A Miracle in the Kindergarten

I never really believed in miracles until I met Kathy and Bill Casey. When their son Danny was only 20 months old, he was diagnosed with A.L.L., the most common form of childhood leukemia. A.L.L. invades the bone marrow, crowding out the healthy red blood cells.

Once the doctors had diagnosed Danny’s leukemia and prescribed his treatment, Kathy Casey left her home at 6:30 a.m. every Monday morning to drive two hours to the pediatric Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.  There, Danny bravely endured chemotherapy and radiation treatment in an effort to defeat his disease. On Tuesdays or Wednesdays, whenever the treatments were completed for the week, Kathy and Danny traveled back home to rejoin the family.

As she was a surgical nurse in Hartford Hospital, Kathy daily witnessed miracles, but now she needed her own miracle. She and Bill would do anything to prevent their gift-of-creation from slipping away. Week after week, for three years, Danny and Kathy returned to Boston to battle for Danny’s life. More than enough miles were clocked to drive around our planet!

My first contact with the Caseys and their daily struggle for Danny’s survival came one spring morning in 1978 when Kathy telephoned me. Ellen, Danny’s older sister, would be entering kindergarten in the fall. Kathy explained that she needed to be in Boston two or three days a week. She hoped it would be less disruptive to Ellen if she attended the morning rather than the afternoon kindergarten class, thereby allowing her to play at a friend’s house from the early afternoon until Bill finished teaching high school at 2:30. The school transportation department honored Kathy’s request without hesitation.

Ellen entered kindergarten that fall and thrived in Mr. Hurston’s magic garden of songs and play, letters and numbers, puzzles and paints. As Ellen moved up through the grades, I saw Kathy from time to time—dropping off a forgotten lunch, picking up Ellen a few minutes early or with Bill for a parent-teacher conference. Although Ellen’s teachers and I were well aware that Ellen’s brother was battling leukemia, I hadn’t realized that Danny’s treatments were only temporarily effective and that Danny was losing the fight against the 50-50 odds of surviving A.L.L.

The winter of Ellen’s 2nd grade year, I received another telephone call from Kathy. Danny, although now five years old, would not be entering kindergarten. The doctors told Kathy and Bill that the aggressive chemotherapy and high doses of radiation were not working. What he really needed was a bone-marrow transplant, but neither of his two sisters had matching bone marrow to carry out a successful transplant.

However, the good news was that Danny had been selected for a test group of three children who would be given an experimental bone-marrow treatment that had recently been developed at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Instead of attending kindergarten, Danny would be hospitalized for three to six months. The new treatment did not require matching bone marrow from a sibling. Instead, about five percent of Danny’s own bone marrow would be removed and cleansed of leukemia cells using antibodies developed and produced at Dana-Farber. While Danny’s own marrow was being treated in a laboratory, Danny would be given radiation and chemotherapy to destroy the remainder of the cancer cells in his bone marrow. The final step in this experimental process would be to transplant Danny’s own cancer-free bone marrow back into his system where it would begin, they hoped, to produce healthy red blood cells.

Another year passed. I was out of school when Kathy Casey made her yearly telephone call. When I returned one late afternoon, I found a message she had left with my secretary: “Do you have room for a six-year-old kindergarten boy in September?” I thought I had understood Kathy’s code—Danny was well enough to come to school. I read and re-read the message for a minute or two. Gathering my composure, I called Kathy, who told me that the transplant had indeed been a success. If Danny were healthy for another full year, the doctors would consider him cancer free. A cure for childhood leukemia was in sight and Danny was one of the first to be given a chance to grasp a lifeline.

This news was incredible. As I was hanging up the phone, I heard the night custodian unlock the outer office door. I was sure he was checking out the source of the unfamiliar sounds so late in the afternoon. I ran out to share the wonderful news with him.

Within minutes, the two of us were leaning against the reception counter red-eyed, shaking our heads in amazement. For a moment we looked at each other knowing we had just learned of our first real-life miracle.

Danny had a double dose of kindergarten, one year following the other, to begin to make up for the years he had been in treatment and deprived of a regular childhood.  He had had few opportunities to be with other kids his age—to play and joke, to finger paint and draw, to chase and to be caught. Now he would be able to build with giant wooden blocks, pretend to drive a fire engine or pilot a rocket ship reaching for the moon or a far away star, or just dream and build towers until they were high enough to tumble down.

A miracle with a big smile and a head full of blonde hair entered kindergarten that September.

A miracle made possible by the millions of kids and adults who have been giving their dimes to The Jimmy Fund for cancer research in Boston since 1947.

A miracle made possible by years of study, research, and dedication of thousands of doctors, nurses, researchers, and technicians.

A miracle made possible by two parents whose love and faith in God, science, and goodness gave them and their son the strength to battle a killer without self-pity.

Every day Danny did just what he needed to do to get better. Each day, mom and dad did what they needed to do to help their son. “Impossible” was not a word in the Caseys’ vocabulary. Whomever the Caseys touched with their attitude of uncompromising optimism knew that if ever there were a kid who was going to make it, it would be Danny!

I left Danny’s school after his 1st grade year. Though I lost touch with the Caseys for many years, their courage and faith were never forgotten. A few years back I telephoned Bill Casey when I heard that Danny had died at 20, after having begun attending classes at Manchester Community College. Bill explained that Danny had undergone a heart transplant as his heart had been damaged by the extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatment during those first experimental years at Dana-Farber. His body rejected his new heart, causing his death.

He shared how Danny had grown up to be a very caring and giving young man who amongst other activities loved sports and playing golf with his dad. Kathy and Bill were very proud of their son.

While the Caseys were struggling to navigate the void and pain left by the loss of a child, I sensed that the miracle of Danny would always be in their midst.

Excerpted from:
Teaching as an Act of Love: Thoughts and Recollections
of a Former Teacher, Principal and Kid
© 2007 Richard Lakin


Shortly after Danny’s death in 1996, “in an effort to understand his loss, and to celebrate his memory, Danny's friends came together to play one of Danny’s favorite sports, hockey. The game soon came to be known as the Danny Casey Classic. Each year, friends, family and community members share stories about Danny that inevitably turn into conversations about how his courageous spirit, sense of humor and joy live on. The game seeks to embody these qualities.”

Visit the DANNYCASEYCLASSIC website.  In addition, be certain to click onto Jeff Jacobs’ article, Short Life, Long Reach, within the website.  Read an unforgettable story about the power of friendship, published in The Hartford Courant on Christmas Day, 2003.