Sporting a hat and zippered leather jacket, 6-year-old Brett Sutherland is a dancing machine, especially if a Michael Jackson song is playing. You wouldn’t know it’s been a year since he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“His legs were hurting and they were covered in bruises,” remembers Brett’s mom, Laura. “He was also running a low-grade fever.” He was quickly diagnosed at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic in Springfield, Missouri, located in the Jane Pitt Pediatric Cancer Center at Mercy Kids. Within 24 hours, he was flying to Memphis to start treatment.
Amazingly, Brett was in remission in just 15 days, but his family knew treatments would continue for more than two and a half years. Brett needed something to pass the time during appointments or when he wasn’t feeling great, and he would often play muted video games with his dad while listening to old vinyl records. He took a liking to Michael Jackson music and asked to see some of his dance moves. An internet search pulled up some old performances. He was hooked.
“Never in a million years would I have imagined Michael Jackson would have helped our 6-year-old son through his cancer treatment,” said Laura. “Brett may not always feel like playing outside or running around like other kids, but he can dance. Honestly, his personality has exploded. He’s our little entertainer.”
So now, during his weekly trips to Mercy Kids in Springfield, he may delight fellow patients and caregivers with an impromptu dance recital. Or, he might tackle an art project with his newfound friends. No matter what the activity, he actually looks forward to his weekly appointments, even though the real purpose is to get chemotherapy and see his doctor. “It’s really a social event,” Laura said. “Sometimes one of his friends comes later than us, so we stick around after treatment just to get play time with him. I’m so glad we’re able to come here – it’s like a big support group because many of the parents become friends, too. And his doctor, the nurses and child life specialists have become an extended part of our family.”
Those relationships are likely to continue long after the treatments end, because all the families at Mercy Kids in Springfield are from the Ozarks. Laura even says cancer has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for her entire family, although not one she would’ve signed up for. “If we hadn’t been through this, I wouldn’t have known what I was taking for granted,” she explained. “I used to complain about ear infections and those seem so minor now. Our kids have seen a generous, loving, supportive side of people they never would’ve seen otherwise. Above all, I’ve experienced how God’s peace can infiltrate in the middle of a storm. My faith has really grown. I know things are out of my control and I have to trust God and the doctors.”
There may be tough times during the next year of treatment, but the Sutherland family is determined to weather them. If they need a little inspiration, they can always count on Brett’s rendition of “Beat It” to remind them of their goal.