Teen helps kids with cancer ‘play away pain’
by Jessica Langdon
LENEXA — It looks like Christmas morning — dozens of times over.
Nick Pate loves coming down the stairs of his family’s home and seeing a room overflowing with toy cars, Lego sets, baby dolls — every type of toy imaginable.
The 14-year-old parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Lenexa hopes to stack even more toys on top of these.
Of course, he and his 16-year-old brother Sam outgrew these kinds of toys long ago.
And even though the toys catch the eye of their 14-month-old brother Matthew, the gifts aren’t destined for his little hands, either.
It was Matthew, however, and his fight against leukemia that inspired all this.
It was due to Nick’s work in his little brother’s honor that toys like these will go to scores of other kids fighting cancer.
Nick never dreamed he would see such a huge response.
But now he’s hoping his toy story will find an ongoing way to brighten even kids’ darkest days.
A shocking diagnosis
Cancer was the last thing on the Pates’ minds a year-and-a half ago.
With two boys heading to high school and a baby on the way, Dr. Brian and Christy Pate moved their growing family from Prairie Village closer to St. James Academy in Lenexa.
The move went well, but concerns soon arose over Christy’s pregnancy with baby Matthew.
“They didn’t think he was growing,” she said, and she was eventually restricted to bed rest.
When Christy gave birth to Matthew in January 2011 and growth restriction proved not to be the case, the family breathed a sigh of relief.
But their relief was short-lived.
Matthew soon developed an infection and was admitted to intensive care.
“Twenty-four hours later, we’d probably seen seven specialists,” said Christy. “And one of them was oncology.”
They learned that Matthew, who has Down syndrome, had a rare form of leukemia as well — one that is unique to people with Down syndrome. It went into remission without requiring chemotherapy, and he was able to go home — but with the knowledge that Matthew’s leukemia might come back full-blown someday.
‘Pretty hard on us’
Once home from the hospital, the Pates settled into life with a newborn.
Sam was a student at St. James, but Nick, then a seventh-grader, was still being home-schooled.
So he was available to help with meals, diapers — anything Christy or Matthew needed.
But when Matthew was six months old, the family was hit with more bad news: Matthew’s leukemia had returned.
“He would require a full course of treatment, which was five rounds of chemotherapy,” said Christy.
“That was pretty hard on us,” Nick said.
The couple quickly decided that Christy would stay with Matthew at Children’s Mercy Hospital for the course of his treatment.
And Christy’s mom would move in with Brian and the boys to keep things at the house running as smoothly as possible.
Matthew’s first hospital stay lasted 24 days, but he did so well that the next three visits were much shorter.
The fifth, however, was 35 days long — the family would have to celebrate Christmas in the hospital.
By then, it was basically a holiday at their “second home,” said Nick.
Brian, the boys, and other relatives were frequent visitors to the hospital.
Generosity of strangers
Nick was quick to observe in the course of his visits that not every young patient had constant companionship like Matthew did.
Many parents can’t be there around the clock because they have to work or take care of children at home, said Christy.
That made an impression on Nick, as did the generosity even complete strangers showed these young cancer patients. People donated pillowcases, blankets and more.
Several organizations brightened kids’ days with gifts delivered during the Christmas season.
“The thing that really touched my older boys was when [Matthew] would receive toys or stuffed animals,” Christy said.
Honoring a ‘certified leukemia survivor’
Just a couple of days before his first birthday, Matthew got to go home.
Once there, and wearing a Onesie® that read “certified leukemia survivor,” he sat on his parents’ bed, “arms out like he had finished a marathon or something,” Christy said.
Now in remission, Matthew just needs regular checkups to track his progress.
But Nick wanted to do something to honor Matthew and his courageous fight.
“My confirmation is coming up,” Nick explained, so he’s been working on service projects.
“I decided I would have a toy drive in honor of Matthew and for all the other people suffering from cancer,” he said.
Play away pain
Christy knew her son was taking on a massive project. But she held her tongue.
“I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want to discourage him,” she said.
Nick did everything himself — from making up the fliers to advertise the toy drive to addressing the congregation at the six different Masses at Holy Trinity one weekend.
With Sam next to him, holding Matthew in his arms, Nick explained his project.
He expected a modest collection, at best, when he gathered the donations the next weekend.
But he underestimated people’s response to the toy drive they titled “Play Away Pain.”
‘Just in shock’
“It was overwhelming, the support of our parish,” said Christy.
By mid-March, they collected more than 250 toys and $2,600.
“I was just in shock,” said Nick. “I really didn’t expect so many people to give that many toys or that much cash.”
The program’s success has led to more work. Nick has checked with stores to see if he might be able to work out discounted prices to buy even more toys.
And he’s spoken to a Child Life specialist at Children’s Mercy to make sure there’s room to store everything.
He’s still weighing the best ways to present the toys to children — maybe for Christmas or birthdays or when a child is first admitted to the hospital.
And with some other groups working with him to grow the donation, the family is now creating a nonprofit organization to keep the effort going.
They were working this month on getting 501(c)3 status.
As happy as Nick is to see the donations roll in, it’s his healthy baby brother that really makes his day.
“He’s full of smiles,” said Nick. “His laugh — I love his laugh.”
It’s more than that, though. Nick knows it might be a little unusual to look up to someone who’s just a year old, but that’s the way it is.
“With all he’s been through and how well he’s done, it’s just really been a motivation,” he said. “I think if I could be more like him, I’d be a much better person.”