The house is quiet. Everyone is asleep and the only sounds she hears are the hum of the refrigerator and the occasional car driving past on Alexander Avenue.
She is not asleep.
Lot of trouble with that lately.
Slightly built, she moves cat-like around the darkened apartment until she reaches his bedroom door.
She opens it just enough to slip through, and sidles over to his bed.
And she watches.
She breathes a silent sigh of relief as she sees his chest rising and falling, the rhythmic in-and-out of healthy lungs at work.
She follows this same routine every night, momentarily comforted yet forever haunted by the thought that one night her baby will be gone.
Such a strange thing to worry about with an 18-year-old boy.
• • •
As the calendar flipped from 2009 to 2010, life was good for Kyle Lorteau.
A standout guard on the Chilliwack secondary school senior boy’s basketball team, he was looking forward to his final season and the very real chance to net a post-secondary scholarship.
Every morning, Kyle bounced out of bed and headed for the CSS gym where he’d spend an hour before school working on his jump shot or cross-over dribble.
Most days he’d be back at it after school, sometimes practising until 10 or 11 at night.
Tall and lanky and wearing glasses to help with nearsightedness, he looked more computer techie than hoops star. But with the ball in his hands he could be a magician, spotting a teammate with a well-timed pass or arcing a perfect shot from beyond the three point line.
Nothing but net.
Quiet and likeable off the court, with a razor-sharp and lightning-quick wit, Kyle spent spare off-court hours with his circle of friends — playing video games, watching movies and living the idyllic life of a teenager free of adult concerns and responsibilities.
And then everything changed.
Kyle woke up one morning and noticed a small bulge on the left side of his scrotum.
Assuming it would just go away, he brushed it off and went about his business.
But it didn’t go away.
Over a month and a half it got bigger, slowly at first and then faster, to the point where it looked like a third testicle.
Kyle was uncomfortable just sitting down but he still couldn’t bring himself to make an appointment to have it checked out by a doctor.
Unbelievably he continued to play basketball, and it was during a game that he finally decided he’d had enough.
“There was this small guy I was posting up, and every time I turned around he would hit me in the nuts,” Kyle said. “I don’t know if it was his tactic or what, but he did it three times in a row, and it was really, really painful.”
Parents Chad and Flora knew something was wrong, even if they couldn’t pin it down.
Kyle said nothing, but Flora noticed he had altered his wardrobe.
He wore only the loosest-fitting track pants and he looked much paler than usual. After that last basketball game Kyle came home and he could hardly walk.
“I got hit hard and it’s huge now,” Kyle croaked through a tremendous amount of pain. At last, Kyle had to admit to himself that this wasn’t going to disappear.
But even then, Kyle and his parents underestimated the severity of the problem, going with hernia as the most likely explanation.
As a baby, Kyle had a hernia that had presented in the exact same spot with the exact same symptoms.
The diagnosis fit.
When Kyle finally saw a doctor he suggested something similar but different — perhaps a blown Hydroceles was to blame for the accumulation of fluid, golf ball-sized bulge and resulting pain.
Not for one second did anyone suspect what the real problem was.
Kyle was sent to a surgeon for a consult in Langley, and he was the first to mention the C word.
Two weeks later, Kyle was wheeled in for a theoretically routine exploratory procedure, with that same surgeon presenting him with lottery ticket odds. One in a million chance that it’s a tumour and even less that it’s cancerous.
Hours later Kyle woke up to find he’d won the lottery.
• • •
Chad and Flora sat in the waiting room at 6:30 that morning to ride out a surgery that they expected to be little more than two hours long.
Around hour four, Flora started rocking nervously in her chair, certain that something had gone wrong but unable to find anyone to tell her what.
They still hadn’t talked to a doctor by the time they made their way up to the recovery room six and a half hours later.
Kyle was laying in bed, still wonky from the after-affects of anesthesia.
He looked up.
“Oh yeah, Mom. It’s a tumour and I’ve got cancer. Ah ha ha!”
Flora remembers hearing those exact words, wondering if her son was high on anesthetic gas. Moments later the surgeon hustled into the room and delivered the news in more definitive fashion.
First off, Kyle wasn’t delusional.
If it was what the doctor suspected it was, the teenager was a true rarity — one of seven people in the entire world to be living with Rhabdomyosarcoma, an extremely aggressive fast-growing form of cancer.
The surgeon was hopeful that they’d removed all of it during the lengthy procedure, but four weeks later he was proven wrong. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan showed the cancer was alive and well, moving up to the stomach and chest, with another lesion on his hip.
Kyle was faced with another surgery, this one far more invasive, followed by weeks and weeks of chemotherapy.
To that point, he’d rolled with the punches like a true champion. But hearing all of this was too much to take. The dam burst and his emotions finally flooded out.
“When they started talking about chemotherapy and surgery and radiation, I don’t even know how to explain it,” he said. “All I could think about was the things I’ve heard about chemo and how awful it is.”
• • •
On Aug. 13, 2010 Kyle was wheeled back into the operating room for a second surgery, this one drastically different from the first.
A vertical incision from mid-chest to scrotum opened him up and all his organs were removed — the intestines, lungs, heart. All of them were placed to the side as the surgeon went hunting for lesions.
Scheduled to take between four and five hours, this one took eight-and-a-half hours, the longest eight-and-a-half hours of Flora’s life.
“I hit the panic button and I was absolutely going nuts,” she admitted. “I thought he was dying and I just kept saying, ‘Where is my baby? Where is my baby?’ And Chad kept hitting my leg saying, ‘Stop it! Stop it!’”
After what seemed like an eternity, they were finally taken to a recovery room. They sat next to Kyle’s bed as the effects of the anesthesia wore off and he experienced the most excruciating pain of his life.
Many a woman will bemoan the fact that men can never experience the pain of childbirth. Kyle’s may well have been worse, with waves of pain radiating from head to toe.
“Maybe I woke up too soon, but I was yelling and screaming,” he said.
For three days the medical staff stuck with epidurals that barely dulled the pain.
Chad and Flora could only watch as Kyle endured agonizing torture, wanting to help but helpless to do so. Finally, a switch to morphine did the trick and the pain started to subside.
It took four days before Kyle was able to just sit up in bed, and his initial walks around the hospital ward were such that he was completely drained going down the hallway and back.
But he could start to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and as Kyle slowly regained his strength, he was hopeful that the worst was behind him.
In truth, the battle was over but the war had just started. Over the next year Kyle was going to be tested physically and mentally in ways he never imagined.
This is the first in a four part series. For Part 2, click here.