Del Norte High School Alumni

Albuquerque, New Mexico (NM)

Alumni Stories

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James Ledwith

Class of 1996

When James Ledwith first showed signs of fatigue, Linda Ledwith, like most mothers, worried. Her oldest son-a good student, an active member of' his high school community, a driven athlete - obviously was taking on too much. When James Ledwith began to fall asleep during class, slack off and ultimately collapse from exhaustion one day at soccer practice, Linda Ledwith knew something was terribly wrong.

The family suspected he had mononucleosis. "I thought I was just burned out,', James Ledwith says. "The doctor said it may be mono. I thought, 'Anything but mono.'"

The next day came the telephone call, followed by what John Ledwith calls "the hardest conversation" he ever had with his son James Ledwith had been diagnosed with cancer of the blood. Specifically, he had acute lymphoid leukemia. For teen­agers, the chance of survival is about 50-50, said Dr. Marilyn Duncan, director of the Pediatric Oncology Program at­the University of New Mexico.

First came shock. Then tears. There was the overriding fear of' 'the unknown for the 15­year­old Ledwith, then a sophomore at Albuquerque's Del Norte High School . "l didn't know much about it," he recalls today. '"I knew the name.

"I remember when I was younger I had played with a kid named Melvin. I don't even know his last name. He was bald. He was sickly. He played for two or three years, and then he died. "I thought that was going to happen to me. That was one of the first things that went through my mind."

Next he had to come to grips with chemotherapy. The drugs made Ledwith sick and he feared that he would lose his hair. He had trouble concentrating on his studies. He tired when he played for the Del Norte soccer team.

Under the ordeal, "most people would have fallen apart," said Nanci Beckes, his former counselor at Del Norte. But now, Ledwith is prospering. The leukemia has been in remission for two years, meaning that no diseased blood cells can be found during tests. Treatments are scheduled to end in November 1994, Duncan said. "You cannot do any better than James has," Duncan said. "Most patients usually go into remission within a month from the start of treatment. "Usually if they go through the three years, they will be truly cured forever. With a small group it can come back."

Despite coping with an uncertain future, Ledwith has maintained a 3.4 grade point average, a starting spot on the soccer team and a seat in student government. Recently, Ledwith was voted "Mr. Personality" of the senior class for the Del Norte yearbook.

In his spare time, he raises money for the New Mexico Children's Foundation and tells his success 'story to new arrivals at the Clinic. In the off­season, he designs window plans for Western Glass Co.; Ledwith plans to be an architect. "This is a kid with a future," John Ledwith said. Beckes said, "This is a kid who, in spite of it all, he would not give up. He's a fighter, a perseverer. "Everyone whose life he has touched around here will be so joyful to see him get that diploma in May because there was a tune when I didn't think he would."

Today, Ledwith says, he hardly remembers the early days of his illness. But within three days of his collapse, leukemia had cut off Ledwith from the world. Diagnosed on Friday, Oct. 14, 1991, he was so tired and weak that on Sunday he could not get out of bed. For many weeks, Ledwith spent entire days at University Hospital. Now, he attends a three­hour session every two weeks.

During a two­month period, Ledwith receives 14 different drugs orally or intravenously. One drug leaves him with mouth sores. Another give him severe acne all over his body. One makes his hair thin. Another makes his muscles feel rubbery and causes weight gain. And one, Ledwith says, is addictive; when its effects wear off, Ledwith' craves more. Sometimes certain drugs are stopped because doctors fear long­term damage to vital organs.

But even in its earliest stages, leukemia never changed Ledwith's approach to living. Ledwith said he worried about suffering, even death, but focused his concerns on friends, family, schoolwork-and soccer, a sport he's played since age 5. "When he first was diagnosed and started undergoing treatment, he was really sick for a while," said Jesse Johnson, Ledwith's teammate and close friend. "But he always had an optimistic outlook. "The day he was diagnosed, I went over to his house. I remember he told me we had to change the no­hat rule at school in case his hair fell out. That was the first thing he said to me."

~ Physically, Ledwith appears as normal and healthy as any 17­year­old. "He looks so good that people forget," Linda Ledwith said. "Just looking at him, you would never know." During the soccer season, which ended for Del Norte last week, Ledwith would attend treatment one day and play an 80­minute game the next. In one game, Ledwith had a noticeable limp because of a spinal tap performed the previous day, but he never asked to leave the game. That is typical for Ledwith, who asks for no special breaks-in the classroom or on the soccer field-because of his illness. "He never takes advantage of it?" said Beckes, the high school counselor. "In fact, he overcompensates for it. He plays it down."

Ledwith reasons that the less he thinks about leukemia, the better. The mental battle, he said, is often more difficult than the physical one. "When I drive by the hospital I get this sick [feeling," he said. "People say they can't stand the smell of a hospital. I can't even stand the smell of the parking lot. "It affects your mind. I think sometimes when I get sick it's in my mind. "I don't know if what I do helps me. I notice people who don't push themselves and (instead) worry about their sickness don't do as well. I know if I stayed at home and did not go to school or see my friends or play soccer that I'd be thinking about it all the time. I think I'd go crazy."

The people close to Ledwith, however, cannot help but think about his illness. They say they are amazed by what he has overcome, and continue to marvel as he moves forward. "He has insisted on keeping his life as normal as possible in the face of the uncertainty of this disease," said Yolanda Vinjeras, a University Hospital social worker who has counseled the Ledwiths. '`There are other children who have fought the disease and maintained extraordinary character. The thing that make James different is he does not skip a beat. He does it all He has a spirit that just keeps him moving. "When you get cancer it kind of stops you in your tracks. The uncertainty of tomorrow can overwhelm you. This has not been the case with James. He is nothing shy of an extraordinary young man. He's an inspiration."

Ledwith's family has followed his lead. Rarely do they discuss his illness. Against their instincts, his parents do not try to control his life, even when Ledwith is noticeably ill. "A piece of you wants to hold him every minute of the day, but another tells you he is 17," John Ledwith said. "He's almost a man. You have to let him go. You have to respect his space."

A year ago, his parents encouraged him to have a bone marrow transplant because they have higher success rates than his current treatment-about twice as high, Ledwith said. His sister, Jan, would have been the donor. But Ledwith rejected the idea because he would have to go to Seattle for six months.

Ledwith was one of four children with cancer from New Mexico chosen to spend a week in California with others from around the country. He did not go, feeling he would miss valuable time in school.

Linda and John Ledwith, like their oldest son, have learned how to persevere and have grown stronger despite the uncertainty of tomorrow. "It's something you never forget," Linda Ledwith said. '"You wake up to it, but then I look at him and I can't believe it. "I try not to harp on it. We try to make his life as normal as possible. We honor his wishes. Life shouldn't stop." In fact, life for ail the Ledwiths has taken on far greater meaning in the past two years. The reason for this awakening is the tragic part. `'It has showed me the importance of family, relationships With other people, hope, optimism, faith and purpose in life," John Ledwith said. "I find that in the last two years that I have learned a lot from James. "The unknown is there. I try not to focus on that and pray every day that he has a long healthy life and is cured. At the same time, you can't take each day for granted. There are no guarantees."

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