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California and the West

As Family Struggles With Sons' Cancer, Help Pours In

Aid: Friends, acquaintances deliver meals, ferry other children to games. Meanwhile, parents hope for a miracle.

June 05, 1998|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — From the hospital bed where he is battling advanced liposarcoma, 17-year-old David Houston had a bad dream about his half-brother, 4-year-old Drew.

Afterward, he begged his father and stepmother to take Drew, who had a slight fever, to the doctor.

And when they did several weeks ago, their family physician came back with the bad news: The Houstons now had two boys with two different types of cancer, diagnosed within two weeks of each other.

"I fell to the floor and cried," said the boys' father, David. "Why my firstborn and my last born? Why them?"

But as the Mission Viejo family struggles with the sudden and devastating blow, other people are stepping in to lend a hand: friends, family members and even strangers whose hearts have been touched by the family's plight.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 7, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Cancer patients--A story Friday about cancer patients David Houston, 17, and his 4-year-old brother, Drew, contained several errors. David first complained of shoulder pains on April 14; eight days later he noticed a lump; by April 24 he was admitted to the hospital. It was David's mother, Liz Van de Vanter, and his stepfather who placed a rose on his chest in the hospital.

Parents in the Viejo Little League have dropped off home-cooked meals, started a trust fund and made sure the other children got to their baseball games. It's like one big extended youth sports family, said Houston, who has two other children with his wife, Michelle.

"I still don't know them very well, but how do you turn away from people who are going through so much?" said Colleen Trujillo, who is helping launch fund-raisers and a bone marrow match drive for the Houstons.

Michelle Houston, Drew's mother and David's stepmother, said the community support has been the main bright spot for the family.

"Some of our closest friends have a hard time dealing with this and don't know what to say," she said. "What's really helping us is the people that we barely know, all the love and support we're getting from them that has been truly genuine."

Michelle Houston's ex-husband flew in from Hawaii to help run David's auto shop. Several family members have shaved their heads to show their support, as has a 3-year-old friend of Drew, who cut off his hair because his sick friend was afraid that others would laugh at his chemotherapy-induced baldness.

And it has all taken place in the past six weeks.

On April 24, young David complained of shoulder pains. Within 72 hours, a tumor "the size of a deflated basketball" had grown on his shoulder, Michelle Houston said.

A relatively rare form of cancer, the liposarcoma had spread throughout his body, and within two weeks, David was on a respirator because the disease was in his lungs.

The swift progress of the disease stunned the family.

The Huntington Beach High School senior missed the senior prom, but his date came over and placed a rose on his chest while he was sleeping, then spent the rest of the evening at his hospital bed. The teenager would shake his head over the battery of tubes and wires connected to his body.

"He said, 'Last week I was a normal 17-year-old on spring break. Now look at me,' " Michelle Houston said. "He's scared. He's fighting for his life."

Doctors offer little hope for David's recovery.

"They told us not to throw in the towel, but we do need a miracle," Michelle Houston said.

Just before he was put on the respirator in early May, David had his dream about Drew. Although David lives with his mother, Liz Van de Banter, in Huntington Beach, he is very close to his little brother--"Drew would sleep with David, David would nuzzle Drew" when David came to his father and stepmother's house on weekends, Michelle Houston said.

David, who has remained in Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian since his diagnosis, still hasn't told his parents exactly what his subconscious told him that night. Not wanting to hurt his chances of recovery, his parents still haven't told him about Drew.

But the message came in time for the 4-year-old. His leukemia diagnosed at an early stage, Drew quickly responded to chemotherapy and is in remission, the Houstons say.

"David was responsible for us catching it early enough," said his father, eyes shining with tears.

The pressure on the couple is still intense. There are several trips to the doctor and hospital every day, the need for continued chemotherapy for Drew over the next three years, two pre-teenage children in the home to watch over--and their worry about David clouding everything.

"We all just said it might be a good idea for us to do something to help them out," said Sheri Brown, a Little League mother also helping organize assistance for the Houstons. "With all they've got going on, who's going to help with the meals and running around? They need to spend their time with those kids."

The outpouring has helped the family hang on, David Houston said.

Still, the Houstons would trade it all for one positive test result.

Doctors will let the family know today whether the most recent round of chemotherapy has produced positive results for David.

Fingering an angel on a chain around her neck, Michelle Houston said she's ready for something good to happen.

"I believe in miracles," she said.

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