EDDINGTON, Maine — Two-year-old Camden Bryant was lively Friday evening.
The tow-headed toddler was all smiles and high-fives, munching on popcorn and drinking water from a sippy cup, darting between the kitchen and living room of his family’s home on Monument Drive, which hugs the eastern banks of the Penobscot River.
Meanwhile, his big sisters — 6-year-old Sienna and Carmen, who is 4 — watched a children’s program while waiting for dinner to begin.
Camden’s good cheer, however, was misleading. Only hours before, Camden suffered a bout of gagging, a side effect of the treatment he is undergoing for cancer, his parents, Dan and Sheri Bryant, said Friday during an interview.
Camden was diagnosed with leukemia last June, about a week after returning from a visit with Sheri Bryant’s parents in the Topsham area. He was 21 months old.
“We started noticing little things that just kept building up,” Sheri Bryant said. “He was incredibly pale, white as can be, and usually this was a kid who had rosy cheeks all the time.”
“Very lethargic and tired,” added Dan Bryant. “His appetite went down, too.”
Sheri Bryant said Camden didn’t want to take a bath, or sit for that matter.
“And that’s because his spleen and his liver were, like, just humongous,” Sheri Bryant said.
At first the couple thought Camden might have another ear infection. The child had been suffering them every few months and the Bryants were thinking about having ear tubes put in.
Sheri Bryant said she became deeply concerned when she felt the back of Camden’s head and noted that his lymph nodes were swollen. Even scarier were the tiny red dots on the backs of his thighs she found while changing his diaper.
“That’s when I think I tried not to go over the edge,” Sheri Bryant recalled. “I literally got done changing him and called Dan and said, ‘I found all these red dots and I don’t know what it is’ and I think Dan specifically said, ‘Don’t look on the Internet.’” Which of course, she did.
The tiny red dots, the couple would soon learn, are known as petechiae, which are caused by bleeding under the skin — sometimes a symptom of a life-threatening illness.
“It’s basically broken blood vessels. He had so much leukemia,” Dan Bryant said.
“His white blood cells are not working correctly and they’re mass producing so it’s crowding out everything else,” Sheri Bryant said.
The Bryants immediately took Camden to the family’s pediatrician.
“She was concerned so she sent us right to oncology,” Sheri Bryant said. They were seen by Dr. Sam Lew, who specializes in pediatric oncology and hematology.
Lew ordered blood tests. The early results were back within an hour. Lew suspected Camden had leukemia but needed a little more time to nail down what type he might have. The diagnosis turned out to be acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“He told us that and my first thought was, ‘What do we do now?’” Dan Bryant said.
Camden was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center, where he immediately began undergoing blood transfusions.
“Leukemia can do its damage very quick. These symptoms, they came within two weeks. If it had been a couple of weeks longer, it might have been too late. So they address it immediately,” Dan Bryant said.
Camden’s first round of chemotherapy, which lasted 29 days, was the beginning of what will be a three-year, two-month course of treatment. The Bryants said they won’t know if Camden is out of the woods until shortly before he turns 10.
One good sign is that Camden’s spinal fluid is “crystal clear. With leukemia, that’s one of the most important things because it means his brain was protected,” Dan Bryant said.
“He is the most outstanding patient,” Sheri Bryant said. “I don’t know how he does it. He charms every nurse.”
Dan Bryant agreed, “Oh yeah, he’s a big flirt. He puts me to shame.”
Many aspects of the family’s life have changed since Camden’s diagnosis.
“It’s certainly put a halt to some of our short-term plans and it definitely put into perspective what’s important,” Dan Bryant said.
There have been extended hospital stays, with Dan Bryant switching to night and weekend shifts as an IT specialist for Penobscot Community Health Care so Sheri Bryant could continue working as a kindergarten teacher at Ellsworth Elementary School.
Because Camden’s immunity is compromised, he is not currently going to the Old Town Learning Center, the day care/preschool that the Bryants say has been their children’s second home.
Some aspects of their home life remain the same. The girls still go to ballet classes and recitals and on playdates with their school chums, for example.
“We found a way to work it out. We’ve done everything possible to keep our family running and I know I’ve said this before but it’s our new normal,” Sheri Bryant said.
“It comes in waves and you just ride them,” added her husband.
The Bryants said Friday that their journey would have been much more difficult had it not been for the support of family, friends, co-workers and a host of local organizations and businesses.
“It’s just so heartfelt,” Sheri Bryant said of the people who have brought food — and lots of it — helped with child care and other day-to-day needs.
There also have been several fundraisers. The most recent fundraiser was a spaghetti dinner and silent auction that took place Saturday at Bangor High School. Organized by the Old Town Learning Center, the event was catered by Charlotte Fitzgerald of Finger Lickin Catering and Jenny St. Louis from Pretty In Pink Party Planning and featured an array of door prizes.
On Sunday, Dan Bryant said the event was “amazing. A huge turnout and it was actually pretty fun to see friends, family, and complete strangers come together for Camden. Very humbling for sure.”
The learning center’s Evey Niles, one of the organizers, said that about 300 turned out to Bangor High and that many who could not attend contributed. The final tally was not yet available Sunday morning but Niles said it was a huge success.
“It was so well deserved. Everyone loved watching Camden running around and grammy [Sheri Bryant’s mother from Topsham, who also is battling cancer] came as well,” Niles said, adding, “We had a lot of people who are cancer survivors there.”
“It’s community. It’s people you don’t know helping people they don’t know,” she said, adding, “Businesses are struggling but they will give to something like this.”