July 17, 2005 in City

A soaring respite

Virginia De Leon Staff writer
The Spokesman-Review photo

Daniel Swanson, 12, takes a ride in a 1975 Viper Cherokee airplane Saturday. Swanson had a brain tumor but has been in remission for over four years.
(Full-size photo)

For more information

Service groups

For more information about the Inland Northwest Candlelighters, check out www.inc.choicenet1. com or call (509) 474-2759.

To learn more about Angel Flight, see www.angelflight.org.

There are dates you just never forget.

For Peggy Gray, it’s Aug. 22, 2001 – the day her 5-year-old son, Jacob, was diagnosed with leukemia.

Feb. 11, 2004, also will remain forever etched in her brain. That was the day she learned that her husband, Joe, was dying of lung cancer. Doctors told them he had only a short time to live.

“You never forget the time when you get the wind knocked out of you,” said the mother of six. “Now, I’m just trying to figure out how to take care of all of them.”

Although Jacob, now 9, appears to be healthy again, Joe’s cancer has spread to his brain and other parts of his body.

It’s impossible for the Gray family to completely forget their pain, but there are moments – such as the one they shared Saturday – when their burden gets eased, if only for a few hours.

After spending half of his life in the hospital, Jacob was like a normal kid again as he boarded the single-engine Cessna at Felts Field in Spokane Valley. With his stuffed animals – Piglet and a worn, beloved Pooh – the little boy who was affectionately called “Poohger” by nurses at Deaconess Medical Center got a glimpse of his family’s Deer Park farmhouse and other views of Spokane from up in the air.

His half-hour flight was courtesy of two organizations that support young cancer patients and their families – the Inland Northwest Candlelighters, a nonprofit organization that meets the practical needs of these families; and Angel Flight, a grass-roots volunteer corps of private pilots who use their own planes to transport patients and their families to hospitals for medical treatment.

The event at Felts Field is one of several family outings that Candlelighters organizes each year. The group, which is made up of about a dozen volunteers, not only provides emotional support to more than 150 families in the area, they also help by offering gas money, phone cards, groceries – whatever these families need as they cope with their child’s cancer and their long stays in the hospital.

Part of the support comes in the form of parties, an afternoon at the waterslide park and Saturday’s “fly day” – opportunities for the kids to get away from a clinical setting, “to let go and have fun,” said Mary Anne Ruddis, executive director of Inland Northwest Candlelighters.

Jacob Gray, who’s now a “frequent flyer” at the event, flew for about half an hour in the small airplane with his dad and two of his older siblings,

“I couldn’t swing on the monkey bars,” said Jacob, recalling the time he struggled against acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common cancer that affects children. “I couldn’t run. I couldn’t ride a bike.”

Jacob, who could hardly pronounce his doctor’s name or “Deaconess,” when he first went to the hospital, called Dr. Frank Reynolds “Frank,” and referred to Deaconess as “Frank’s house.”

“For him to get out of Frank’s house and get to do something like this, it was the world,” said his mom.

The experience also benefits other members of the Gray family, who left their house in an isolated, rural area outside of Sandpoint so that Jacob could receive medical treatment in Spokane. It was difficult enough for the younger kids, 12-year-old Talon and 11-year-old Cherokee Rose, to comprehend their little brother’s cancer. Learning about their dad’s terminal illness was even more devastating.

“Days like today are fun because I get to spend it with my family,” said Cherokee Rose, who’s known by her nickname, “Bug.”

“I cry a lot,” she said. “I talk to my kitty … I wonder what it will be like to grow up and get married and for my dad to not be there.”

Talon, however, doesn’t find as much comfort in these events, he said. Even when he’s up in the sky surrounded by clouds and lulled by the hum of the airplane’s engine, “I still don’t forget,” he said.

These children – those who suffer through cancer as well as their siblings – become survivors, said Margaret Kobylus, president of Candlelighters. “They get emotionally stronger,” she said. “They fight for their life.”

Kobylus and the other volunteers have a keen awareness of their struggles and grief, simply because they have experienced it themselves. Kobylus lost her daughter Angela to cancer in 1997. Ruddis’ daughter, Nikki, died of leukemia when she was 9. A few years later, she also grieved the death of her son, Michael, who died of a cancerous brain tumor when he was 12.

“My kids were an inspiration to me,” said Ruddis, who also lost her husband to cancer in 1994. “I feel blessed to have had them in my life, even if it was just for a short time.”

It’s these women and others at Candlelighters whom Peggy Gray turns to for support. She doesn’t have to explain much to them, she said, they just know what she’s going through.

“I would have gone nuts without these people,” said Gray. “They’ve given me moral, financial, emotional support. They take away my pain for a few hours.”

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