- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - In a sterile room at Riley Hospital for Children, two nightmares collided for Randy Rogers as the skies darkened across Indiana.

It was Aug. 24, six days after Randy’s 17-year-old son Gradyn was diagnosed, for the second time, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Several days into chemotherapy, father and son methodically marched through the blur of post-diagnosis tasks. The army of doctors and nurses. The stacks of paperwork.

On that day, the issue at hand was fertility. A doctor talked them through the process of preserving Gradyn’s ability to have children, should the chemotherapy make him unable to father biological children. Gradyn lay in his hospital bed, sick and groggy that day from the chemo.

Then, Randy got a call.

At that moment, a menacing wind was making its way toward Kokomo. By the end of that day, eight tornadoes had twirled through Central Indiana in a dance of destruction. The most devastating struck in Kokomo.

Rogers‘ younger son, Brendyn, was home alone.

The single father had to leave his 15-year-old son with his grandparents while he stayed at the hospital with Gradyn, but Brendyn went to the family’s apartment after school to check on the cat and dog.

As he tended to the pets, Brendyn heard alerts of a tornado warning.

Fearful of the storm, he called his dad on FaceTime, and pointed the phone’s camera out the window. His father caught a glimpse of the angry skies, and begged Brendyn to get in the closet.

Brendyn watched as the sky turned an eerie green. It sounded, he said, like a train was barreling toward the apartment. He saw the funnel cloud. He watched the wind yank the roofs off of a group of apartments across the lawn, effortlessly whirling them into the sky. Brendyn dived behind a closet door, and pulled it in front of him, ducking behind his shield from the glass and debris.

All Randy and Gradyn could see on the FaceTime call was darkness. But they heard every minute of the destruction.

“We were able to hear him crying and yelling that he thought he was going to die,” Randy said.

Then, the line went dead.

It was a terrifying moment of helplessness. How could Randy protect both of his sons? One lay weak in a bed next to him as malignant forces attacked his body. The other was 60 miles away, alone in an apartment that was ripped to shreds.

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

The tornado that hit Kokomo leveled a Starbucks, and weaved a path that hurt low-income areas, blasting away affordable housing. It took no lives, but the damage has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Still today, three months later, social services agencies are struggling to find affordable homes for displaced people after several low-income apartment complexes were hit. Kokomo residents are battling with insurance agencies, and trying to find enough local skilled workers to rebuild.

Many homes still lack roofs, and winter is coming.

At times, Randy feels like Job, the biblical figure assailed by a series of tragedies. The confluence of events that led Randy to listen to one son in peril while at the sickbed of the other has been trying.

The family fought cancer once before, when Gradyn was 3 years old. He beat it by age 6. Before Gradyn’s second diagnosis, Randy suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him. Now, his full-time job is caring for Gradyn. The family depends on the Affordable Care Act for health insurance, and wonders what will become of it in this political climate.

Still, Randy is relentlessly positive.

A cheerful man with light hair and glasses, Randy beams with pride as he talks about Gradyn’s accomplishments. The honor roll. The wrestling team. His service work that once garnered a letter from President Barack Obama. His years as an Eagle Scout. He also is proud of Brendyn for becoming the man of the house at 15, taking up new responsibilities while his dad and brother are in and out of the hospital.

Even as the community faces its own destruction, people have stepped up to help the Rogers family.

The family is now living in a new apartment in the same Kokomo complex. The walls of the apartment are mostly bare, with few personal belongings. The tornado swept away the vast majority of their possessions.

But the apartment is filled with furniture given to them by others. A Christmas tree donated by members of the community twinkles in their living room.

And in that regard, the Rogers family is not alone. All around Kokomo, such stories of hope and selflessness have risen from the destruction.

There was Mitzi White, who cooked three meals a day for hundreds of people for several weeks after the storm. And Harry Young, who slept in his car for two weeks, so he could be near his workplace while his family temporarily moved away to live with family. He sent money for food and diapers for his two daughters until the family could move into a new apartment.

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

While Brendyn was in his apartment watching the oncoming storm, Mitzi White was across the street, huddled in the basement of the Trinity United Methodist Church, where she worked as a food specialist for Kokomo Urban Outreach.

The sights and sounds of the storm brought her back to 1965, when, as a young girl, she lived through a massive tornado that destroyed most of Russiaville, a small rural town southwest of Kokomo.

When the wind finally calmed, she stepped outside. The Garden Square Apartments across the street were a gnarled mess, including the Rogerses’ apartment. Tree limbs and debris were strewn across the street. Stunned people emerged from the wreckage, trying fretfully to reach children, friends and parents.

In that moment, Mitzi did what she does best: She cooked.

She pulled together food they had in the kitchens at Kokomo Urban Outreach, an organization that works to lessen poverty in the community. They collected buns and meat, and began to grill. Nearby residents whose homes were wrecked came out, sat together and ate.

“For a brief moment, it took their minds off of it, I think,” Mitzi said.

The cooking didn’t stop there.

Mitzi had quit her job of 16 years inspecting circuit boards to work for Kokomo Urban Outreach. She taught classes to low-income families about preparing healthy, affordable meals. She also cooked a community meal once a week on Sunday nights, aiming to feed children who don’t get enough to eat before they start the school week.

Mitzi loves playing with food, tinkering with recipes. She grinned as she talked about her most recent experiment: meatloaf cupcakes with mashed potato “icing.”

After the tornadoes, though, she scrapped her normal routine. Instead, she cooked three meals a day each day for about three weeks. With just one partner, she stood in a steaming hot kitchen, with no air conditioning, and cooked with food donated from communities across the state.

For the people she served, food was comfort and safety.

“There’s still a lot of work. It’s going to be a long process,” Mitzi said. “Normal isn’t about getting the buildings back together. It’s about sitting down in your house and feeling safe.”

David Tharp, deputy mayor of Kokomo, said the tornado has cost the city well over $400,000.

Additionally, one of the biggest challenges for social service workers has been finding affordable housing for those displaced, said Stephanie Berghoff, a caseworker for a committee devoted to long-term recovery in Kokomo. A number of low-income complexes were destroyed, leaving a scarcity of similarly priced homes. Some of the families displaced lost work, she said, and were forced to sign leases in apartments they could not afford.

“The path of the strongest tornado,” Berghoff said, “went right through the heart of our most vulnerable population.”

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

The days following the tornado sprinted forward at a hectic pace for the Rogers family.

Right after the call between Randy and Brendyn went dead, Randy called 911 from the hospital room at Riley. Dispatchers in Marion County connected Randy to the 911 dispatch center in Kokomo, but the center was overwhelmed with calls. He then called his mother in Kokomo for help.

“It was scary because we couldn’t do anything to help him in that moment,” said Dr. Jodi Skiles, the physician who was in the room with Randy and Gradyn discussing fertility options.

Randy found out later that Brendyn’s phone had lost power, which is why they couldn’t reach him. He was cut from some flying glass, but was otherwise unharmed. The teenager walked to a nearby holding station where he eventually made contact with his family. He now feels frightened and jumpy when storms come through.

“I was confused,” Brendyn said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

When Randy was finally able to get from Indianapolis to Kokomo, he walked into his home and surveyed the damage.

Bugs covered the floor and the walls, making it look like the surfaces were slowly moving.

“Everything was ruined,” Randy said.

But they’re just things, he reflected.

(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)

Two months after the tornado, the Rogers family settled back into the routine that will envelop the next two years as Gradyn undergoes an experimental chemotherapy treatment.

On one bright, sunny October afternoon, Gradyn gingerly moved out of his hospital bed at Riley into a chair to be weighed.

He and his father bantered about the weight he has lost since his wrestling days as the nurse recorded the number. The once roughly 190-pound teenager was down to about 160 pounds.

“He weighs close to what he weighed in sixth grade,” Randy chuckled.

Brendyn was back in Kokomo with his grandmother while Randy and Gradyn stayed at Riley for a week of treatment.

The hospital room had a couch next to the bed with a white pillow propped on the end. That’s where Randy slept.

“I could stay at the Ronald McDonald house,” he said, “but I just don’t want to leave him.”

With dark eyes that shine brightly out of his pale face and hairless scalp, Gradyn kept himself busy with his father, talking and playing cards, watching Netflix and playing video games. On good days, he is able to do homework in classes he takes online. He loves the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Disney movies.

“I’ll probably be like 80 and still watch Disney movies,” he said wryly.

His friends are able to visit, and he will likely be able to keep up in school with his online classes. He and his dad grew closer, holed up together in the hospital room day and night.

Gradyn’s doctors are optimistic. Skiles, a pediatric stem cell transplant physician, said leukemia is the most common pediatric cancer, and it also has the greatest survival rate.

“He’s already doing really well,” Skiles said of Gradyn, noting that he is responding to the chemo and is in remission.

But what he misses most is his former physical self - the teen who was a wrestler, and a football player.

Gradyn looks wistfully ahead to the end of his chemotherapy in two years, when he can once again lift weights.

He knew something was wrong over the summer when his dad had to help him up the stairs, and off the couch.

Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night and asks for his dad, asking if his hands are still there. A side effect of the chemo is nerve problems that result in numbness of his hands.

“Once I was holding a Playstation remote, and all of a sudden, it dropped,” Gradyn said, “into a bucket of water . I was like, whoops.”

He sometimes has joint pain that makes it difficult to walk. While in the hospital, he often practiced walking two or three laps around the nurses’ station before his energy gave way to the pain.

On a recent night, though, around 3 a.m. when the hospital wing was mostly quiet, Gradyn mustered the strength of the wrestler and football player in him.

He walked 20 laps around the hospital floor.

The walks were all part of his ongoing effort to return to his old self - and to his new home.

These days, Gradyn is receiving chemo from a backpack that delivers his medicine intravenously. He continues to take online classes.

But most importantly, the Rogers - Randy, Gradyn and Brendyn - are together again. At their new home, in Kokomo.

___

Source: Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/2gC8BXt

___

Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide