A Thanksgiving miracle

Photo by Terry Lewis

Photo by Terry Lewis

Five-year-old Ward Wright and his 3-year-old sister Hallie Kay are in New York this morning, taking in the spectacle of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Dad Tom, a dentist with Dental Partners of Southwest Georgia, had an opportunity to attend a work-related conference in the Big Apple over the Thanksgiving holiday, so he, wife Maranda, Ward and Hallie Kay were able to turn the trip into a family vacation.

As much as the Wrights are enjoying being among the tens of thousands taking in the annual holiday parade, though, they're just as happy to be having a "normal" Thanksgiving. In the 18 months prior to Oct. 13, the Wrights were focused on things like chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, major surgeries ... on doing whatever it took to keep Ward, who was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a form of juvenile cancer, alive.

All that changed a little more than a month ago when doctors at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston Pediatric Hospital declared Ward officially in remission. The Wrights were still celebrating that good news Monday as they prepared for their trip to New York.

"I will never grow tired of telling our story, of how God worked a miracle in our family's lives," Maranda Wright said. "But it's nice to be a normal family again, to have Ward look normal, to see him with other kids and have him just look like one of the kids.

"It's good to have a little bit of normal back in our lives."

The Wrights' lives became anything but normal when Dr. Stacy Evans quickly diagnosed then-3-year-old Ward's tummy aches as something much more severe: stage 4 neuroblastoma, a form of juvenile cancer that originates in the body's nerve endings.

"Dr. Evans was wonderful," Tom Wright said. "I've heard stories of pediatricians putting off and putting off tests that would determine this disease and it being too late for the child when it's discovered. Within a couple of days, Dr. Evans had the correct diagnosis.

"They found that Ward had a tumor on his kidney the size of a grapefruit. In a kid that size, you can imagine what an impact that was having."

After diagnosis, the Wrights started a grueling 18-month odyssey that would have destroyed many families. In that period, Ward endured seven cycles of chemotherapy, four cycles of antibody treatment, three major surgeries, three minor surgeries, two bone marrow transplants and 12 cycles of radiation treatment.

But because of a loving extended family, a caring church family and a community that took Ward's and the Wrights' plight to heart, the family not only endured, it flourished, buoyed by a renewed faith in a God that answered almost constant prayer on the youngster's behalf.

"We give the Lord 100 percent credit," Maranda Wright said. "Was the use of modern medicine important in his treatment? Yes, certainly. But were there miracles along the way? Oh, yes, without a doubt."

Tom worked at his dental practice while Maranda took Ward for his four-, five- or six-day rounds of chemo, although she was rarely alone on the trips to Egleston in Atlanta.

"Tom was great," Maranda Wright said. "He'd come up at least one day during the week and on weekends. But even when he wasn't able to be here, I rarely was without family support. Either one of Tom's parents -- Cynthia and Tommy Wright of Blakely -- or one of mine --Lisa and Charles Jenkins of Blakely and Kathy and Bobby Watkins of Leesburg -- usually made the trip with me.

"I'd say in 18 months of treatment, there might have been two nights total that I didn't have someone with me to support me."

But in the amazing story of Ward Wright's miracle, there are a lot of heroes; some whose acts were known, others who quietly pitched in any way they could.

There was neighbor and friend Phillip Hajek, who offered the Wrights unlimited access to his air taxi for trips to Atlanta, close friends who "helped raise Hallie Kay" while Tom and Maranda were tending to Ward's needs, church members at Gillionville Baptist who helped with the family's spiritual and physical needs, and community members who signed up for "prayer pushes" that assured entreaties were being made on the family's behalf around the clock.

And there was Tom Wright's sister, Ansley Alexander, who came up with an idea that made Ward a household name in Southwest Georgia.

"Ansley came across a post on Ward's caringbridge.com page that included (the acronym) 'FROG' -- fully rely on God," Maranda Wright said. "She ordered signs that had a picture of a frog and the words 'Pray For Ward.' And it just took off."

That it did. The green-on-white signs became a fixture throughout the community as word of Ward's and the Wrights' battle spread. By the time Ward was in remission, Alexander had printed and distributed 600 signs. They adorned yards throughout Georgia and neighboring states, all the way to California and South America.

"I equate the last 18 months with that 'Footprints in the Sand' poem," Tom Wright said. "For the longest period of time, there was only one set of footprints in the sand ... the Lord was carrying me and my family. It's hard to imagine all that the Lord did for this family; He sustained us."

Ward's back in school now, part of Deerfield-Windsor's Pre-K program. The hair that he'd lost to chemo has grown back, and anyone seeing him play with Hallie Kay at the family's northwest Albany home would never know he's only days removed from a life-threatening illness.

"I'm amazed, speechless at what this community has done for Ward and our family," Maranda Wright said. "There are too many gestures to try and name them all, from friends who planned fundraisers to help support us to strangers who stopped us in the grocery store to say they'd prayed for Ward.

"There's no way we'll ever be able to reach out and thank everyone personally for the kindness they showed this family, but I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to everyone who offered a prayer or a word of comfort or support.

"There's a scripture that I'll paraphrase that says 'If two of you agree, know that the Lord hears you and it will be done.' There were times when I didn't have the strength or the words to even pray, but the people of this community became the bridge that carried me. This is something we never could have done alone."