Jackson Is Not Only My Son, He's My Hero

May 30, 2017

On Saturday, June 10, the Leonard family — parents John and Kathryn and their children, Madeleine, Abigail and Jackson — will lead their Action Jackson's team at the annual Move for the Kids 5K Walk/Run, presented by C.H. Robinson, for Lurie Children's. It's their way of thanking the hospital, where 8-year-old Jackson is being treated for leukemia.

"We want to express how important Lurie Children's has been to us as a family," says his dad, John. "It's our small way to pay it forward so that others might benefit from the hospital's care."

Last September, Jackson was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood leukemia. Leading up to his diagnosis, John and Jackson’s mom, Kathryn, saw small signs that something wasn't quite right with their son.

"At one soccer game, he came off the field after only a couple of minutes," says John. "About a week later, he was riding his bike and could hardly pedal. He began to cry, and when I hugged him I could feel his heart racing. When it didn’t slow down after an hour, we took him to the emergency department.”

In the ED at St. Mary's Medical Center in the family’s hometown of Hobart, Indiana, Jackson's resting heart rate was found to be much faster than normal, and his levels of hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, were 75 percent below normal. The emergency room physicians called for an ambulance to take him immediately to Lurie Children's.

"Kathryn rode in the ambulance with Jackson, but I was in no condition to drive, so my brother took me," says John. "That drive was the longest and most devastating hour of my life."

Jackson was already in the Lefkofsky Family Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) receiving blood when John arrived. He'd been in touch with his sister, a hospital lab manager, who first mentioned the word "leukemia" when she heard about Jackson's low blood counts.

"We stayed in Jack's room that night while he continued to receive blood transfusions," says John. "My thoughts centered on a word I knew little about, 'leukemia.'"

An oncology team from Lurie Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders met with the Leonards the next day and confirmed that Jackson indeed had leukemia and that his form of the disease was ALL. Each year, Lurie Children's oncologists care for 50 to 60 newly diagnosed patients with ALL.   

The next day, John and Kathryn met with Jackson's oncologist, Dr. Elaine Morgan.

"She didn't say it in so many words, but Dr. Morgan conveyed the message that, 'It is curable, and that is our goal,'" says John. "She reassured us and gave us confidence."

During his four days as an inpatient, Jackson immediately began what will ultimately be three full years of chemotherapy treatments. Over the last nine months, he has responded well to his therapy, and currently receives a "maintenance" dose every four weeks as an outpatient.

"Jackson has been handling everything really well, and has had very few setbacks," says John. "He's not only my son, Jackson is my hero. He's the bravest, kindest soul, one who has every reason to complain but never does. We're looking forward to the day we can ring the bell in the oncology unit announcing that Jackson has finished his final treatment."

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Heroes Update.