As a parent, the last thing you want to hear coming from your child’s doctor is a cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately this was the reality for Shawna Houston and her family after her son Garrett went to the doctor for a swollen eye.
On April 24 of 2015, a mass was discovered behind Garrett’s right eye.
After a trip to Children’s Hospital, it was confirmed that Garrett had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), it’s estimated that each year AML claims 10,590 lives each year. At the time of his diagnosis, Garrett was 14 years old.
Garrett under went chemotherapy treatments and a bone marrow transplant. After staying in the hospital and the Ronald McDonald House from August through November, Garrett reached remission and was allowed to return home just before Thanksgiving.
Sadly, doctors discovered that his cancer had come back and gave him a 20 percent chance of survival.
After battling more treatments and radiation, doctors found that his AML was considered refractory, meaning that, despite treatment, Garrett still had residual leukemic cells in his marrow. This removed chemotherapy as a treatment option.
His doctors hoped to keep Garrett healthy enough to undergo a second bone marrow transplant, scheduled for August 12, 2016. But sadly, after a total of 315 days fighting, Garrett passed away at age 15.
Throughout their time in the hospital, Garrett’s mother Shawna made many friends with parents enduring the same hardships.
“On our floor, there were about 45 beds, and sometimes, they were at max capacity. It’s a very stressful times for the patients and their families, it’s really really hard. We had babies born with cancer all the way up to teenagers, ” explained Houston. “I had to quit my job, my child was more important. I relied on family, friends and donations to help with bills and my other children. There are certain assistance programs that parents can apply for, but you’re already under so much stress, worrying about bills is the last thing you need on your plate. A lot of parents wind up filing bankruptcy. Both parents wish they could be there, but maybe one has the insurance and has to work, it’s very stressful.”
Houston said that while their insurance covered treatments, in total, Garrett’s hospital bills totaled around five million dollars.
After Garrett’s passing, Shawna decided to turn her grief into good deeds and try to make a difference in the lives of childhood cancer patients and their families.
“He (Garrett) would get bored and there were some impatient days where he wasn’t even allowed to leave his room,” said Houston. “Until it happens to you, you aren’t aware how many children are sick. I decided to start the Garrett Houston Foundation. One of the things that I did to pass time in the hospital was crochet. One of Garrett’s nurses was pregnant so he asked me to make her a blanket. Once you become a parent in the childhood cancer community you learn of all the kids that are fighting.”
Houston started crocheting items for patients and their families, things like hats and blankets. She also started collecting items for care packages, filled with activities and things children would enjoy.
“One of Garrett’s favorite things to do was to try and scare his doctors and nurses. He’d pop out at them or he’d spray them with silly string, so I always include a can of silly string in my packages,” Houston said, smiling. “We also try to help with small financial needs, we are a new foundation so we haven’t had the chance to do any major fundraising. We’ve donated to parents who need the money for bills, or those seeking assistance for funeral expenses after their child has passed, things of that nature.”
Houston accepts donations, whether they be monetary, items for care packages, crocheted items or crocheting supplies. She also plans to host a fundraiser at the Man O’War Harley Davidson in Lexington Kentucky on September 23.
“I know that it’s a little far for most people, but they heard Garrett’s story and offered to allow us to do a fundraiser there,” said Houston. “We’re still in the planning stages but we’ll be doing a poker run for the bikers, we’ll have music and food. We’ll be announcing more details soon.”
To connect with Houston’s mission, you can email [email protected] or via Facebook by searching “Garrett Houston Foundation,” www.facebook.com/garretthoustonfounation.
Reach Ciara Conley at 740-981-6977, Facebook “Ciara Conley - Daily Times,” and Twitter @PDT_Ciara.