By Suzanne Rhodes
“Good times.” That’s not what you’d expect a kid to say about his years in and out of the hospital battling leukemia. But then Ryan Durby isn’t exactly an ordinary 11-year-old. The smart, funny fifth-grader at Owl Creek Middle School doesn’t exactly like talking about his illness, but he will tell you what he liked about Arkansas Children’s Hospital:
• Gumby bears
• His leg cast
• Doctors and nurses
• Chick Fil-A
One morning when he was only three, Ryan he got out of bed and couldn’t walk. His mom, Avonia, said, “Come on, you need to walk. Quit playing. Let’s get going!” But he couldn’t put any pressure on his leg. Avonia was working on her master’s in social work degree at the University of Arkansas, so she asked the babysitter, Miss Brenda, to take Ryan to several doctor’s visits. The boy could point to where his left leg was hurting, but X-rays didn’t find anything suspicious. Baffled, the medical team referred him to a pediatrics clinic in Fayetteville. From there, he was sent to Washington Regional Medical Center for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
“We’ll find out by Monday what’s going on,” the doctor told Avonia (it was Friday). Within an hour, he called and said to come right back. Ryan had a bone infection called osteomyelitis. He stayed in the hospital for a couple of days. But even though he was on high-dosage medicine, the infection was spreading.
The next step in Ryan’s journey was to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock
“I was supposed to go to a Halloween party that night,” Ryan said. But instead, he and his mom drove to Children’s, where Ryan was diagnosed with leukemia and a bone infection.
“I was scared,” Avonia said.
He had surgery to remove the infected pieces of bone and install a rod (later removed) to stabilize the leg. Then he started chemotherapy – in fact, three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy. The infusions lasted all day, and he had to take pills, too. “I didn’t like chemotherapy. I didn’t like taking the pills. We had to break it apart and put it in applesauce. I would not take that pill by itself. It was huge!”
Ryan had to learn to walk again, which was a problem because he of the steroids he took with the chemo, and these made him gain weight. But when he wasn’t taking steroids, he’d lose weight. His cast would come off and on because it had to keep being resized. But Ryan didn’t mind. “I love casts. Casts are cool.”
Usually, Avonia and Ryan would drive to Little Rock on Wednesday, spend the night, then after chemo on Thursday, drive back home. Sometimes he had to stay a few days in the hospital.
“I don’t think I was scared until maybe in late kindergarten when I realized I was sick. ‘Hey, I’m not going to school every day. I’m skipping some days. This seems a little odd.’ And over the days I was like, ‘Ahh-oooh, I’m sick!’ But I didn’t let it bother me because I made sure I tried to do my work as a first grader as much as possible. I had all As. I did schoolwork in the hospital.”
His mom said the chemo made him hyper. “He bounced off the walls.” AND HE ATE! He ate Chick Fil-A every day for those three-and-a-half years—including for breakfast! “It’s great. The best food ever. Chick Fil-A was all I needed then,” he grinned.
Finally, the treatment ended, and Ryan and his family celebrated with an end-of-chemo party held at . . . where else?
“Chick Fil-A. They should have made me their poster child.”
But that wasn’t all. Make a Wish Dream Foundation granted Ryan a wish to reward him for completing treatment. “I went to Disneyworld in Florida. It was great.” What does Ryan remember about Disney? “The bunk beds and the bear.”
As we said, Ryan never does or says what’s expected! In other words, he’s extraordinary.
In the fourth grade, “I fell in love with poems. I read every day and write stories. I’m reading a book now called ‘Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook’. It helps me when I don’t feel inspired to write.” He also likes drama, football and basketball.
Ryan helps at home with recycling and volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club in Fayetteville. “One year we wrote letters to firemen, and we went to nursing homes and sang Christmas songs. I was treasurer of the club” (K Kids, for Kiwanis). “A few weeks ago, I put up pinwheels to draw attention to Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.
He has a message for kids everywhere: “Help others, no matter what. You don’t know what other people’s situation is. You should always help and be kind.”
January was kind to Ryan. That’s when he celebrated his five-year anniversary and was declared cancer free. “Now we only have to go back to the hospital once a year. Yes!”