The “blessings of a fall” is how David Plotkin describes that spring day in 2007 when his son Max, took a tumble and life turned upside down.
He and his wife, Annemarie, were outside with their two boys, Alexander, then nearly 2, and Max, who was just shy of his fourth birthday. David and Max were playing baseball, practicing batting and running bases. Rounding first, Max tripped and fell, clutched his right arm, and cried out in pain. Annemarie iced his arm but when the pain didn’t go away, she took Max to the hospital. There an X-ray of his arm showed something ominous: a spray of black spots where there should have been white, healthy bone. Annemarie called David, who rushed to the hospital. He remembers the fear that came over him when he saw the X-ray. The orthopedic surgeon told the David and Annemarie that it could be a bone infection or it could be cancer.
Five days later, on May 2, 2007, Max had a bone biopsy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The next day, Max’s grandfather, Richard, wrote an email to friends and family that began with this simple, powerful sentence. Today Max is 4 years old, yesterday he was diagnosed with cancer.
Eight days after the bone biopsy, David and Annemarie learned that Max had an uncommon form of B-cell lymphoma, a cancer so rare that the specialists at Sloan-Kettering, one of the top cancer centers in the world, had never seen it.
The grim news got worse. Typically, B-cell lymphoma is found in the lymph nodes and in the lymphoid tissues. In Max’s case, it had already spread to the bone of his right arm and left leg around his knee. The oncologists didn’t mince words. To survive, Max needed immediate and very aggressive treatment.
A few weeks later, Maxwell Grant Plotkin, David and Annemarie’s first child and Alexander’s big brother, began a harrowing and harsh chemotherapy protocol that would continue for two years.
David Plotkin chose to look for the good in this horrible situation. “Were it not for the blessings of a fall, we may not have found the cancer until it was too late,” he said.
How do you explain cancer to a 4-year-old? How do you explain the endless hospital visits, the pain, the port inserted into his chest so that doctors could give him a medicine that’s supposed to make him well but instead makes him feel sick?
When Max asked his parents why he felt so bad, David and Annemarie answered as honestly as they could. “We told him he had cancer and that the medicine was very strong,” David said. When Max asked, “What if the medicine doesn’t work?” his Mom answered, “We’ll find a stronger one.”
Soon after Max’s diagnosis, a doctor told David that he needed to help his son learn to be brave. “I didn’t know how to explain that to a 4-year old,” David said. “And then I realized that I couldn’t tell my son how to be brave, I had to show him.”