Nathaniel Healy remembers his parents dying in Ethiopia from a disease he could not pronounce. He recalls selling fruit on the side of the road and using the money to feed himself and his younger brother.
That was a lot to shoulder before his 10th birthday.
After the orphanage sent him to America, Nathaniel and his brother Abel lived in the University Place home of Tim and Jennifer Healy and their biological son, Brendan.
The two Ethiopian boys lived with the Healys for about a year before the adoption was finalized in September 2012, Jennifer said.
“We both had a heart for adoption,” she said. “My husband was adopted, and kids need a family.”
One month after the adoption was complete, Nathaniel got sick.
“There was fever and vomiting for about five days, and at the pediatrician Nathaniel had chest pain,” said Jennifer, a nurse at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup. “We got a workup at Mary Bridge, and they found he had an enlarged spleen, a low white-cell count.”
The diagnosis? Leukemia, a rare and high-risk form of the disease, caused by a chromosomal abnormality called the Philadelphia chromosome.
“He started chemotherapy the next day,” Jennifer said. “After two tough months, Nathaniel went into remission.”
That was two years ago, and today Nathaniel is 13, the middle brother of the family. He’s one year behind Brendan and three years ahead of Abel.
Nathaniel went back to school — Drum Intermediate— and finished sixth grade.
“He’s just such a strong kid,” father Tim Healy said.
The family had a good summer together this year, a normal summer. Nathaniel was so excited to start seventh grade in September, he laid out his clothes the night before.
“The next day, he went in for a spinal tap,” Jennifer said. “The leukemia was back.”
Since then, Nathaniel has been home for only four days. The family had Thanksgiving with him in his hospital room. And the Healy family is trying its best to hold on.
“We try to balance it as best we can,” Tim said. “One of us, either Jennifer or I, spends every night with Nathaniel. This is hard on Nathaniel, hard on us and the other kids, too.
“The reality is, it has affected the other boys. They appear to be doing all right, but we can’t do things with them we’d normally do — like just being there. I feel guilty about it.”
It’s about to get worse. Once they can get Nathaniel back into remission, doctors plan on transferring him to a hospital in Seattle.
“Nathaniel needs a bone marrow transplant, but we couldn’t find a donor to match,” Jennifer said. “So he’ll get a cord blood transplant.”
Jennifer will have to leave her job to be with him full time. The kicker: Tim’s partnership in a law office doesn’t provide insurance, so once Jennifer quits, the family will have to rely on a group plan at their own expense.
How will mom’s absence affect the family left at home?
“I can’t get my head around it, yet,” Tim said.
As all of this was unfolding, friends, neighbors and co-workers put together a mid-November dinner and auction for the Healys. Most of the publicity for the event was on a Facebook page, “Give Nathaniel A Day.”
The hope was to raise $20,000. They received more than $40,000.
“I was shocked at the caring, the turnout and amount of support,” Tim said. “I couldn’t believe it. Nathaniel just smiled when I told him about it that night in the hospital.”
Those smiles are rarer these days. The drain of chemotherapy on his body — plus the disease he is battling — have taken a daily toll.
“There are times when he says, ‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ and then he rallies,” Jennifer said. “It’s hard to watch your child suffer and keep giving them meds that make him feel worse.
“It’s one thing to watch someone suffer for their own actions, but a child suffering like this? I question why a lot. I choose to believe in a higher power, and I have to believe there’s a bigger reason Nathaniel is going through all this.”
Tim was hesitant at first to talk about the family’s situation.
“I’d like to think some positive can come from all this,” he said. “If having us in the public domain can help raise awareness of bone marrow testing, for instance, that’s important.
“I don’t think it will help Nathaniel, but maybe some other kid …”
Jennifer continues to dole out love and encouragement.
“When Nathaniel gets discouraged, I tell him I love him — we all do — and we want him around,” she said. “His Ethiopian mom would say the same thing.”