went to preschool. He went to kids’ birthday parties. We joined the Italian Center and we were learning Italian — he took swimming lessons. We could go anywhere and do anything. It was the most amazing time because he was literally learning how to be a normal kid and do normal-kid things.”
Last July, Caldwell and Zach went in for his one-year follow up where doctors checked him out and ran some blood tests.
“They saw him, they checked him, they did blood work and said, ‘Everything looks great,’ ” she said.
A few hours later, Caldwell got the call — the blood tests showed Zach’s cancer was back.
“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” she said. “I just lost it. I started screaming, I didn’t want to believe it. I just remember thinking, I’ve lived this once ... I can’t do this again.”
Caldwell said she wasn’t sure what to expect this time. With a cancer relapse, she said, the treatments are harsher and come with a higher probability of side effects.
“You don’t know when you go through something like this, how all these treatments are going to affect him. You just hold your breath and hope ... nothing goes wrong.”
Caldwell took Zach to Boston Children’s Hospital, where he underwent six months of “heavy” chemo treatments before doctors recommended he undergo a bone marrow transplant.
On Dec. 8, he was given Teddy’s bone marrow cells. Caldwell said they live-streamed the transplant on Zach’s Facebook page — “Zach’s Pack: Hope, Help and Healing” — and the doctors allowed Teddy to “push the button” that administered the stem cells.
“I call (Teddy) the unsung hero in all this,” she said. “Because a lot of the time I was so busy with Zach that it was like, well what about Teddy, he needs me too.”
“And it was a scary situation for Teddy,” she added. “His brother is sick, we’re basically living in a hospital surrounded by sick kids and he was kind of left on the sidelines. It’s a lot for a 5-year-old to deal with.”
A little more than two months after the transplant, Zach was given the all- clear to return home. Caldwell said the doctors have given Zach a 70 percent chance of remaining cancer free.
Now that they’re home, Caldwell said she and her boys are looking forward to the future.
“We’re just looking forward to getting back to normal life,” she said. “Visiting with people; going out to dinner; having people over; playing with our cousins; seeing the boys go back to school. It’s all those little, normal, everyday things that we miss and can’t wait to get back to — just those simple joys.”