‘Just straight-up shock’
If you asked Alex McCready what he likes most, just about everything would involve a basketball.
Dribbling, passing, taking shots, running up and down the court until he’s breathless. Winning the game―yeah, that’s pretty awesome, too.
Here are things that would not make the 17-year-old’s list: hospital beds, chemotherapy, needles and bone marrow transplants.
But that’s been the stuff of Alex’s life for the past year and a half. At 15, in the space of a heartbeat, he stepped from a world filled with basketball courts and homework to one centered around hospital rooms and blood tests.
Every day, I came home from school and would take two- to three-hour naps. I was never like that.
Of course, it’s not a choice anyone would make. But those who have seen Alex through the transition―seen how he connects with the younger patients and faces the rigors of treatment―say he handles it with a maturity beyond his years. Like the Michigan State University Spartans he admires, he faces challenges like a champion.
Sitting in an exam room waiting for a checkup on a September morning, Alex didn’t waste words describing what it’s like to face leukemia, remission and a relapse in the space of a year.
“It’s been different,” he said with a shake of his head. “That’s all I got to say.”
A quick trip to the ER
The first signs of illness surfaced early in 2016, near the end of his freshman year at Sault Area High High School in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Tiredness dogged his steps.
“Every day, I came home from school and would take two- to three-hour naps,” he said. “I was never like that.”
He chalked it up to a busy school year, juggling homework and basketball season. They drove a couple of hours to some away games, so school days could be long.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. That’s for sure.
After the high school basketball season wrapped up, it was time for a club basketball tournament. Alex decided to skip it.
Too tired for basketball? That set off alarm bells for his mom, Julie McCready. She took him to their family doctor, worried he might have mononucleosis.
A couple of hours later, the doctor called Julie. Alex’s blood test showed he had leukemia. They needed to leave immediately for Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“You’re expected to be in the emergency room tonight,” he told them.
Julie and Alex’s dad, Carl McCready, quickly packed bags and hit the road.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. That’s for sure,” Carl said.
It was a quiet four-hour drive to Grand Rapids, as they all reeled with the news.
“They checked us through and we just went up to the ninth floor,” Julie said. “And we started our adventure.”
For Alex, that meant a lot of blood draws.
“I had never gotten my blood drawn before that day,” he said. “It was rough.”
They met with a pediatric oncologist, Chi Braunreiter, MD, to discuss the diagnosis and treatment plan, but Alex doesn’t remember a word.
“I couldn’t tell you at all,” he said. “Probably that first month was just straight-up shock.”
Alex had acute myeloid leukemia, a disease in which the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells. It affects about 500 children in the U.S. each year.
With his diagnosis, he began four rounds of chemotherapy. For each round, he spent about four weeks at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, receiving chemo and recovering. He would go home to Sault Ste. Marie for a week and then return for the next round.
In the month-long stretches at the hospital, Alex became a popular patient with the younger kids. As big brother to two siblings―13-year-old Chase and 3-year-old Brielle―Alex responded good-naturedly when little ones knocked on his door, asking for him to visit the playroom. He would walk through the halls with the youngsters, accompanied by IV poles and parents.
“He’s amazing,” said Kimberly Girlie, whose daughter Lily Goodwin received leukemia treatment at the same time. “He helps motivate her.”
His father wasn’t surprised to see Alex step into that role.
“I would say he is a quiet leader. He finds great pleasure in mentoring youth. That’s pretty impressive,” he said. “That’s therapeutic for him, too. You could see that calming influence on him, as well as the kids.”
From remission to relapse
Alex received his last dose of chemo in September. In remission, he headed home, eager to move on with his life.
“Everyone was happy. It was the best day in the world,” Julie said.
Alex returned to school and started his sophomore year. He missed just two weeks of class.
He got back on the high school basketball team. And he felt “pretty much” back to normal.
“Just a little bit slower,” he said. “I was still just trying to get back into school and everything after sitting here for four months.”
Once a month, he saw his doctors in Traverse City. He did his follow-up appointments at a pediatric hematology oncology clinic run by Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Munson Medical Center.
When his dad drove him to his appointment in April 2017, they talked about playing basketball when they got home.
But the blood test showed a low platelet count, an indication of a possible relapse.
With acute myeloid leukemia, about 75 percent of children can be cured with the intensive chemotherapy treatments, said Ulrich Duffner, MD, a pediatric blood and marrow transplant specialist.
Unfortunately, in Alex’s case, the cancer returned.
“We went straight to Grand Rapids,” Alex said. “It was not fun. It was a long quiet car ride. A little bit depressing.”
This time, at least, he saw familiar faces as he entered Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“The nurses are awesome,” Julie said. “You didn’t have to re-establish relationships. You could walk in and you were home again.”
His doctors discussed their plan of attack: He would get a bone marrow transplant. The details of the treatment went right past him.
“Again, I don’t remember,” he said. “Just sitting there, staring.”
Finding a donor
Alex’s 13-year-old brother, Chase, was not a match. So his medical team checked the international bone marrow donor registry.
His doctors found three donors who matched. They did further testing to determine which would be the best for Alex.
Julie marveled at the process.
“Who would think you could take out your bone marrow and put somebody else’s in and it would cure cancer?” she said. “It’s cool to learn the science about it. I just wish I didn’t have to learn it this way.”
In the next few months, Alex underwent intensive chemotherapy to wipe out his own marrow. And then he received the new marrow and began the slow process of waiting for it to graft and to rebuild a healthy blood supply.
The process involved several weeks in isolation―and more separation from friends and family back home.
Only his mom and dad could visit. He couldn’t see his younger brother and sister because of the precautions taken to protect him from infections.
“There really wasn’t much fun about it,” Alex said. “It’s just something you have to do. There’s a lot of nausea. And being in isolation for so long is kind of rough.
“You just got to keep it positive.”
The community support is just amazing. It makes it a little bit easier.
He drew positive vibes from the décor in his room―Spartan green and white with a definite basketball focus.
His attitude impressed his parents.
“He’s a pretty mature kid, and he handles most things in stride,” Carl said. “Not to say there weren’t days when he was frustrated. And you should be frustrated―that’s completely normal.”
Alex’s doctors told him they couldn’t say for sure when bone marrow engraftment would occur―that’s the point where the new marrow begins producing stem cells. On average, it happens 13 days after a transplant from an unrelated donor.
Day 12, Alex predicted. That’s when it will happen.
And it did.
“I’m just that good,” he said with a smile.
In early August, Alex left the hospital. He didn’t go far. He and his mom moved into his aunt’s home in Ada. He returned to the clinic frequently―sometimes daily―for checkups.
But even 300 miles away, he felt the support from home. The high school basketball teams honored him at games. Kids wear “Sault Strong” T-shirts.
“I’ve gotten a lot of cards and messages from everybody,” Alex said. “It’s really cool.”
“The community support is just amazing,” said Julie. “It makes it a little bit easier.”
Several weeks later, he moved back home. He remained in semi-isolation, to protect his immune system, suppressed in the wake of the bone marrow transplant. Friends could visit―if they were healthy. But he couldn’t go to public places, like school or basketball games.
He returned to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital every week or two for checkups.
On Nov. 17, Alex arrived at the clinic with his dad and stepmom, Mindy McCready.
This was his 17th birthday, and he hoped to hear good news from Aly Abdel-Mageed, MD, his pediatric blood and marrow transplant specialist.
Dr. Mageed did not disappoint. He gave Alex the OK to go out for a steak dinner to celebrate his birthday that evening―Alex’s first trip to a restaurant in five months. He had conditions. The steak had to be well cooked. And he could only have freshly prepared salad or a freshly baked dessert.
And then he dropped news Alex did not expect.
“You can go back to school if you want,” he said. “Do you want to go back to school?”
Alex’s response: a broad smile of surprise and an enthusiastic “Yeah!”
Again, there were precautions. He had to do his best to avoid sick people and to let his doctors know if he was exposed to illness.
“Even though your immune system is recovered, it’s not fully functional yet,” Dr. Mageed said. “Don’t let your guard down. You’re still going to get sick easier, and your sicknesses are going to be worse.”
Alex made the rounds at the hospital, visiting staff members who have become friends, before leaving.
He looked forward to the next steps to come―when he could play basketball, or swim or hunt deer without worry.
“That will be nice―just to start regular life again,” he said.
“He’s healthy. That’s all that really matters,” his mom said. “He’s going to be healthy and he’s going to be playing basketball. Get him on that court because that’s where he feels the best.”