Leslie and Dan Phelps figured that their 15-month-old son Luke was battling a run-of-the-mill cold or flu when he woke up sick multiple mornings in a row.
It was a couple of weeks before the kickoff of the 2016-17 school year and Leslie, a third-grade teacher at Rolling Hills, and Dan, a PE and technology teacher at Walnut Hills, were in the midst of Teacher Work Week, prepping to welcome students and organize lesson plans. They took Luke to the pediatrician with every expectation and hope of a straightforward diagnosis and simple medical fix.
Multiple tests from the pediatrician came back negative at the end of the week; they suggested that the family wait through the weekend and see if rest and home care made a positive difference. It didn't. By Sunday, Luke had lost his appetite completely; he'd stopped sitting up and crawling. He wasn't holding his body weight up on his own.
A CT scan at Children's Hospital Colorado followed, and the results were dire. Doctors discovered an egg-sized tumor in Luke's brain. Three days later, they performed a seven-hour surgery to resect the growth.
"They got 90 percent of it," Leslie Phelps recalled. "That was a three-week stay in the hospital. It took him forever to recover; he wasn't passing their tests and it drove us crazy. We just wanted to take him home."
It would be months before Luke and his parents could return home for good. Leslie Phelps spoke two and a half years after those first hellish trials, the beginning of a drawn-out battle for Luke's life that comprised additional surgeries, high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplants that effectively brought Luke "to the brink of death." Over the course of his months-long stay in the hospital, Luke was sedated, intubated and effectively paralyzed. Doctors had to draw on a combination of instinct and ingenuity for Luke's treatment; an unlikely use of steroids to combat the potentially fatal impact of stem cell therapy made a key difference in Luke's final, successful phase of recovery.
"He got stronger and stronger, and on March 1, 2017, the doctors rang the bell and declared he was in remission," Leslie said. "We got to go home."
A support network of friends, family and coworkers came together to help the Phelps family reach that milestone. Leslie's sister, a teacher at Fox Hollow Elementary, looked after Luke's older brother and sister, who were in fourth grade and seventh grade at the time, during months that saw overnight stays in the hospital; she also helped organize a meal train for the family. Rolling Hills Principal Ashley Gehrke and staff helped organize fundraisers.
"That support was huge," Leslie said. "Everyone came together to help us out with whatever we needed."
The community at Walnut Hills also united in their support of the family; Principal Teolyn Bourbonnie and the entire staff offered whatever they could to help the Phelps family.
"Without Walnut Hills and all our family and friends, I'm not sure how we would have made it through those terrible times as well as we did," Dan Phelps said. "I was humbled by everybody's love and generosity in a manner I can't put into words.
"When I was needed at the hospital to be with Luke, I was able to leave work at a drop of a hat and everybody rallied to help me. I couldn't have asked to work at a better place," he added.
That support continued as the family faced a long recovery process, one that's included plenty of physical therapy and continuing care for Luke. More than a year after the official declaration of remission, the 3-year-old still undergoes regular treatment for balance and speech issues. All the same, a checkup scan this month revealed a clean bill of health.
Leslie has had to face her own personal kind of recovery. Months under the stress and strain of effectively living in the hospital and watching her son fight for his life had an impact; by the time Luke was declared in remission, she had gained 80 pounds. Her son's tenacity and toughness offered inspiration, and Leslie was determined to make a positive change for the sake of her own health and for her family.
She found a fitness program that suited her needs – a system originated by former ABC "Extreme Weight Loss" star Chris Powell and his wife, Heidi Powell. She changed her diet, incorporated more exercise and soon shed the excess weight. Leslie's success story made its way to Chris and Heidi Powell, who visited the family last year and made Leslie an official ambassador for the program.
It's a role that shares a structure and dynamic with her work in the classroom. Leslie has returned to her full-time post as a teacher at Rolling Hills, and she's quick to point out how much she's enjoyed coming back to the community that offered so much support and investment during her son's struggles. She's found a renewed purpose since she's returned to her post, one that's been framed in part by an epic fight for survival and the perspective that comes from a child's grit and strength.
"The biggest thing that has driven me is the 'why.' If my son can fight brain cancer, he and my other two children deserve a mom who will be there for them," she said. "My 'why' drives me. Every morning when my alarm goes off at 4:30, when I tell myself I want to sleep in, or that it's cold outside, or that the gym is cold, Luke being sick pops into my head.
"It's so powerful, that it grounds me," she added.
For Dan, the experience has offered important lessons about the value of life and the importance of family, and revealed a vast network of love, support and caring that stretches from Walnut Hills to Rolling Hills to Fox Hollow and beyond.
"Life sucks sometimes, but there is a lot of love and good in this world," he said. "Our family and friends proved that to me."