“Hey Ruben,” I whispered to my friend and A’s veteran minor league coach Ruben Escalera, “what do the yellow wristbands mean?” “They’re for Cre’s little son, Alex.” [he paused, presumably for my heart to sink] “He has cancer.”
I immediately thought back to 2012 when the darling 7-year-old bat boy, whose helmet was as big as he was, would hustle as he’d bring water and baseballs to the umpires or to retrieve a bat left behind. This sweet child was a much of a fixture – and hard worker – at Papago and now at Fitch as any other member of the staff, including his father, Chris. Of the million questions populating my brain, most were answered when I read the dark green letters printed on the yellow neoprene band. “A’s for Alex.” Three simple words, one powerful comforting statement on the tight-knit family based at the Lew Wolff Training Center in Mesa Arizona. With this group in his corner, I pity the opponent.
LIFE BEFORE CANCER
Alex Lessner and his older brother, Tyler, have grown up on the fields at Papago and Fitch. Their dad, Chris, is completing his 21st year as a certified athletic trainer with Oakland, almost all of that time based in Arizona. Chris (who’s known as “Cre”) would bring his sons to work on weekends and during summer break. They learned from an early age how to behave in baseball, how to work and how important it is to hustle. They earned the respect of coaches and players, and, best of all, spent time with their dad. Though not as often as when they were younger, thanks to busy school, sports, and social calendars, the boys still spend as much time on the fields when they can.
Working hard, doing well in his honors classes, and playing sports is how Alex spends most of his time. He’s a multi-sport athlete, playing soccer, football and his favorite of all, baseball. He’s pretty good, too. In May 2016, just before his 11th birthday Alex went 3 for 3 with 6 RBIs, 2 home runs and a double off the top of the centerfield fence at the Reach 11 Complex in North Phoenix in a tournament with the Madison RAMMS. A fun, final game of the season! Though he would miss playing baseball in the summer, he could not wait to start playing tackle football in the fall.
Football practice started the first week of August, when the daytime temperature in Phoenix is still 110 degrees. Add the mid-monsoon humidity and nightly threat of storms, and it is uncomfortable day or night even without football pads. It sounds grueling, and it is, but in this case, tackle football may have also saved Alex’s life.
August 1: First practice for Alex’s Pop Warner tackle football team. Daytime high temp and humidity were as expected – miserable – but Alex didn’t care; he was too excited. Besides, as a Phoenix-native, he’s played sports in this weather all his life. When Chris called home to see how practice was, the report wasn’t what he expected. Chris’s wife, Steph, described Alex being slow and sluggish, and needing frequent breaks. Each practice was increasingly worse (vomiting during practice, increased fatigue) but through it all, Alex never wanted to quit or complained. He objected when Chris decided to keep him home on Thursday. When returned on Friday full of energy feeling great there was a collective sigh of relief; the worst appeared to be over. Appeared to be until Saturday morning when the previous day’s high was outmatched by a severe plummet. The 11-year-old was so fatigued he would not have moved if his dad had not made him go shopping for new cleats and minimal school supplies.
New week, new school year, but the same inconsistent endurance. Why? Alex did not have a fever or other signs of illness; no complaints of feeling sick. It didn’t make sense. When an obviously bewildered Chris returned 20 minutes after practice began, he was greeted by one of the Pop Warner coaches. The fireman-by-day told Chris that Alex was not “… de-conditioned; there’s something more to this.” In retrospect, the signs indicating something wasn’t right with Alex were clear. But perpetual second-guessing is a staple of parenting.
During an exam the next day, the pediatrician found nothing conclusive and suggested Alex might be battling a cold or maybe his asthma was acting up and advised that he forego practice the rest of the week. School was draining, and though he experienced some nausea during PE, it was manageable. All signs pointed to the doctor being right. Just in time, too: club baseball practice would be starting soon. Put another quarter in the carousel of second-guesses.
Alex didn’t make it through the first stretch of the first practice before getting sick in the dugout trash can. In true “trooper” form, he hustled back to the field only to be shut down after taking four grounders. Enough was enough. Chris took him directly to the Urgent Care closest to their central Phoenix home: the world-renowned Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Alex underwent several tests and a panel of blood work in eight hours. Aside from finding an enlarged spleen and an irregular liver, there were more questions when they left than before they arrived. Tests included an ultrasound on his stomach, an EKG, and a chest x-ray. The blood work ordered was a Basic Metabolic Panel (BMP), standard for routine physicals or, as in this case, for emergency room patients to find chemical imbalances (glucose and calcium levels; balanced electrolyte and fluid levels) in need of immediate attention.
As instructed, the Lessners saw their pediatrician the following day for a more thorough panel of blood work. A Complete Blood Count (CBC) measures the White Blood Cells, Red Blood Cells and Platelets and is key to identifying cancer. After waiting an eternity (or 24 hours) there was a diagnosis, “Alex has a blood disorder… [he has] leukemia.” Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, to be precise.
Eighteen days from the first noticeable symptoms the Lessner family headed to PCH and to meet with the team of specialists and review the diagnosis, treatment, and next steps. The medical team started by naming and explaining the diagnosis as well as the steps of treatment and progress. Alex listened attentively, nodded in understanding, saving his energy for fighting cancer rather than the diagnosis. The same was not true for his parents or for his brother. As they listened to the experts explain in detail what would become the “new normal” of their lives, they found themselves alternating between feeling gut-punched and collectively thinking – hoping – this was just a bad dream.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.) is an aggressive (acute) cancer of the blood and bone marrow that starts at the early formation of white blood cells (at the lymphoblast stage) in the bone marrow. According to the American Cancer Society:
“A.L.L. is the most common childhood cancer affecting fewer than 200,000 cases (US) per year, and because leukemia cells usually invade the blood fairly quickly, they can then spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and testicles (in males.) It can progress quickly and if not treated, would probably be fatal within a few months.” (2)
Remember: the first set of tests at PCH showed Alex with an enlarged spleen and an irregular liver. An early diagnosis and an aggressive treatment plan worked in his favor. If not for football practice, who knows how long it would have been before Alex showed signs for concern.
The treatment plan began immediately. The only way to stop the aggressive cancer cells in their earliest stages of development was to attack with large dosages of cancer killing chemotherapy drugs Vincristine and Cytarabine. Anti-nausea medicine was key to helping the 11-year-old through one of the maligned side effects of the treatment.
In order to get the chemo into his system, a port with a tube that feeds into a vein near his heart was inserted just under the flesh of Alex’s chest. The port is shaped, for example, like a giant Rolo candy (individually wrapped chocolate covered caramel bites). Once implanted the chemotherapy drugs are easily administered by inserting a needle into the center of the “Rolo” for the duration of his three-stage, 36-month treatment process.
THE TREATMENT PLAN
STAGE 1 (MONTH 1) INDUCTION: The first and most intense of three stages began immediately with the insertion of the port. High dosages of chemotherapy drugs necessary to kill the cancer cells, also weaken the immune system. Alex required frequent exams and check-ins with his medical team to ensure the intensity level was in balance and that the cancer cells weren’t spreading to his brain through his blood and fluid (known as cerebrospinal fluids or CSF). The only way to monitor this is by a spinal tap. If you cringe at the thought of this procedure, imagine how Alex must have felt as he had the first of 15 (and counting).
There is no break in the war raging in his little body, but, as expected he was considered to be in remission at the end of the first stage. Remission does not mean “cured” or “cancer-free”. It means 99% of the 100 billion cancer cells are gone, but also that 1% (or 100 million cells) remain and must continue to be attacked.
STAGE 2 (MONTHS 2-4) CONSOLIDATION/ INTENSIFICATION was more intense than the first stage as its focus was on attacking the remaining cancer cells hiding in the body. The higher concentration of chemo drugs took a toll on his already-weakened immune system, requiring longer and more frequent stays at PCH but he got through, with his dad by his side every day and night.
Alex responded to each step of each phase the way he did most things in his young life: with acceptance and a low-key positive approach. He didn’t panic or display any fear. He absorbed information and processed experiences to strengthen his battle against the evil invader. No complaining, no worrying, no irritable behavior, and no questioning, “why me?”
While it’s easy to be impressed by such a display of courage, especially from a child, Chris was more concerned with his son’s mental health. He didn’t want him to suppress his feelings or to think he “had to be” strong. An evolved father like Chris knows the value of expressing and processing emotions and there were a couple of times when the physical exhaustion, especially in the hospital, gave way to a natural and healthy breakdown into tears. With his father to comfort him until it passed, Alex Lessner was ready to refocus on the task at hand: beating cancer and Chris Lessner returned to worrying.
Even in the best of times “parenting” and “worrying” are synonymous. Whether it’s Alex or first-born son Tyler, Proud Papa Chris’s eyes light up when he describes his sons as smart, hardworking and good young men. He’ll tell you about Tyler, who is entering his sophomore year at Brophy College Prep and how his talents are demonstrated in the tech or gaming area, or how Alex’s interests outside of his honors classes have centered around sports. He loves talking about his boys almost as much as he loves talking with them. But, as parents are told once the baby is born, make some room in the closet because a houseguest will arrive soon. His name is Worry and he’s never leaving. So, while Alex may not be afraid or concerned, his dad is enough for both.
STAGE 3 (MONTHS 5 – 36+) MAINTENANCE: The first two stages combined for 25% of the time and 75% of the intensity and treatment. Conversely, and though oversimplifying, the final stage spreads the remainder of the chemo treatments over the rest of the projected time frame. Alex’s routine during this stage includes taking daily and weekly pills, along with monthly/ bi-monthly chemo sessions. Scheduled “re-induction” treatments – repeating the same intense process from the first month are built in as a “booster”. Close and careful monitoring of his white cell count is as important as ever.
THE BASEBALL WINTER MEETINGS
In the world of professional baseball, there’s an important step between Thanksgiving and Christmas: the Winter Meetings. A week-long event where staff and decision-makers in Major and Minor League Baseball, affiliates, stakeholders, and job-seekers gather to, among other things, decide on issues and actions for the coming season. In December 2016, just outside of Washington D.C. members of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society or PBATS participated in their annual vote for a service-organization partner for the upcoming season. The elected recipient, its cause and mission, is promoted by PBATS throughout the year and is the beneficiary of the groups’ single-day fundraising effort during spring training. In previous years, Oakland’s Nate Brooks (former minor league rehab coordinator promoted to medical coordinator) and Jeff Collins (former minor league medical coordinator, current assistant athletic trainer for the big league club) represented the Athletics in a leadership capacity.
In years past, members voted to partner with organizations such as Wounded Warriors, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and MLBs B.A.T (Baseball Assistance Team). On a multiple choice ballot, three months after MLB and Stand Up to Cancer kicked off a month long effort recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness month, an overwhelming majority of PBATS voters selected the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, whose mission is to fund research that will end childhood cancer as their 2017 partner. Lessner was home in Phoenix with Alex and the family, but his colleagues in DC called him when the selection was announced. Great news even if he didn’t know much about the organization, he knew their mission and that’s all that mattered. In some small way, those who cast their vote for the NPCF, would make a difference in the lives of the most innocent victims, like Alex: kids and cancer.
Helping those close to us in their time of need or suffering is necessary. Maybe more so for those on the giving end because as human beings, it’s in our DNA to take care of one another. The PBATS vote was made just a day after the passing of the Athletics long time minor league video coordinator, Mark Smith. He was beloved by all in baseball who knew him and was a fixture in Arizona and with the Athletics.
Heartbreakingly, Mark was the fourth member to be taken from the small but mighty A’s player development family in a span of 2.5 years. First, the incomparable Bob Welch, then young pitcher Michael Nolan, and, in April 2016 rehabbing tenured pitching prospect Sean Murphy. Mark grieved, as we all did, for those taken too soon and without warning. When it was he whom we next had to mourn, it didn’t seem real.
There was little time to catch our breath and come to terms with Mark’s passing, before the family would suffer another loss, one that was felt on two levels when 2016 draft pick Casey Thomas. The shortstop had been a valuable member of the AZL A’s during his rookie season died on May 1, 2017. As tragic a loss, our hearts broke for his father Tom, a veteran and well-respected evaluator, is a member of Oakland’s scouting cadre. The Thomas family is based in Arizona, not far from Fitch where Tom had been a welcomed and familiar face.
As a close-outsider, I too, experienced each loss. With each heartache came an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that never really left. The internal question “Is there something we could have done…?” became increasingly louder. I hurt for each of the members of the tight-knit group, especially for the boys who spent much of their time in Arizona. Death is difficult enough to process for adults; but even more so for the kids, some of whom had never experienced that kind of loss. But as a unit, a team, a family, they grieved together and the bond among them is now stronger than ever.
KINGS OF THE CLUBHOUSE
Back in Arizona, James Gibson, Thomas Miller, and Chad Yaconetti, aka The Kings of the Clubhouse set out to do something, anything to help the Lessners, both Alex and their friend “Cre”. They decided yellow neoprene wristbands would be the way to raise both awareness and funds. Neoprene is durable, flexible, and waterproof. It’s easy to slip on and stays there, and it’s easy to wear. Players show their support during practice and games without worry of it breaking. Yellow represents one of Oakland’s 2 colors as well as a nod to the color that represents Childhood Cancer (gold.) Printed in dark green is the mission statement behind the wristbands: “A’s for Alex”.
Neoprene is durable, flexible, and waterproof. It’s easy to slip on and stays there, and it’s easy to wear. Players show their support during practice and games without worry of it breaking. Easy to raise awareness. The Kings didn’t have a marketing plan. They figured they would sell them to co-workers, teammates anyone who passed through the employee entrance to the Lew Wolff Training Center with 100% of the funds to the Lessners for expenses or to make their lives a little easier. The suggested donation amount was set at $5.00. But like a speed limit sign in the middle of nowhere, no one saw the tiny number as they blew right past. Generosity was on display to benefit one of their own.
“We just wanted to do something to show Cre and the kids that they are not alone in this fight,” Miller said.
Mission accomplished, Thomas.
CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS 365 & PBATS
Before games started in spring training, PBATS held their One-Day Charity Fundraiser. Across the league, big league campers with all 30 teams learned about childhood cancer and the life-changing work of the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation from a representative or one with personal experience. At the end of the presentation, each player, trainer, front office member etc. was asked to donate the equivalent of one day’s meal money to the PBATS partner.
Oakland’s big league campers heard from Miller, who explained the impact childhood cancer is currently having on the Oakland A’s family. There were many who were in camp for the first time; no connection to Lessners. But there were many who knew both Lessners either from growing in the system (like Sonny Gray) or spending time rehabbing (Stephen Vogt or Chris Bassitt). There were also some good guys who understood the meaning and gave with their wallet to support the cause and proudly wore the “A’s for Alex” wristband to support the family (like Khris Davis.)
The 2017 PBATS One-Day Fundraiser brought in a total of $38,296. On this one day, the Oakland Athletics raised $8,000 – 20% of the total amount. Miller appreciated the opportunity to talk to the players, “Everyone [in big league camp] was super supportive and the minor league guys were even better. It’s been really cool to see all the support.”
Almost before Miller was done with his presentation, Gray, Oakland’s #1 pick in 2011 and the team’s ace until traded to the New York Yankees in July, wrote a generous check and gave it to Chris in exchange for the yellow band which he wore almost every day, except when he was pitching. In a priceless show of support, Sonny wore the “A’s for Alex” band in his formal spring training photos. Now that he’s a member of the Yankees, that final photo means even more.
Rehabbing big leaguers like Vogt and Bassitt were among the first to show their support. Bassitt was a regular in the training room in Mesa after his “Tommy John” surgery in May 2016. Like Gray, Bassitt quickly and generously exchanged a donation for an “A’s for Alex” wristband and also wore it proudly in his individual photos by Getty Images during spring training.
Vogt spent quite a bit of time in Arizona rehabbing during the 2014 season. Though his goal was to get healthy and return to Oakland, his presence was a gift to everyone at Papago. Vogt’s leadership to the young catchers during Extended Spring training was invaluable. Like Gray and Bassitt, Vogt proudly displayed his support for Alex in his spring training photos. After a generous donation proudly wore his yellow band in support of Alex on his right wrist for every game, including his final appearance as a member of the Athletics, in left field. The current Milwaukee Brewer will never be forgotten by the Lessner family.
Khris Davis was traded to Oakland in 2016 but that didn’t stop him from wearing at least one – often two – bands showing his support of Alex in game action. The exuberant “Khrush” Davis has a special place in the hearts of the Lessner family.
While Miller addressed those in big league camp, the Lessners and childhood cancer, Chris addressed the group he knew well: the minor leaguers. The response was even more uplifting than expected. Cancer was personal because they knew Alex, and for the pitchers, it was Chris who would work with them immediately following their exit from a game. They wanted to help. Below is a sample of those wearing wristbands throughout the season supporting Alex and his fight against A.L.L.
Beloit Snappers pitching coach Carlos Chavez and his staff displayed their support for Alex throughout the Midwest League season.
A big Thank You to Shannon Starr and the Oakland A’s Booster Club. True to Shannon’s nature and the booster clubs generosity, they bought the last 10 wristbands on hand. Shannon presented Chris with a donation on her last visit to Phoenix.
THE “NEW NORMAL”
Six months into their “new normal” way of life meant spring training was in full swing. Chris returned to his busy work schedule and Alex was in a groove with his new school routine – part time in the classroom with a homebound teacher to supplement instruction. He was able to enjoy a modified pre-teen social life with friends and even got to throw out the first pitch on opening day for his team the Madison RAMMS. When it was time for his scheduled chemo treatments at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, he would step out of his daily 11-year-old life and into one of a child beating-up on cancer, with his dad by his side – figuratively and literally. This was just part of their “new normal” way of life.
Chris knows how fortunate he is to be Alex’s full-time caretaker. He’s able to spend every night – and day – with his son when he’s in the hospital or not doing well because of two things: 1) his support system at work. It starts at the top with the “family first” leadership of A’s Director of Player Development, Keith Lieppman, and is strengthened by the family at Fitch including the Kings of the Clubhouse, and his colleagues who happily and readily assume his responsibilities when he has to leave work on a moment’s notice. Though often unsure if he will return later that day or in two weeks, there is never a problem or concern; the only question asked of him is what else they can do to help. 2) The excellent medical coverage provided by Major League Baseball.
Once spring training ends and those assigned to full season minor league or big league rosters are gone, there’s a break just long enough for the staff and players in Arizona to catch their breath before the Extended Spring Training programs begin in mid-April. Early workouts, noon-time games, evenings at home. A more traditional schedule for those with families, like the Lessners.
Tyler continued to work hard in school as his freshman year at Brophy was coming to an end. He and his brother were spending more time together, playing video games etc., due to the fact that Alex didn’t have practice or games five nights a week. It was good for their relationship and the time together was important. As the older brother, Tyler was worried and scared for Alex at first but their “new normal” way of life, Dad’s approach of “accept, adapt, excel” became a way of life for the whole family. It would soon be put to its most rigorous test.
Alex wasn’t feeling well the last week of April. It didn’t take long for his fever to reach 104, but it took even less time for Chris to get him admitted into PCH. Identifying the reason for the high fever was a challenge and it lasted several days. In the process, they removed the port that was implanted after his diagnosis in August, when they found it had a fungal infection. Instead they would use IVs to keep him hydrated, nourished, and medicated. Still, the fever persisted. His little body was fighting off something that the medical staff at a premier children’s hospital could not find. Cannot imagine the strength it would take to watch your child go through something like that. Because, as a parent, there’s nothing you can do.
Soon after, his medical team discovered Alex had developed pancreatitis – painful upper-abdomen, vomiting. They inserted a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) a tube that flows through a vein to the heart as a sort of “superhighway” of fluids – an entrance for hydration and medication and an exit for blood needed for frequent testing.
Unfortunately, the first picc line was too short. It was replaced with a longer tube, in the same arm. The process of inserting, removing, and re-inserting a foreign object (the tube) through the veins and into the heart is not a simple procedure. Enduring the discomfort and lack of success from one failed picc line is a lot, but to repeat it soon after is more than most could take without expressing frustration, pain, or even a meltdown. Remarkably, Alex did none of that. Not even with the severe pain from the pancreatitis or the persistent 104 degree fever. The only words that come to mind are “brave”, “strong” and “courageous”. All of this for an 11-year-old child. Unfathomable strength.
Once his body was able to accept and absorb the medication and hydration, Alex felt a little better each day. He was able to move around and participate in some of the great activities PCH offers to help take the focus off being sick. More than once, Chris sang the praises of Phoenix Children’s Hospital: “… everyone on the staff is great with the patients and with us parents. They are true professionals.”
Another bright spot is the frequent low-key visits made to the young patients from a handful of named players on the Arizona Diamondbacks roster. Guys like Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt visit often. They play games and spend time focusing on and being with the kids. As one who spends his life working with the biggest names in the game, Chris was impressed by the focused attention from the big name athletes. It’s that kind of connection that eases the spirits of the children and their parents, especially those who long-term patients.
For Alex, some days were better than others: one step forward, two back. The nights were the most difficult time. Consistent REM sleep was non-existent for Alex and for Chris, who slept in his room on an inflatable air mattress he purchased in the fall. The almost hourly intrusion of checking blood pressure, changing IVs, taking his temperature, etc. would wake Alex (and Chris.) In the daytime, since it is a teaching hospital, there was no making up for the previous night or more accurately, the previous 24 nights’ sleep.
A marked event took place after night 25. The 2nd picc line needed to be replaced, only this time in his right arm. The child who has the patience of Job had taken enough – more than enough, more than what most adults could imagine if they were in his place. After all the poking and prodding and sleep interruption AND all of the withheld emotion, it was his third procedure in as many weeks that opened the flood gates of emotion. To have lasted any longer would have seemed inhumane if it weren’t Alex doing it himself. The meltdown in his father’s arms didn’t last long, but no one would have blamed this brave young soul if it was measured in days rather than minutes.
A FATHER’S LOVE
Chris remembers this day because there have been so few like it. Alex doesn’t try to be strong; it’s not an act, that’s just how he is. There is no drama in his DNA. But you can’t listen to his story – or see him and know what he’s going through – without marveling at how he’s handling the physical and emotional strain.
There is no male bravado from his father, either. Chris has a healthy perspective of emotions and wants his sons to be comfortable with theirs. He’s not afraid to cry, especially when discussing Alex and his journey, as he did here: “He is so strong, so tough. But I don’t want to keep telling him that because I don’t want him to think he must be tough. Feelings are good, being scared at times is natural, crying is good for you. I want him to know that he doesn’t have to be strong all the time. He just IS.”
On the subject of Alex and playing sports: “Alex is good at everything he does, probably because he enjoys whatever he’s doing and he works hard at it. Baseball is his favorite….he loves it. When it’s possible, Alex will always choose to wear the number #35. As a tribute to Bob Welch, who was great with Alex. He even has it on his glove.”
“Alex is so good at sports. He loves playing and competing with his teammates. But if he said he doesn’t want to play another sport and he wants to do take up astronomy or stamp collecting or …. anything, that would be great. As long as he is happy and enjoys what he’s doing, that’s what matters. That’s all that matters with both of my sons.”
Midway through their 37-night-stay, the Lessners each received a gift that was so fitting, only someone who’d walked in their shoes could have selected it. Indeed, the thoughtful gift-givers were a father and son who were just a few months father along in the treatment process. The fathers knew Chris would need a nice, fully stocked and refillable toiletry kit, and he was right. The make-shift kit Chris had been using was history!
When he asked his son what they should give to Alex, he answered immediately: a fuzzy pillow and blanket. Yes, there were plenty of pillows and bedding available upon request, but no matter how many hospital pillows you have, they’re still hospital pillows. The son knew how much Alex needed to feel the comfort of what he was missing from home; a fluffy, fuzzy pillow and blanket. Possibly the two best gifts ever in part because of the thoughtfulness with which they were given and the practical need they serve that neither Chris nor Alex knew they needed.
These simple but perfect gift ideas got Chris thinking about how he could give back and help others who would be in the same position he and Alex are in now. He already donated most of the funds raised from the “A’s for Alex” wristbands to the NPCF in Alex’s name. The Kings wanted to help offset expenses, but thanks to excellent health insurance, and no loss of income there was nothing to justify keeping most of it. Because they live in the same neighborhood as Phoenix Children’s Hospital, there was no commuting expense either – gas or wear and tear on the car.
The wristbands continued to sell and worn. With each new person learning of Alex and his battle with leukemia came the question, “How can we help?” Chris was grateful for the concern and support but he knows there are so many children and families who need help. To jump start their philanthropic efforts, they’ve set up a YouCaring.com page: A’s for Alex – YouCaring.com
Alex celebrated his 12th birthday at the end of May with 60 close friends and family members. The guest list included many from the A’s Extended Spring Training contingent and would have been longer, but Phoenix Children’s Hospital has rules in place to protect its patients from outside influences.
Alex was happy to see everyone. Some were first-time visitors, most were not. In the nine months that he’d been battling cancer, love and support in all forms has poured from the hearts of friends he knows and those he’s yet to meet. Though he appreciated the attention – and the presents – the only thing he really wanted was to sleep in his own bed. Thirty-two days was a long time to be away from home, especially when you’re a kid. So, when his doctors said he would have to wait five more days, he knew he could hold on a little longer especially since it meant he would lay his head down on his pillow on his bed at home by the end of the week. Alex was happy and set his thoughts to Friday.
The medical team never expressed anything other than in the positive, “the next step is this…” etc. After 37 nights, the longest of all their stays in the 9 months since hearing the word “cancer”, Alex (and Chris) returned home to sleep in their own beds for the first time in 6 weeks and the family resumed their new-normal lives. Tyler’s freshman year of high school was in the books, and he was happy to have Alex back home. A silver lining from the diagnosis, is the bond that’s even stronger now between the Lessner boys.
Alex has understood his limitations since the day the family met with the specialists upon his original diagnosis. But for months, due to a myriad of setbacks, the excruciatingly long wait to do his favorite thing in the world was finally over. On the fields at the Lew Wolff Training Center on Athletics Way in Mesa, Arizona, among a hundred or so newly drafted and returning A’s in their first early pre-AZL workout, Alex and his dad had a game of catch. And for a moment, all was right with the world.
Alex was ready for the new school year to start. He was excited to get back to learning and socializing and being one of the kids. After six weeks of continuous improvements in his energy and wellness, where the family’s “new normal” evolved into just “normal”, all signs appeared to be positive. Then one morning he woke up with a sore throat and a fever, and by dinner was back in the hospital. That’s how quickly things change for a kid battling cancer. His immune system is still slowly regaining strength, only to be squashed again with the next round of chemo.
They know the drill, they’ve done it many times. Except this time, the first thing Chris gathered as they left the house was his son’s pillow. Hours later, when Alex was settled in his room and connected to the necessary machines it was time to rest. It’s also when Chris realized there was only a straight chair and that’s where Chris would “sleep” for the night. Unlike that of child’s, his own comfort was the last thing on his mind, until the last possible moment. His sleep-free night further validated the drive to help other parents in the same position.
The next morning Alex’s ANC was at 64. Blood counts are key to identifying and marking progress or reason for concern in cancer patients, with the most important being the absolute neutrophil count (ANC). A healthy person has an ANC between 2,500 and 6,000. Given that if it dips below 500 it’s cause for great concern, imagine the degree of concern when Alex was admitted the night before, his count was at 68 (double-digits.) After fluctuating for a week all counts stabilized at a level high enough for a discharge. While 500 is a number of concern for a healthy person, 250 is the magic number for one with cancer.
A TIMELY LESSON IN ACCEPTANCE
In middle-school, fitting-in is almost as important as breathing. At times, kids can be cruel to one another for not being like everyone else for not fitting-in. So, if you’re a cancer patient who missed most of the last school year, can’t play on the school’s sports teams, and who looks a little different because of the super-deluxe dosages of cancer killing meds in your system, are you going to fit in to a public middle-school in central Phoenix? You sure are!
When I asked Alex how the kids at school treated him that first week, his puzzled expression followed by his response gives me hope for the future. He had no idea what I meant. None. Like I was speaking a language he had never heard. I rephrased by asking more specifically about their actions toward him and his expression changed from “huh?” to “What is she talking about?” He finally responded with a shoulder shrug and, “Yes, everything is the same. It’s good. No difference.”
He also mentioned, casually, that there are others in his medium sized school who have beaten or are currently battling cancer. No stigma, no pity, no special treatment. Just another kid. I love the fact that my question sounded silly to him. When he walked away I asked his father the same question – expecting a different response. I like being wrong at times like this.
With obvious pride of one who’s witnessed this acceptance firsthand, “These kids, even at the middle school level are so much more accepting, more understanding than ever before.”
Whatever is happening in the world right now, there is hope in the next generation.
A’s FOR ALEX
Major League Baseball kicked off Childhood Cancer Awareness month by having players on all 30 teams wear MLB issued the campaign’s official color, gold wristbands with an embroidered gold ribbon on each. At home, most teams continued to honor the cause with a campaign promotion and pregame ceremony.
Thanks to the Kings of the Clubhouse (James, Thomas, and Chad) for not waiting until a specific month or timeframe to raise awareness and funds to fight childhood cancer. They just wanted to help one of their own; to let him and his family know they weren’t alone. If you would like to help support the “A’s for Alex” movement, to help the families of the lives of young cancer patients, please visit their YouCaring page here.
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