People talk about being present – making the effort not to dwell in the past or spending precious time anticipating the future. It’s a discipline some find difficult to master.
In December 2020, the Hayhursts of Buford would be dealt a crushing blow that weaker families couldn’t have endured. The silver lining they’d discover though was a beautiful gift: a crash course mastering that elusive pursuit of presence. They’d found the gathering calm, beauty and significance of a life lived moment by moment, anticipating nothing and appreciating everything.
It all started with the leukemia diagnosis of their then-2-year-old son, Reese.
Amanda Hayhurst sat in a hospital room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, waiting on the doctors to come tell her what was going on with her son. Her husband, Marcus, had left the room moments earlier to greet Amanda’s mother, who’d driven out when she learned there was something wrong.
The door opened, a doctor walked in and Amanda steeled herself for what she’d been fearing. What had started with purple dots appearing on Reese’s legs after a bath the previous day had built into a weight on the woman’s shoulders. She’d done the thing most moms would: she went online searching for the kinds of symptoms Reese had been having: high fever, lethargy, the purple, rash-like dots … the internet results seemed unanimous in their cold, factual judgment: “Leukemia. Leukemia. Leukemia.”
And now, the doctor stood before her, telling her the same.
“I was all alone,” Amanda says. “I collapsed. You never think something like that is going to happen to you – especially when your kids are healthy. You think about it happening to other people, but the fact that he had cancer… I will never forget that moment.”
Her husband, Marcus, walked in the room and she delivered the news as best she could.
“We laid down next to Reese and caressed his cheeks and soaked the pillows with tears,” Amanda says. “It was really hard. After that, our whole lives changed. We found out it was going to be a two-year treatment plan and we were going to be living in the hospital for a while.”
HE HANDLED IT WITH A LOT OF COURAGE
Complicating matters, this took place in the heart of COVID-19 protocols, and Marcus and Amanda’s older son, Jett, wasn’t permitted to be in the hospital while the couple took shifts at Reese’s bedside.
“That was hard on Jett,” Amanda says. “He felt left out, and he was going through so much, with all this happening to his brother and to his family.”
Even further complicating matters, doctors would discover that Reese
had something called the Philadelphia Chromosome, which made a battle with cancer all the more difficult. While leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, the Philadelphia Chromosome is a very rare phenomenon that can make the spread of cancer even more aggressive.
Reese’s treatment started the day of the diagnosis. Because of the Philadelphia Chromosome and the type of leukemia he had, medical staff had to give the young child much stronger chemotherapy sessions. He had to remain at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta for monitoring for weeks at a time following each session.
“We just saw his body break down,” Amanda recalls. “I didn’t know if he was going to survive the chemo. He couldn’t even walk for 2 months. His body was so weak. He had muscle atrophy. We had to put him in physical therapy and speech therapy. He was delayed because his body was put through such trauma.”
Dr. Ryan Summers, the pediatric oncologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta who oversaw Reese’s treatment, says the boy’s particular type of leukemia is “a little more challenging to treat, and as a result of that, kids like Reese get treated with extremely intensive chemotherapy.”
This led to the mandatory hospitalization for weeks at a time, Reese’s hair falling out, and the ensuing weakness.
“Reese overall tolerated things really well, given the significance of this chemotherapy … as well as can be expected,” Summers says. “He sailed through this hospital phase … and handled it with a lot of courage for sure.”
Amanda says it was an incredibly difficult thing to see her son go through – and she herself has been through her share of medical procedures and hospital visits.
In fact, prior to Reese’s diagnosis in 2019, she became the subject of news stories all over the country after donating a kidney to a single mother of two – saving the recipient’s life.
It all started while watching son, Jett, earn his black belt at a taekwondo class in 2018. As she watched Jett, Amanda was also holding Reese at the time. Reese got fussy, so Amanda took him to the side of the room to console him. There, she spotted the flyer for then 50-year-old Vonchelle Knight, who had been searching for a donor for eight years.
“God gave me a nudge,” Amanda says. “And we found out I was a perfect match. It was really special. I’ll never forget it.”
Amanda credits baby Reese for the wonderful serendipity of his fussiness that day – getting her up out of her chair and to the side of the studio, where she saw the flyer.
WE CHERISH EVERY MOMENT
Today, Reese is more than a year into his diagnosis, past the intense therapy sessions that left him hospitalized for weeks and has grown into an energy-filled, endlessly happy and excitable 4-year-old boy.
He’s partial to ramen for dinner, loves watching Peppa Pig and Cocomelon and has been known to break out the full dance motions to “YMCA.”
Reese and brother, Jett, “are all boy,” Amanda says. “They’re always wrestling, running around. Reese used to be such a calm-natured little boy and now he likes roughhousing with his older brother. Running up behind Jett and tackling him. It’s chaotic at our house – but in a great way.”
Reese is often accompanied around the house by his pet dog, “Coco,” or the family’s new puppy, “Lilo.”
It took about three months following the intense therapy to get Reese to remission, the state his cancer remains in to this day. His hair is growing back and he’s now enrolled in preschool – starting to get back to his old self, Amanda says.
This is considered “the maintenance phase” of Reese’s battle. He still takes chemotherapy drugs, but much less intense versions than before.
“The fight at first was just getting Reese to remission … and that was the goal,” Amanda says, adding that because of Reese having the Philadelphia Chromosome and the fast-spreading nature of this leukemia type, they have to keep up the maintenance treatments for a full two years, with his final treatments scheduled for December 2022.
They’re looking forward to that date, but also taking the days as they come – staying present and enjoying each moment with their sons, Reese and Jett.
Reese’s dad, Marcus, recalls one such specific moment only weeks ago in which he and Reese were in the dining room playing on the floor:
“I looked at him – his big blue eyes – and I had this overwhelming sense of thankfulness that he’s still here and I started tearing up. It’s traumatic what he’s been through, I’m not going to deny that. But in that moment, I was so thankful.”
Says Amanda: “This past year, it’s been hard … but I wouldn’t trade what God has been teaching us in this season. He’s built something so profound in our family, and we cherish every moment together … I just want to be as present as I can be. Your kids are everything, and I don’t want to ever lose that perspective.”