It has been a rough year for 14-year-old Ryder Morford.
The Fairfax teen hadn’t done many of his regular activities, including surfing, skateboarding and playing baseball. He also missed his entire year of seventh grade at Saint Rita School.
Instead, he spent most of the last year fighting a rare kind of leukemia.
But now things are looking brighter for Morford, who has finished his treatment and recently was able to start surfing again. Ross Valley community members have rallied around him.
At the end of 2012, the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce raised more than $6,000 for Morford and his family “just in case” additional treatment is needed. (Morford is doing his best to keep a positive mindset and not think about the possibility he might additional medical help, and we are respecting that.)
The funds were raised via the chamber’s adopt a family program as well as at a chamber luncheon on Dec. 6 at San Domenico. Also, United Markets helped raise funds for the Bank of Marin account set up for the donations.
Officials with the chamber also delivered a Xbox 360 Kinect Star Wars special edition to Morford, who was so excited about the gift his mother let him open it early, according to San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce President Connie Rodgers.
While Morford’s family’s health insurance has covered most of his medical costs, the family would need funds for Morford to go to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston if additional treatment is needed, said Erin Albachten, Morford’s mother.
The family also need funds to help pay for their mortgage, because Albachten hasn’t been able to earn an income since Ryder was diagnosed.
“He has a rare type [of cancer] so it has been exceptionally hard,” Albachten said. “I haven’t worked for over a year and I don’t know when I’m going to be able to work again. Life is never smooth and easy anymore.”
A LONG ROAD TO A BLOOD TEST
Morford, who turned 14 in November, was 12 when he was first diagnosed in June 2011.
Albachten first took him to the doctor to have his eyes checked because he had been having headaches. The doctors found nothing wrong.
Then he was randomly throwing up once a week, she said, but again the doctors didn’t see any problems.
Four weeks later, he was still having headaches and feeling tired, she said. Morford was also covered in bruises, although it wasn’t too unusual because he plays catcher on his baseball team.
But Albachten, who has spent years coaching baseball in Marin, was worried. “I knew in my gut something was wrong.”
After medical officials did a stomach x-ray, she asked for a blood test. The doctors said it would be overkill.
A few weeks later, Morford wasn’t feeling much better, although he kept up with his normal activities and had been hanging out with his friends.
Things took a turn for the worse not long after Albachten saw her son at the Fairfax Festival with friends. “He was the color of the blue Slurpee with he was drinking,” she said.
She sent him home to rest and he felt better the next day, until he went to sleep but woke up in the middle of the night screaming in pain and grabbing his ankle.
He had been on his skateboard that day, but they had no idea what was hurt. “He was just in so much pain,” she said. “I’ve been a coach for 15 years and I knew this wasn’t a normal thing.”
They returned to Kaiser. The doctors said he probably had just sprained his ankle, Albachten said.
“I’ve seen a million sprains. He was in severe pain, screaming pain and was white as a ghost with bruises everywhere.”
The doctors finally agreed to a blood test, she said.
Albachten and Morford had barely returned home from the hospital when the doctors called. They said Ryder had tested positive for Leukemia and had to be taken to a hospital right away, and that she had to get him there without bumping him or they would send an ambulance.
“They couldn’t believe he was walking around – it was a toxic level,” she said.
The news only got worse from there. After 10 nights in the Kaiser Oakland hospital they found out he had mixed lineage leukemia (MLL) — a more aggressive form of blood cancer — on top of the acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
CANNABIS MADE A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE
The family’s life became a whirlwind of chemo treatments and doctor’s visits.
The chemotherapy was especially hard on Morford, who was so sick he couldn’t keep food down, Albachten said.
Six months into the treatment, doctors told Morford he would have to have a feeding tube because he had been loosing too much weight.
The week before he was scheduled for a doctor’s trip that would have involved the dreaded feeding tube, Albachten tried a last resort for curbing Morford’s nausea.
He took a cannabis tincture — or extract — with honey, she said.
That night, Morford, who had barely kept food down in six months, ate two cheeseburgers, a donut and “everything in sight,” Albachten said.
“It opened the door,” she said. “He hadn’t eaten in weeks.”
It was the only thing that gave him an appetite — and they had been trying a variety of different medicines to help him.
“I think a lot of people are scared to go that route, but it didn’t give him the same side effects of being high,” Albachten said. “It helped in the way that the other medicines were supposed to help but didn’t.”
It was also less harmful than some of the other medicines, which could cause liver and kidney damage, she said. “It was the lesser of all the evils.
Albachten had always been supportive of homeopathy but was never a marijuana smoker herself, she said. “To go this route was hard for me but I’m the biggest supporter now.”
Morford can now enjoy some of his favorite activities, including surfing at Stinson Beach (where he was once a junior lifeguard), hanging out with is friends and cooking.
“It’s hard to come from being so social and having your friends to being so isolated,” she said. “It’s probably the most difficult thing for him. He’s trying to keep his spirits high. He has a great outlook on it and strong.”
SMALL LEUKEMIA CLUSTER IN MARIN
Sadly, Ryder isn’t the only youth in the area battling leukemia.
Albachten said Ryder is one of three youth in a 20-mile radius that have been diagnosed with leukemia in the last year. “It’s kind of scary,” she said.
Collin Anderson, 4, who lives nearby in San Geronimo Valley, was diagnosed roughly six months after Ryder, she said.
Also during the summer, a 7-year-old San Rafael boy was diagnosed with leukemia.
"It's pretty scary they were all diagnosed within the last year," Albachten said.
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