Editor’s note: Today’s column by Tonya Prewett, a representative of Smile-A-Mile for children, is one of a series of articles being published in the Opelika-Auburn News this week in support of Auburn basketball Coach Bruce Pearl’s AUTLIVE cancer campaign. The 2019 AUTLIVE game will be 7 p.m. Saturday vs. Alabama.

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My heart was forever changed on Nov. 20, 2017, when I had the awesome opportunity to tour Children’s of Alabama.

I was expecting to see lots of children with cancer. I didn’t see one. What I saw was a precious mom, carrying her Thanksgiving meal on a hospital tray, on her way to her child’s room.

From a distance, she seemed downcast, but as soon as she saw a Smile-A-Mile staff member, she lit up. It’s the same joy I’ve seen on the kids’ faces. In the midst of their pain, these families find hope and so much love from the Smile-A-Mile staff.

With kids, it’s different

I remembered a phone call I received 15 years earlier from my dermatologist. I remembered the feeling when the nurse said that I had melanoma skin cancer. I remembered the knot in my stomach. The fear. I know what that feels like.

What I don’t know is what it is like to get that news about my child.

I imagined what it might be like to be a mom having to watch your child battle cancer. To sit in a hospital room day after day. To see your child in pain. Knowing your little one is missing school, missing sports, missing life. I thought about how the parent must devote so much time to the sick child and how that parent must feel so much guilt for not being there for their other children.

I thought about the toll it must take on their marriage. I thought about how they must fight every single day … they fight … and I decided I wanted to help them fight … I wanted to do my part to make a difference.

I joined the Smile-A-Mile team in March of 2018 as the regional development coordinator for the Auburn-Opelika area.

The last 10 months have been truly special. I have had the honor of meeting incredible families and some of the strongest kids I’ve ever known. One of those kids is Hayden Parker.

The Champ

Hayden, “The Champ,” has been battling pre-b acute lymphoblastic leukemia since the age of 8.

During his first bout with leukemia, he began watching wrestling and fell in love with it. His dad, Bryan, believes it’s what gets him through all the treatments. Hayden has been in and out of the hospital over the last four years and has been declared to be in remission several times.

“When he relapsed the first time, we began making these wrestling-like promos (videos), and I just starting calling him ‘The Champ’ because he had defeated leukemia once,” Bryan said.

Hayden began experiencing a lot of difficulties due to years of treatment. It was decided in December of 2017 that, since there was no evidence of the disease, they would stop treatment to allow his body to rest.

By March of 2018, the disease had returned. Due to the previous issues that Hayden had experienced, it was decided the best plan of treatment would be CAR-T cell therapy instead of a bone marrow transplant. Hayden received the therapy in May. On Nov. 6, during his six-month post therapy checkup, evidence of the disease was found in his lab work.

Hayden began a chemo regimen in preparation for a bone marrow transplant.

‘You have never given up’

“The Champ’s” fight had begun. He received chemo once a week for several weeks.

By beginning chemo early, there was a slight hope that the family might get to go home for a few days, but his Absolute Neutrophil Count, or ANC, dropped below 500, making him very susceptible to viruses and infections. His medical team determined that he was much safer in the hospital than at home.

“We don’t know how long we will be here, but we decided that this go around, we would not count the days but make the days count,” Bryan said.

“We forget that sometimes in our busy lifestyles that we miss opportunities and blessings because we focus so much on the future, and we miss the present,” he said. “These moments right now, this very second, are gifts, and if we don’t learn to enjoy them, they will be gone, and we can’t get them back.

“As much as I don’t like being in this hospital, this is where God has us right now. I pray that he uses Hayden and me every day that we are here to touch someone else’s life.”

On Jan. 7, Hayden entered the hospital and began radiation.

On Jan. 16, Hayden received his bone marrow transplant.

The following is a Facebook post entered by Hayden’s dad on that day:

1/16/2019... It’s Bone Marrow Transplant DAY!! As I sat in the family waiting area eating lunch with some of the fam, I watched someone get off the elevator and saw they were carrying an ice chest. We all knew it was Hayden’s donor’s marrow. In that moment, I had a rush of so many feelings.

I wondered who it came from. I thanked God for sending him a match!! I wish I could personally meet this donor and thank them for donating life! I pray that this will be the end of the battle with cancer forever.

Hayden, your will to fight amazes me! You have never given up and you truly have made an impact on so many people’s lives, including mine.

Hayden, you are SO loved by your friends and family.

After meeting Hayden and his family, I was amazed by their positive attitude, joy and strong faith. In the middle of the battle, they remain steadfast.

A Q&A

I asked Hayden’s dad a few questions about the cancer journey:

How has Hayden’s battle impacted your family?

“Hayden’s battle has impacted our family in that, it makes you appreciate things you normally take for granted. You begin to be thankful for the little things. Being a single dad and having to be with Hayden so much has taken time away from my daughter, Baylee. So, when we do get to spend time together it makes me cherish that time.

“It’s also given us the chance to show and exercise our faith. My hope is that our situation will impact others just as much, if not more, than it’s impacted us.”

How has Smile-A-Mile impacted Hayden’s journey over the last four years?

“SAM is such a blessing! They have made such an enormous impact on our lives as well as others. It’s heartbreaking as a parent to see your, or any child, going through this. SAM comes in and they actually walk beside you on this journey. They make being in the hospital fun.

“I will never forget the time Hayden was in contact and couldn’t leave the room. They brought him some bingo cards and he played bingo over the telephone. That is going above and beyond.

“Then, the first time he went to camp and seeing him running around, laughing and being a kid again. He loves camp and can never wait until it’s time to go back. SAM is a light of hope in a dark situation for us and a lot of others.”

AUTLIVE Cancer!

As I reflect back over the last 10 months, I am reminded of something Coach Bruce Pearl once said: “In order to truly appreciate something, imagine it doesn’t exist.”

I tried to imagine SAM not existing. I thought of the many conversations with families who have been impacted by Smile-A-Mile, the Bruce Pearl Foundation and AUTLIVE.

I thought about the numerous summer camps and hospital visits. The college scholarships. The hugs and smiles that these kids receive daily from our staff.

Thank God SAM does exist and is forever changing the lives of children and families going through the cancer journey. And thank God I get to be a part of it.

Smile-A-Mile is truly grateful to be a beneficiary of AUTLIVE, the Auburn Basketball Fight Against Cancer!

AUTLIVE raises awareness of cancer prevention and detection, while T-shirt sales and donations raise money to benefit cancer patients and local organizations like Smile-A-Mile.

Thank you, Bruce Pearl Family Foundation, for your incredible support of Smile-A-Mile and other organizations that are in the fight against cancer.

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