Boys illness brings community closer

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2006

A life-threatening disease has hospitalized a 10-year-old Kenai boy and triggered a flurry of support among family, friends and people who have never even met the Kenai boy, but are touched by his story.

On March 10, Maureen and Mike Boyle rushed their son Gabriel Boyle to the Seattle Children’s Hospital after blood tests in Anchorage diagnosed Gabriel with acute myeloid leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer characterized by a rapid, uncontrolled growth of immature white blood cells.

AML is a rare type of leukemia most commonly found in older adults and requires high-dose treatment that results in low levels of immune cells, red blood cells and platelets.

“AML is not common in kids and it’s harder to treat,” Maureen said. “Treatment for AML is intense. It’s not like other cancers where you get a little break between things. ... In AML they have to use the really big guns in chemo.”

Gabriel will receive treatment for a minimum of six months, with no opportunities to return home between treatments.

Shortly after the family’s departure to Seattle, a rapidly growing circle of concerned friends began brainstorming ideas to help the Boyles cope with the hardships the disease had brought to the family.

“It’s so difficult to be there and take care of your home, too,” said Kimb Remsen, a close friend of Maureen’s. “And they have three other sons here.”

Remsen said she and a handful of other concerned friends arranged to meet one day at the Sears Elementary School library to discuss their ideas.

“We weren’t sure what we were going to do, we just wanted to do something,” she said.

But word spread about the informal gathering and, to Kimb’s surprise, more than 25 people came to the library to offer help and ideas.

“People just kept coming,” she said.

Since then, the community has pulled together to gather care package donations and organize a fundraiser that will feature skits and an auction.

“It’s going to be a whole evening of entertainment and auctioning,” Remsen said.

The family is enduring a lot of hardship but are encouraged by their community’s support, she said.

“The outpouring of love from everybody at home is just unbelievable,” Maureen said. “I knew we had a lot of great friends, but I don’t think you really know how great until something like this happens.”

Mike has been posting regular updates on Gabriel’s condition on a hospital Web site for family and friends, and they have responded by flooding the site with encouraging messages and jokes to cheer up Gabriel and share their compassion. As of Tuesday, more than 400 messages had been posted.

Mike’s updates track Gabriel’s condition, sometimes marked by subtle yet monumental signs of progress and enduring struggles.

“Who would ever have thought that having your child drink a bottle of Snapple would be a wondrous accomplishment. Today it was cause for celebration” he said in a message posted on the Web site.

The high-dose treatment has knocked down Gabriel’s appetite, as well as his immune system, requiring heavy doses of antibiotics to fight off infections.

Due to her son’s compromised immune system and a sinus infection she had early during his treatment, Maureen couldn’t visit her son for a week.

“It was the longest week of my life,” she said. “If you have any symptoms at all you can’t even be in the oncology ward.”

The AML treatments drain patients of energy, and the usually social, upbeat Gabriel now spends many hours in bed trying to recover his usual vigor.

“While the long-term prospect seems good for Gabe, it takes quite an adjustment in one’s perspective to realize that he is sick enough daily that the situation would warrant a parent staying home from work to care for him on any given day,” Mike posted in an update.

The fundraiser, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Friday at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center, will include skits by the Drop of a Hat Performers and an auction of desserts and items from area businesses and other donors.

Remsen said care packages are being sent to Gabriel weekly, and anyone wanting to donate gifts to him may drop them off at Sears or Mountain View elementary schools in Kenai, Nikiski Middle-High School or Homer Electric Association in Kenai or Homer.

Monetary donations may be made at First National Bank to the Friends of Gabe Boyle account, No. 30513667.

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