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Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014

Struggling and enduring: Mark Kelly's health problems strike quickly

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mark Kelly Olson, a Liberty third grader, was diagnosed with Very High Risk Leukemia four months ago.
(Submitted photo)
Nothing is simple anymore.

It was supposed to be a quiet retirement, that move from Meridian, Miss., in 2004. After each retired from the Navy with 42 years of service between them, Mark and Rosie Olson moved to Shelbyville, where Mark would take a job with AEDC and Rosie would dedicate herself to their children.

This photo was taken July 7, at the beginning of Mark's most recent stay at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.
(Submitted photo)
Sarah was 10 years old then, Mark Kelly was 21 months, and Hunter would arrive four years later.

Storms of life

They weathered their first storm soon after they moved in. An F1 tornado struck their Chestnut Ridge home that Memorial Day weekend, causing damage to their roof and several aging black walnut trees.

The next big storm in life would arrive nearly eight years later, on a bright April afternoon when a third-grade boy should be wearing a ball uniform, scuffing up a baseball and trading Pokemon cards with friends.

But when school started last fall, Mark Kelly began vomiting inexplicably. The sickness continued off and on for months. In early April, he became short of breath, and within two weeks his skin tone had changed to a yellow-green.

Rosie, thinking the sickness was keeping Mark Kelly from getting proper nourishment, made an appointment with the family physician for first thing Monday morning.

Total upheaval

The risk of infection keeps Mark Kelly largely confined to the floor of the hospital. Here, he takes a lap with friend Bart Morton
(Submitted photo)
Before the end of that day, April 16, Mark Kelly would be in a sterile and filtered room at the Monroe Carell Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Within hours, everyone around him was wearing gloves, gowns and surgical masks. And suddenly nothing was simple anymore.

Tests soon revealed the early diagnosis: Leukemia.

"That night Mark Kelly asked the doctor if he was going to die, and she didn't say 'no.'" said Rosie. "She told him she couldn't be sure."

His blood counts were too low, just then, to confirm the diagnosis with a bone marrow test. It took two days; 12 bags of blood would be infused before the test could be performed. The doctors called the family together for the results.


"I went into that meeting truly believing that he did not have cancer. I was wrong," said Rosie.

Mark Kelly was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocyctic Leukemia. Rare, but treatable, with a 95 percent survival rate. For the next six weeks he would undergo chemotherapy, and the bone marrow test would be repeated.

But even leukemia would not be simple for the Olsons.

After an injury to his foot, he is unable to walk, but a steady stream of visiting friends and family, like Judy Carpenter, have happily carried him around.
Mark Kelly did not respond to the initial treatment, and the doctors offered a revised diagnosis: Minute Residual Disease (MRD). Worse, the genetic patterns in his cancer cells are specific to what doctors call Very High Risk Leukemia. With this, he is now more susceptible to a relapse of leukemia and other types of cancer in the future.

Within weeks, the prognosis for his survival would reverse -- from 95 percent, now to 5 percent -- and doctors would enroll Mark Kelly in a study using three types of experimental chemotherapy.

Even chemotherapy would not be simple. "Apparently chemotherapy makes the intestines brittle," began Rosie as she described the next impossibility which arrived.

Troubles mount

On one visit for chemotherapy, a bowel movement leaked from his intestines into his bloodstream, causing his blood to become septic. "It happened within a matter of a couple of hours," she said.

That was July 5, and Rosie and Mark Kelly have remained, at Vanderbilt, now in their eighth week.

The U.S. Air Force Arnold Engineering Development Complex fire department named Mark Kelly a deputy chief and presented him with a helmet and badge. His father, Mark, works in the operations department at AEDC.
(Submitted photo)
As he recovered from that incident, another occurred. A visitor bumped into one of the intravenous poles which accompany Mark Kelly everywhere he goes, making a small cut in the Achilles' heel area. A nurse cleaned it carefully, applied a bandage, and all thought this the least of their problems.

"Even a small cut is not simple for a cancer child," said Rosie of what came next.

Fungus spreads

The spot became a fungal infection. By now, four separate surgeries have cut away at the area, leaving the tendon exposed.

"His counts recovered high enough that he could have gone home a couple weeks ago but he could not because of his foot," Rosie said. "Now that he has had a fungus infection, he will be on one of the anti-fungal medications for the entire course of his treatment," which is estimated to last three and a half years.

"We still don't know when we will get to go home," said Rosie.

Community support

From the time of his diagnosis, friends and family have rallied around the Olson family. Mark retired from the Navy in 1997 after 20 years of service, Rosie in 2004 after 22 years. Insurance covers most of the medical expenses, but not all.

Mark sleeps wrapped in a prayer quilt sent to him by First Christian Church.
(Submitted photo)
"It is very expensive to stay at the hospital as long as we have been staying."

Liberty Elementary called his classmates together to explain the illness. The students have sent cards and notes of encouragement, and small gifts to entertain. First Baptist Church, where the family attends, has donated proceeds from their Wednesday night dinner to the family, and have made other contributions of gifts, cards and especially prayer.

Other local churches have supported the family as well, sending prayer quilts and knitted afghans in school colors.

The Arnold Engineering Development Center Fire Department has 'adopted' Mark Kelly. They recently gave him a fireman's helmet signed by all three shifts, and according to Rosie, he is listed as second in charge on their roster board with his picture as "Deputy Chief."

Then there's the community itself.

"The community has completely rallied around our family, and we are very grateful for that," she said. "It's wonderful to know that we are not on this journey alone."

A family effort

Her husband Mark, comes to visit on Sundays, bringing 4-year old Hunter along.

"We lean heavily on each other," she said of her best friend.

The couple realizes they each have a role to play as they fight alongside Mark Kelly. During the week Mark "holds the fort down" at home, and works to support the family.

Sarah, now 18, started classes at Motlow Community College last week. She studies, helps care for her younger brother and visits the hospital as often as possible.

Flat Creek United Methodist sent a knitted prayer shawl in Liberty School colors.
(Submitted photo)
Rosie's parents, Bob and Betty Chambers, have been caring for Hunter during the day, and bring him to visit on Wednesdays.

Even Hunter does not understand why things cannot be simple again.

"He cries every time he leaves me and tells me to go home. I always watch them drive off with him, and he's crying, and my heart breaks," said Rosie.

How to help

A blood drive in honor of Mark Kelly Olson will be held at First Baptist Church on Depot Street, Oct. 9 from 2 to 6 p.m.

Cards and letters may be sent to:

Monroe Carell Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Mark Olson

Room #6741

2200 Children's Way

Nashville, TN 37232

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