West rallies for assistant principal's son

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 16, 2011

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post
There is no doubt that Assistant Principal Nelson Cowden is an integral part of West Rowan High School.
He has been missed for much of the past school year. Cowden’s son, Tom, has suffered through brain cancer and numerous complications following multiple surgeries. Cowden, along with other family members, has been with Tom throughout his ordeal.
The ordeal for Tom, now 14, began just four days after his 13th birthday. Cowden and his wife, Christi, took Tom to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem after several days of sickness and morning headaches.
His pediatrician thought the cause was allergies, but the ER staff at Wake Baptist wanted to do a CT scan just to be on the safe side. They found that he had a tumor at the base of his skull in the cerebrum. The tumor was about the size of a squash ball, and surgery was performed the very next morning.
The tumor was removed and was found to medulloblastoma, usually found in children. Medulloblastoma is not staged like other cancers, but it is graded on risk. Tom’s cancer was considered average risk.
Treatment was planned for Tom, but subsequently more cancer was found deeper in the brain.
Francis Shepherd, a teacher at West, urged the family to contact St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. The family flew to Memphis and met the staff there, then decided that Tom would be treated at St. Jude’s.
The treatment consisted of six weeks of radiation to his brain and spinal cord, along with intensive chemotherapy.
The family lived at the Ronald McDonald house until the radiation treatments ended, then they stayed at the Target house until he finished his chemotherapy just before Thanksgiving last year. The family returned home, intending that it would be for good.
Tom started to get weaker. He has a movement disorder called dystonia, which is unrelated to his cancer. Dystonia affects balance and muscle tone, and the family initially thought it may be delaying Tom’s recovery.
By mid-February, Tom could not walk or stand, and he developed speech problems.
Wake Baptist and St. Jude’s cooperated to determine that Tom still had some non-cancerous masses in the brain stem and spinal cord. These were diagnosed as radiation damage and Tom started steroid treatment and was readmitted to St. Jude’s.
Radiation necrosis can be fatal if not stopped, and more chemotherapy was scheduled. Thirty hyperbaric oxygen treatments were scheduled and began on March 7.
Following his first treatment, he developed stomach problems that were attributed to an ulcer resulting from steroids and chemotherapy.
The ulcer was treated and about a week later, Tom’s oxygen treatments resumed.
He had been discharged from the hospital, but was rushed back to the ER at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis when bleeding started from his nose and mouth. St. Jude’s does not have an ER, but does work closely with LeBonheur.
Tom was treated for his ulcer and ultimately required surgery to repair a perforation. After 24 days of inpatient treatment, his oxygen treatments were resumed.
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Cowden began his work in the Rowan County school system when he became assistant principal at West Rowan in February 2005. Before the move, he taught science for 18 years in the Forsyth County School system.
Tom was a student in Davie County until his illness, and has been homebound or at St. Jude’s and the other hospitals in the Memphis area since.
A 5K fundraiser is scheduled for May 21 in downtown Cleveland.
The Race for Cowden 5K is planned in conjunction with the Cleveland Town Festival. The 5K run/walk will start near the festival at 603 Main St. The 5K begins at 10 AM and will be run over a fast certified course through Cleveland.
Sponsors for the Race for Cowden currently are Godley’s Garden Center, RDH Tire and Retread, Stricklin Auto Parts Inc., Cleveland Drug Company, Lazy 5 Veterinarian Service, Richard and Mary Ann Hansen, Lazy 5 Ranch, Barry Michael CPA PA, Jack Wooten Company, Ken and Karen Sherrill, and Mary L Farm.
The Town of Cleveland Police and Fire Departments will also be involved.
Students and faculty are planning the event to raise money for the Cowden family.
Cowden and some of his extended family will be on hand. Tom will also attend, if doctors permit.
Brittany Chester, a science teacher, is race director.
“Fighting cancer is hard. It is tough on the person afflicted and their family and friends. To think of how hard it is for our children to fight such a seemingly incurable sickness is incredibly worrisome and scary. It was easy to see first-hand how hard the treatments have been on Tom and his family. I wanted to help, but all I knew about was running. Running is an invigorating way to raise money for a great cause while enjoying healthy competition with your neighbor. We did this last year, and I hoped we wouldn’t need to do it again,”Chester said.
Senior Beverly Hampton is helping Chester organize the event.
“I have been extremely honored to help Mrs. Chester and the Cowden family with this event. Even though few of us will ever have to share the burden that the Cowden family has endured, the 5K fundraiser is a small token of our love for them. I encourage everyone to think of how lucky their families are, and to think of joining us in either sponsoring or participating in the event,” Hampton said.
The school staff has echoed the same thoughts of Chester and Hampton.
“It is obvious by the support our staff has provided to the Cowden family how much he means to our school. I think people find it easy to help someone in need, especially when they know that Mr. Cowden would be the first in line to help them in any situation. The 5K is a wonderful event that allows anyone interested in providing support to do so,”Principal Jamie Durant said.
Tom started in-patient physical rehab at Levine’s Children’s Hospital in Charlotte on Thursday.
A recent MRI shows no signs of new cancer and that his necrosis is breaking up.
Tom is currently a paraplegic, but the future looks brighter. He has feeling in his legs and can move them with intense effort. His speech is improving.
“Tom will someday walk again, and hopefully be able to return to a normal life. His is one tough kid. He just takes things as they come and keeps on ticking. He loves being at home with his family and little sister Ivy more than anything on earth,”Cowden said.
All participants will receive a dri-fit shirt and refreshments following the event. They will also be eligible for awards in seven age groups. More information can be obtained from a race link at www.salisburyrowanrunners.org and from Chester at West Rowan High School. Her email is chesterbp@rss.k12.nc.us.