Local family spreads love to another through selfless act

  • Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 12:01 a.m.

In early 2010, West Rowan High School biology teacher Brittany Chester just wanted to do what she could to help.

Assistant Principal Nelson Cowden’s son, Tom, was fighting a long battle against several medical issues and the bills were mounting.

Chester organized the first ‘Run for Cowden’ with the help of staff and students. It was held on West’s campus on May 22, 2010.

When Tom Cowden’s situation didn’t improve, she did it again, this time holding the 2011 event in conjunction with the Cleveland Town Festival.

“We started this race to rally around a community member and with no long term plans,” Chester said.

The third event was scheduled for Sloan Park in 2012, but Tom Cowden died just one month before race day.

Chester and other organizers went ahead with the event and gave the funds to the Cowden family.

A committee including Chester and Nelson Cowden was formed to decide on the recipient of proceeds for the 2013 event.

Cowden had heard of the plight of 4-year- old Kenzey Smith.

With the approval of the other committee members, Cowden called Kenzey’s parents and informed them of the decision.

Chester continued to plan the event, eventually using photos and information on Kenzey in her publicity endeavors.

Diane and Jason Smith didn’t know the Cowdens, nor had they heard of the race, so the call from Nelson Cowden was a shock.

“We were surprised and honored to get the call in January of this year,” Diane Smith said’ “Our community has done so much for us already.”

Kenzey was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in February 2012.

“Where we are now is the new normal. We’ve got used to the treatment and the outlook is bright,” Diane Smith said.

Kenzey has 14 more months of treatment. She takes chemotherapy every night at home. Once a month, she gets more chemo and a lumbar treatment at Levine’s Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.

While plans were moving forward for the race, West High senior Haleigh Evans began to experience problems on March 18.

Her right arm was bothering her, and she was drowsy constantly.

Her parents, Diane and Ernie Belt, took Haleigh to the doctors when the same symptoms persisted.

Doctors expected thyroid problems, but when the issues continued and her right arm became nearly useless, they knew it was more serious.

Later, they found a mass on the left side of her brain.

Haleigh’s skull was opened on March 25 to biopsy the golf ball sized tumor.

Following the cranial operation, a titanium cover was inserted to bridge the time until the actual tumor could be addressed. Results of the biopsy showed that Haleigh had Glioblastoma , already at Stage 4 and very serious.

On April 3, doctors again opened the titanium cover in hopes of removing the tumor. Because of its location, only about 90 percent of the tumor could be taken out.

Doctors felt that removing any more was just too risky. Both operations were performed at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston Salem.

Gliolastoma is the most common and aggressive form of brain tumors in humans, yet its occurrence is rare. Only about two or three cases occur per 100,000 people. Treatment includes radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.

Haleigh is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment will start April 22nd.

She also battled Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at age 5 and spinal meningitis at age 9.

Doctors think that her regimen of chemotherapy has caused multiple kidney stones and that earlier radiation treatments may have eventually caused the brain tumor.

“She is so used to getting out and doing things,” Diane Belt said. Her medication and the recovery from the operations are keeping her from doing much more that watching TV and checking the internet.

“She has to be helped to shower and to the chair, but she is walking better after the tumor removal than before.”

Before the surgery, Haleigh had trouble talking. For a while, she communicated through text message.

“She doesn’t want to face this again, but she won’t quit,” Diane Belt said.”Neither will we.”

Diane and Jason Smith, Kenzey’s parents, heard about Haleigh through Jason’s work. They discussed the situation, and after considering the fact that Haleigh was a West Rowan student, they decided to let Chester and Cowden know that they wanted the funds to go to Haleigh and her family.

“We just have been so blessed already and Kenzey is doing well,” Diane Smith said. “Jason and I felt that there is a greater need for Haleigh Evans.

“Haleigh is one of the students at West High where the event was conceived. We are so grateful that they chose us, but this is something that we could do to support Haleigh.”

The Smiths don’t know the Evans-Belt family, but they plan to meet each other at the 5K race next Sunday.

Both families plan to attend, though Haleigh’s condition on that day will be the key.

“While we have been offering prayers for her, there is more that we can do to support her besides just monetarily,” Diane Smith said.

Chester had Haleigh for biology and thinks of her fondly.

“What I will always remember is her bright smile,” she said. She was continually smiling, no matter what. She was a normal student and I had no idea that she almost died as young child.”

Chester said when the Smiths decided to defer the money to Haleigh, she knew it was the right decision.

“I felt such peace as the process evolved,” she said. “God certainly had a plan for how this would work out.

“Our students would have rallied around Kenzey, but often we think of people with such medical issues as being far away. Haleigh is right here, one of them.”

The 2013 ‘Run for Cowden’ takes place at Sloan Park at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21. A half-mile fun run for children ages 12 years old and younger will follow at 2:45 p.m.

For more information or to register, visit www.salisburyrowanrunners.org or call Brittany Chester at 704-201-8475.

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