Wade Lengeling is mostly isolated in his intensive care unit room at Nebraska Medical Center while he waits for his immune system to rebound from an intense dose of chemotherapy.
Wade Lengeling is mostly isolated in his intensive care unit room at Nebraska Medical Center while he waits for his immune system to rebound from an intense dose of chemotherapy.
Friday, July 27, 2012

Editor’s note: This story is the third of a series that follows the Nate and Ann Lengeling family of Carroll as their son Wade battles a nerve cancer with which he was diagnosed in late December. The second story was published May 25, 2012.

OMAHA, Neb. — Infant wails and moans fill the hallways of Nebraska Medical Center’s pediatric intensive care unit, and beyond one of its glass doors lies Wade Lengeling.

In this room, number 5336, Wade is safe.

He clutches a toy reindeer and a Chicago Bears blanket and watches Mickey Mouse on an Apple iPad. His dad, Nate, is nearby.
The device was a gift from a local church to help the Carroll 3-year-old survive a cancer fight that began in January. A nerve tumor near his kidney stretched to his spine and threatened to kill the boy.

Wade called the golf-ball-sized tumor “the bad guy.” A surgeon cut it from his abdomen in May.

But the cancer had spread to the insides of Wade’s bones. His legs, ribs and neck. So, Wade’s fight must continue.

Wade suffered his sixth and most-intense dose of chemotherapy two weeks ago. The drugs kill the cancer cells, but they attack Wade as well. His blond hair falls, and his immune system fails.

Wade’s parents know the cycle: Chemotherapy. Crankiness. Fever. Hospital. Needles. Tears. Repeat.

The Lengelings went home to Carroll after the other chemotherapy treatments, but the doctors aren’t taking any chances this time. As Wade’s ability to fend off the flu and other common diseases wanes, he’ll stay behind that glass door on the fifth floor.

Wade won’t eat. His fever will near 105 degrees. And his moans and wails will join those from other rooms, beyond other doors.

A new friend

Wade met a Carroll girl this year who suffered from the same cancer when she was 3.

Madison Rial. She’s 13 now with long red hair and a slender frame. A month ago she celebrated a decade cancer-free.

It was a hot June day at Rolling Hills Park on the south side of town. Madison dressed in denim shorts and a blue shirt with ruffles — a new outfit she’d bought for family photos.

Wade was there. He was shy and said “hi” and showed Madison the scar from his surgery, as he’s done so many times since May.

Madison hides her scar — a 4-inch line across her right abdomen. Wade’s is on his left.

But something spurred Madison to pull back the ruffles and show Wade that she was like him.

Wade saw. He smiled.

Away from home

“Hey, buddy, open up,” Nate says on a recent day at the hospital.

Wade locks his lips.

Dad holds a sucker with a pink star. It kills the germs that might form sores in Wade’s mouth and throat as his body works to rebuild its defenses.

“Open up. Open up.”

Wade relents, and Nate rubs the boy’s cheeks and gums with the star. It’s minty.

Behind Wade is a wall of smiling faces and thumbs pointed up. They’re pictures of friends and families and celebrities with a sign with black-on-yellow letters: “You Can Do It!!!”

It’s a reminder to look past the minute-to-minute struggles with pink suckers and others. In another week or so, Wade might be released from the hospital to start the final stretch of his recovery.

It’s been more than two months since Wade drifted to sleep and an Omaha surgeon sliced and seared his abdomen. There’s been no sign of the “bad guy” since, but his cohorts still lurk in Wade’s bone marrow.

This recent dose of chemotherapy drugs — combined last week with an injection of Wade’s stem cells taken from the boy many months ago — is meant to drive away the remaining cancer cells.

A round of radiation in the coming weeks should finish the job.

Nate and Wade’s mother, Ann, trade days at the hospital. Nate stays for three-day weekends. Ann takes the rest. They’ll do this for about a month.

They pass the time with movies — the animated flick “Cars” plays over and over and over — and activities. Coloring books, reading and toys.

And volcanoes.

“Watch this,” Wade leans his shiny scalp to a mountain of Play-Doh on a plastic lunch tray.

He spoons some baking soda into the mound’s center and adds a dash of red liquid for color.

Wade pauses and looks around the room. Everyone needs to see this.

He pours vinegar, and the red foam grows. It spills past the peak of the mountain and floods the tray.

Days later, Wade is too weak to care about volcanoes and coloring books. He can barely muster a smile for mom.

Glimmers of hope

Madison’s story gives hope to the Lengelings that Wade will be OK.

She was diagnosed at about the same age. The cancer had spread to her bones. A surgeon cut out the baseball-sized tumor. She had chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant and radiation.

And in the past 10 years there has been no sign of the bad guy’s return. Her mother Lisa thought the milestone would put her mind at ease, but it hasn’t.

Sometimes, after years of no trouble, a tumor grows again, Lisa has heard.

Fewer than 40 percent of children like Madison and Wade survive five years after their diagnosis, according to the Children’s Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation.

“They never say you’re cured,” Lisa said.

Wade has spent most of this past week in a hospital bed.

He sleeps and suffers diarrhea and eats through a feeding tube in his nose. The mucus in his throat makes him snore, and sometimes he wakes gagging.

Wade gets a dose of morphine every two hours to subdue the pain. He takes Tylenol to cut his fevers and drenches his clothes with sweat.

Mom and dad do their best to help the boy, but he can be fussy and frustrating. They take walks alone to cool their heads.

We’ll get there. Little by little, Ann tells herself.

Madison remembers little of her cancer fight — just the bright hospital lights and pokes in the early-morning hours when all she wanted to do was sleep. She was a bit younger than Wade.

Madison, like Wade, spent most of a year back and forth between hospital and home. Two weeks ago, she stopped in Omaha to see Wade as her family traveled to a reunion in Nebraska.

She walked down the hallway with the moans and wails and went through a glass door.

Wade saw her. The girl who had a scar like him.

He smiled.