Nick was listless and had a swollen belly when parents Ted and Lydia Leslie took the 3-year-old to a hospital.
The Oklahoma City couple thought their son would undergo a simple procedure. But it was the beginning of a desperate search for a way to save the boy.
What doctors had originally thought was a cyst turned out to be a softball-size tumor near the child's liver. The boy had neuroblastoma, a leading form of childhood cancer. And doctors told the couple the cancer was inoperable.
“We were really devastated,” Lydia said.
“... Just earth-shattering,” Ted said.
The child underwent six months of chemotherapy, then two stem-cell transplants in consecutive months. “His tumor was still there,” Lydia said.
All that remained in the medical protocol was radiation, so Nick endured that, Lydia recalled. “It didn't work. The tumor was still the same size.”
Refusing to give up, the Leslies began a nationwide quest for specialists who might help. They took Nick to New York, where a surgeon removed most of the tumor. They went to Philadelphia for procedures that targeted remaining viable cancer cells with injected radioisotopes.
Ted, an attorney, and Lydia, a civil engineer, earned a good living, and friends stepped up to help, organizing benefit golf tournaments to help with medical expenses. Still, the years of treatment were straining their finances, especially since some of the later treatments were not covered by insurance. However, when the choice is your child or your lifestyle, it's no choice at all, Ted, 47, said.
“It causes you to refocus priorities,” he said. “I pretty quickly sold my Harley.”
Ted recalled several moments during quiet evenings at home with his son resting in his lap “that I thought that was going to be the end.” But it wasn't.
Whether it was the procedures, the persistence, the prayers, or something else — the Leslies might never know — but something worked. Today, Nick, now 12, leads the normal life of an active preteen. Although he remains on a strict regimen of an investigational drug, at times taking up to 27 pills a day, the boy is more athletically gifted than his siblings, Mitchell, 10, and Lauren, 14, and he enjoys basketball, baseball, water skiing and snow skiing.
“He excels in all sports,” Lydia said. “He's a very tough boy.”
The ordeal changed the Leslie family.
“You realize life is short,” Lydia, 44, said. “You'd better appreciate every minute and every small thing.”
Since meeting in Lubbock, Texas, around 1987 — she a student at Texas Tech and he an Air Force AWACS crew member — the couple had always been close. During their first two months of dating, they looked at wedding rings. They became engaged when Ted took Lydia to dinner and presented a huge romantic card to her.
“He was a very old-fashioned guy,” Lydia said.
The experience with their son brought the family even closer, Ted said. “Family became a whole lot more important.”
So did giving back.
Lydia is always available to comfort and counsel parents going through the same ordeal, and Ted serves on the board of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Oklahoma City, which provides lodging for families whose children are in the hospital.
They know the disease might still come back. But faith that it won't is enough for now.
“If it comes back, we'll deal with that then,” Lydia said. “I live one day at a time, and I don't think about the future.”