Navy petty officer Sean Bramer was aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln off the shores of Hawaii when he was called to the captain’s office where the ship’s chaplain and other officers were waiting for him.
His mind raced as he wondered why their faces were so grave. The chaplain somberly explained that there was a Red Cross emergency message from home in Norfolk. He explained: “Last night, your son was admitted to the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk. He was diagnosed with leukemia.”
Sean heard the words in stunned disbelief.
“That’s when you reach for the nearest stable object and just hold on,” he said, recalling the terrible moment.
Sean knew his 3-year-old son Gavin had been having flu-like symptoms and a poor appetite. He had been tired, and a bruise on his face didn’t go away. He just wasn’t himself. But cancer? Sean was horrified.
On the night of her son’s diagnosis at CHKD, Melissa Bramer had taken Gavin to the nearest hospital after a scary choking episode. Tests were run and he was transferred to CHKD for the extensive evaluation that led to his diagnosis of ALL – acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL is a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood in which too many immature white blood cells are found in the bone marrow, blood and organs.
Gavin was admitted to CHKD, and pediatric oncologist Linda Pegram started a three-year treatment plan that would include chemotherapy, weekly clinic visits and hospital stays.
Sean was rushed home to Norfolk where his family, which includes baby sister Cynthia, braced for the challenges ahead. Gavin’s treatments began in the hospital and continued in a long series of visits to the CHKD Cancer and Blood Disorders Center where a typical morning included tests and chemotherapy and often an exam by Dr. Pegram, followed by Gavin performing his own “exam” on his doctor and his dad.
“Gavin is just delightful,” Dr. Pegram said. “Even when he comes for a short visit for blood tests, he wants me to examine him in a certain order, and then he wants to examine me and his dad. He wants to be the doctor. For me, it’s so nice because I sometimes have to do things he doesn’t like, but he’s always such a good sport.”
Sean says Gavin has made many friends in the cancer center, where his cheery attitude and resilience are admired by all. Between treatments and infusions, Gavin enjoys doing crafts with the staff and other patients and finds time to fuel his passion for “Thomas the Train” stories.
At the beginning of this year, Gavin finished the most intensive part of his treatment and entered the maintenance phase that calls for chemotherapy once a month, a spinal tap every three months and oral medication at home. Coming up on the anniversary of his diagnosis in June, Gavin’s prognosis is excellent.
“Gavin was a ‘rapid early responder,’” Dr. Pegram said. “His prognosis is very good because of his age and because of how well he has responded to treatment.”
The goal of treatment in CHKD is to keep life as normal as possible for children like Gavin. “He can go to preschool because when you’re 4 that’s your job. We want to encourage that and see him live a normal life,” Dr. Pegram said.
Though this year has held many changes and difficult times, Gavin’s determination is reminiscent of the storybook little red engine that wouldn’t give up. With the help of those who strive for him to overcome obstacles, he truly exemplifies “The Little Engine That Could.”
Dr. Pegram practices with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.