When 10-year-old Gaige Willems took to the basketball court last Tuesday night at Dexter's East Park gymnasium, he looked like a typical fourth grader -- full of energy and enthusiasm. With a love of the game, Gaige spent the duration of the contest running up and down the court, rebounding and taking some solid shots. In Dexter's city leagues, the player's T-shirt color depicts the team's name. On Monday night, Gaige Willem's Black Team crushed the Blue Team 22 to 12, with significant credit going to Gaige.
The game was a special one for Gaige. It was almost certain that it would be his last game of the season, even though his team had a full schedule yet to play. The morning after the win, Gaige was in a St. Louis hospital to begin chemotherapy. Gaige has leukemia -- again.
Gaige Willems and his family won the hearts of the Dexter community in 2007 when, at five years old, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells most commonly found in children from four to five years old. Life as they knew it changed forever for the young Dexter family -- Gerald and Misty Willems, Gaige and his younger brother, Jaydan.
Gaige was treated at Children's Hospital in St. Louis. At the time of his diagnosis, his bone marrow was already 48 percent involved. The involvement is measured in "blasts." His treatment in 2007 was expedited in hopes of preventing the spinal cord from being affected. A Portacath was inserted near his collar bone through which his chemotherapy was administered. Christmas was put on hold. The family remained initially in St. Louis for 28 days while Gaige underwent further testing and treatment.
Through 2008, the family traveled to St. Louis for treatments on a weekly basis, often returning to the city two and even three times when Gaige's fever would spike or he would have other negative reactions to any of his six chemotherapy drugs. On three occasions during the winter of 2008, returns to Children's Hospital required three and four-day stays until physicians felt Gaige was stable enough to return home.
A pill form of chemo was also administered at home. Gaige suffered from raging fever and nausea during the treatments, and his father defined the horror of it all at the time when he said, "The worst part is when we have to hold him down at the hospital for the nurses to give him shots in his legs. That's the most painful part for Gaige."
Gaige's treatment was a three-year-long process. Through it all, the Willems never asked, "Why Gaige?" With a courageous acceptance and tremendous faith that their son would beat the disease, they dealt with their son's challenges daily -- always with a positive outlook.
When Gaige took his final chemo treatment in April 2011, his parents decided to celebrate. They hosted a "No More Chemo" party at West City Park for the community that had seen them through the worst of times with monetary and other donations to help ease the financial burden of a cancer diagnosis.
Misty Willems said at the time, "It's a way to pay forward the good fortune that our family has experienced since Gaige's diagnosis." At the event, raffles and games were held to benefit Relay for Life. The family rejoiced. Gaige was cancer free. He went back to school and thrived. Over the past year and one-half, the Willems have seen their son return to a picture of health. The puffiness caused by the therapy finally disappeared. His hair returned. No more ball caps were needed to cover Gaige's bald head. His color came back, and finally, their son was healthy -- until last Monday.
Misty Willems was prepared on the first of December to celebrate. In just a week, Gaige would reach the five-year mark since his initial diagnosis. The healthy, ball-playing fourth grader was about to pass a milestone and the family was going to mark the occasion. But the blood that was drawn during his Dec. 3 visit to Children's Hospital revealed the worst news that Misty Willems could have gotten. Gaige's acute lymphoblastic leukemia had returned.
It was a heavy blow. Misty was told the news first. Even though she had noticed the telltale signs of bruising on her son's legs like those that had promoted his initial doctor's visit five years ago, Gaige assured her it was from ball practice.
"They play hard," she explained, "and I guess a part of me knew, but I didn't want to believe it. He looked so healthy, and he was feeling so good, that I just couldn't believe it. I took it pretty hard. I was crying before the doctor got the words out of his mouth."
Because of his compromised immune system, Gaige has continued to make monthly visits to Children's to receive therapy that strengthens his blood over the past year. His parents now credit those visits with the early finding of the leukemia's return.
"His blast count was six this time as opposed to 48 five years ago when it was discovered. That made me feel somewhat better after hearing that it was back," Misty said.
Gaige's physician, Dr. Robert Hayashi, who serves as Children's Hospital Director of Hematology/Oncology Department, told Misty he wanted to tell Gaige himself. And so the courageous 10-year-old sat down with the renowned physician to have a talk.
"When I joined him, he was pretty upset," his mother recalled. "He kept telling me, 'I just got rid of it. I just want it gone.'"
And then he asked his mother, "Why?"
It's a question Misty and Gerald Willems have never entertained.
"I tried to tell him that there was a reason for everything -- that maybe another little boy would be helped later on from what he's going through right now."
The news the second time around, the Willems said, was a bit more difficult to take. "That's probably because we know what's coming, and Gaige knows, too."
On Tuesday, Gaige underwent a bone marrow biopsy and a spinal tap in St. Louis and then began, once again, six different chemotherapy medications.
Misty Willems, in her usual fashion, is looking at the bright side of things.
"If we hadn't still been going back each month, they probably never would have caught it in its early stages," she noted. "And we've wanted the doctors to take the Portacath out for months, but now we realize there was a reason for that."
The port will be used again for the same type of therapy he received initially.
"The doctors told us that if everything goes all right, he might be able to get all of his treatments as an outpatient this time. We're so thankful for that."
When the news of Gaige's leukemia recurrence reached his hometown, a plan was quickly developed to honor Gaige prior to Tuesday night's ball game. A group of supporters managed to get Gaige a basketball jersey with his name on the back. After its presentation, Gaige's parents were presented with a $1,000 love offering from Scott Kruse who heads up the 18 Fore Life Charity.
"I think we overuse the term 'hero,'" Kruse told the crowd at the gym. "This little boy is a true hero. He knows what he's facing and all he wanted to do was to come out here tonight and play ball, and he did." Kruse further praised the courageous attitude of Gaige and the positive attitude of his family.
And so, for the second time in Gaige's brief 10 years, the holidays have taken an unexpected turn for the Willems family. But once again, with a caring community, an abundance of prayer lines and hopeful hearts, the family will go forward with every confidence of another positive outcome.