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Miracle Kids: Timothy Eaton

Checking into ‘Hotel Strong’

Timothy EatonIn 2002, July brought 3-year-old Timothy Eaton hugs and sunshine, thanks to a family reunion in Tennessee.

It also introduced big words, like “leukemia” and “chemotherapy” into his growing vocabulary.

Upon returning from the trip down south, Timothy, the youngest of three Eaton boys, was running a temperature and not feeling well. His pediatrician initially thought it was hand, foot, and mouth disease, a common viral illness among kids his age that would likely just run its course.

But it didn’t. It ran, ran, and ran some more, and soon led to vomiting.

“At that point, I brought him back to see the doctor again, and they took finger pricks, but didn’t like what they saw,” said Timothy’s mom, Michele Eaton.

The doctor’s office asked for another finger on the other hand.

“And when that brought troubling results, too, they told us that it might be leukemia and that my husband, John, and I were to pack a bag and head straight to Golisano Children’s Hospital,” Eaton said.

In Strong’s pediatric emergency department, the Eatons met Yesenia “Jessica” Ocampo, a child life specialist who brought coloring books, toys and games that would help pass time while Timothy waited for yet more blood draws. Soon, Timothy was brought upstairs, where a bone marrow test confirmed that yes, he did have leukemia—ALL, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which affects white blood cells that normally fight off infection. Fortunately, this once-fatal disease is now quite curable, and more fortunately still, it had not spread to Timothy’s spinal fluid.

“Our doctors were ready to field all our questions and talk about treatment, medicines and routines, but we weren’t ready for answers just yet,” Eaton remembered. “It was still very raw.”

Respecting that, doctors continued to treat Timothy and only versed the Eatons in the absolute essentials. The rest could wait until they were ready.

 “A diagnosis of leukemia is a time of crisis for the whole family, presenting an enormous amount of information for the whole family to take in,” said Barbara Asselin, M.D., one of Timothy’s pediatric oncologists. “But, in time, the Eatons stepped up to the challenge with determination, embracing the new treatments and routines with amazing strength of spirit. Timothy, especially; there's nothing that can make your day like Timothy’s winning smiles!”

Timothy began receiving platelets by blood transfusions, along with chemotherapy.

“He lost his hair, but John and Tim’s brother, Andrew, shaved their heads, too,” Eaton said. Timothy’s other brother, Andrew, helped him keep busy by playing video games.

Timothy began experiencing an aching inflammation of his pancreas, or pancreatitis, just three days after chemotherapy began—most likely an obscure reaction to his medicine. The only way to treat it was to keep him from eating for 4 to 5 days.

“John and I felt like the worst parents in the world, denying him that,” Eaton said. “He still was receiving nutrition through tube, but it wasn’t the same, and he was crying, begging.”

The cycle continued: chemotherapy, blood work to check progress, and more bouts of pancreatitis’ gut-wrenching pain and food-and-drink-fasts to beat them. In August, a little more than 3 weeks after being admitted, Timothy was able to go home and receive his medicine as an outpatient, first weekly, then bi-weekly, then monthly, and then, in October 2004, he no longer received any at all.

In October, barring no surprises, Timothy will join the ranks of many childhood cancer-conquerors.

“He’s the ‘bounce-back kid,’ he’s so resilient,” Asselin said.

The pancreatitis, however, continues. The day after last Thanksgiving, Timothy experienced one that was so agonizing, he begged to be taken to the hospital.

“We checked into ‘Hotel Strong,’ as I’ve come to call it,” Eaton said. Timothy stayed for another 3 weeks.

To prevent future attacks, Timothy receives enzyme therapy and is kept on a low-fat diet that Eaton admits is tough for an already-skinny 7-year-old. Still, most of the time, it helps him to keep feeling good, and to keep smiling—scoring 101 percent on a recent second-grade math test, taking up lacrosse and swimming as often as he can.

“We’ve only found the best at Golisano Children’s Hospital,” Eaton said. “The doctors made a point to make sure we were comfortable, whether it meant arranging a room with an extra bed or two, so we could be right there with Tim, or kidding around with him to make him feel comfortable, poking his nose with a stethoscope to examine him for ‘nose-itis.’” It’s true family-centered care, she said, “and it was only 10 minutes away from our home, virtually in our backyard. You really couldn’t ask for much more.”