Friday, August 31, 2012

York Family’s Inspirational Story Becomes National News

Chris, Lauren, and Jason Durkin (photo courtesy Durkin family and ABC News)
By Pat Sommers
Staff Columnist

Sharon and Michael Durkin felt as if they were living a bad dream in 2006 when son Jason, then 18, was diagnosed with a rare disorder that affects the blood and bone marrow.
That bad dream became a recurring nightmare for the York parents.
Doctors subsequently discovered that their younger son, Chris, was suffering from the same condition, myelodysplastic syndromes, or MDS. He was 15.
Then, in 2009, daughter Lauren, now a senior at York High School, received the same diagnosis.
The story of the York family’s courage in coping with the potentially life-threatening illness was spotlighted this week on ABC’s “Good Morning America” television program. Robin Roberts, an anchor for the popular morning show who successfully battled breast cancer five years ago, announced recently that she has MDS. The disorder, she said, was triggered by her cancer treatment.
In MDS, the blood marrow does not make enough normal blood cells for the body. Red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets may all be affected, and the course of the disease is different for each of the 10,000 to 15,000 Americans who are diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes annually.
Though MDS can affect people of any age, at least 80 percent of all cases occur in people over 60, making the case of the Durkin siblings more startling. The disorder is more common in men than women.
In reporting on Roberts’ diagnosis and the upcoming bone marrow transplant that will be part of her treatment for MDS, ABC noted the extreme rarity of the genetic form of the disorder for which Jason, Chris, and Lauren were treated.
According to Dr. Inga Hofmann of Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center, the Boston facility where the Durkin children received treatment, only about 4 in 1 million children in the U.S. are diagnosed with MDS. Having more than one child in a family diagnosed with the disorder is exceedingly rare, she said.
Jason was diagnosed after his ice hockey coach noticed the boy seemed to be lagging in tryouts. ”Something just didn’t seem right,” Sharon Durkin told ABC. A trip to the family doctor and subsequent blood tests led to the discovery of MDS.
As doctors searched for a matching donor for an urgently needed bone marrow transplant for Jason, they tested his brother. Chris was a perfect donor match, but the tests indicated he also had MDS.
Both young men received successful bone marrow transplants in 2007and, as part of the treatment regimen, both were quarantined for a full year to protect their fragile immune systems from infection. Similarly, Roberts is expected to take a leave of several months from her post on the morning show.
Treatment immediately prior to the bone marrow transplants essentially strips the body of all its immunity, Michael Durkin explained. The donor bone marrow is then introduced into the body where it starts to strengthen. “It’s sort of like getting a whole new immune system,” he told The Weekly Sentinel.
Lauren Durkin, whose tests for MDS were negative during the two years of her brothers’ treatment and recovery, received a positive result in 2009. When efforts to find a transplant donor match came up empty, she received a blood cord transplant of stem cells. A high fever and infection at one point severely threatened the teen’s life, but she fought her way through and is ready to resume classes at York High, where she is a member of the varsity hockey team.
Durkin said there is really no way to explain how the family handled the fear and anguish they felt during the past six years. “We just took it one day at a time,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”
The three children were “very strong” through the entire ordeal, their father added.
Comforting to the Durkin family was the response of friends, neighbors and total strangers.
“The community of York was absolutely fabulous,” Durkin said, noting that drives to register area residents as potential bone marrow donors for the Durkin children and others in need attracted about 800 people.
Both Sharon and Michael Durkin are community minded. They have both been active in sports organizations for children, serving in administrative capacities and assisting in efforts to coach area teams.
Their hard work was rewarded in the many events hosted on their behalf during the family’s time of crisis. “Community members were tremendous in their response,” Michael Durkin reiterated.
All three Durkin children are “now stable,” according to their father. Jason, approaching his 24th birthday, is an honor graduate of the University of Maine and has launched a career. Chris, 21, is a college sophomore. Lauren, ready to begin her final year at York High, is eying a career as a pediatric oncology nurse.
They are all healthy, enthusiastic, and optimistic.
And they shared that exuberance this week with ABC’s Roberts, each offering a personal message of encouragement and good wishes as she begins her own fight with MDS.

Thornton Academy Extends Global Reach to 16 Countries Recent Graduate Starts Life at an American College

Teddy Laing with new roommate, John, at Florida Southern College. Laing was a Thornton Academy Homestay student, who lived with the Trues of Saco for two years. (courtesy photo)

By Timothy Gillis

Thornton Academy, in the fourth year of its foreign outreach program, has seen a steady increase in the number of participants, as well as the involvement of several countries from all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
In fact, Mark Powers, director of admissions, is so busy flying around the world on recruiting trips that TA has added an admissions associate to help with the workload. Thornton just hired Abigail Swardlick, who will be “helping out to expand our reach worldwide,” said Powers. “Her first trip is to Latin America this fall.”
The program, which started with forty students, has grown each year.
“There will be 136 students (this year) on campus in our dorms or in our homestay program,” Powers said this week. “They hail from sixteen countries, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Spain, and Brazil.”
Powers’ job requires him to fly around world, learning about other cultures and sharing the prospect of American culture, in the form of a high school in Saco, with the people he meets.
“I’ve pretty much touched down all over the place,” Powers said, adding that he often travels with representatives from other Maine boarding schools, like Maine Central Institute and Hebron Academy. “My most recent trip was to China to do some recruiting and find out more about the country.”
Foreign students now comprise ten percent of Thornton’s total population, he said, necessitating the building of an additional dormitory last year. The new housing is named after retiring headmaster Carl Stasio, Jr. (Rene Menard, a TA graduate who taught there and become associate headmaster in 2007, is the new headmaster.)
Four teachers and their families supervise the dorm, living there full-time, Powers said. They engage in all the family-style activities one would imagine of any other family - during evenings and on weekends – joining the students in various activities coordinated by Kelli Corrigan, director of residential life.
The on-campus housing has expanded, and participation in the Homestay Program has likewise ballooned over the past four years.
Karen True was one of the first parents to participate in the program, and she recently flew to Florida to visit Teddy Liang, the student she hosted for two years.
“I wanted to make sure he was safely settled into his new school,” True said of Laing, a freshman at Florida Southern College.
She first heard about the hosting opportunity three years ago from her daughter-in-law, Tracie, a math teacher who moved from Thornton Academy High School to the TA Middle School, on the same campus.
“She decided she wanted to become involved in the dorm program, and she mentioned they were looking for Homestay parents,” said True, who added that she loved the experience and would gladly host another student.
“This young man did research online, found Thornton Academy, came to the US, all with no parental help,” she said. Laing lived in the dorm as a sophomore, then moved in with the Trues. “He had been in a boarding school in China, had never lived in a home environment.”
True said her family loved Laing’s “great personality,” and he loved being part of their family. “He integrated well into the things that we did. He’d even come with me on location to shoot commercials,” said True, a freelance film and commercial television producer.
Laing was planning to study business, at first, but is changing his major to study psychology. “He was fortunate enough to find international students at his college who speak Mandarin Chinese,” she said. “I became attached to Teddy and making sure his needs were met, as if he were my own child. I had to make sure his college experience is a positive one.”
True’s two children both graduated from TA in the 1990’s, and Laing’s arrival reminded her fondly of those days.
“Teddy's roommate is John from Nashville TN,” Trus said. “I spoke with Teddy last night, and he said that he is having fun and has already made some friends he is hanging out with. If you knew Teddy and how shy he is you would realize what a big step this is. I can't say enough nice things about Teddy. He truly became part of our family and brought us a great deal of joy. He only went home during summer vacations so he spent all holidays and vacation time with us too,” said True. “If my husband could have had the time off from work, he would have been in Florida too.”

Retired Doctor Hikes Entire Appalachian Trail in Five Months

Nathan Gagnon met his father, David, at the end of his long journey (courtesy photo)

By Timothy Gillis

David Gagnon, a retired family doctor who lives in South Berwick, recently completed a very long journey. He hiked all 2,184 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. He completed the trek in five months, staying at hostels and shelters and camping along the way.
His travels were inspired by a gift from his daughter, Nicole, last year, and when giving it to him, she probably had little inclination her present would expand exponentially.
“My daughter got me a stay on Mount Washington for Father’s Day a year ago,” Gagnon said from his home this week, recuperating and planning his next voyage.
“I hiked thirteen miles and felt pretty good, so that planted the seed that I’m not over the hill yet.”
Gagnon’s Mount Washington experience solidified his resolve to take the longer trip, so he made plans and departed this past March. He took the “midnight train to Georgia,” said Susan Gagnon, his wife. He rode the Crescent Line, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia, and then on to Gainesville, Georgia, where he made his way to the start of the Appalachian Trail. Then began the epic trip, with Gagnon carrying his 40-pound backpack along the way.
He was a family doctor with a practice in Eliot until he retired last September. His wife, Susan, works as a nurse at Marshwood High School.
“She’s supporting me,” he joked. In fact, his entire family has been supportive of the trip. His daughter inspired it, and his son, Nathan, met him at Mount Katahdin to hike the last leg of the journey with him. Nathan, 28, and Nicole, 30, both went to Marshwood High School. Nathan went to the University of Vermont and now works at Northeastern in their curriculum planning department. Nicole went to Brown and the University of Southern Maine, and then followed in her mom’s footsteps and went into nursing.
Gagnon’s hike offered him a fair share of adventure.
“On the third day out, I had my food bag rifled by a bear,” he said. “So I had to get new supplies and a new waterproof bag the next day.”
That bear became a recurring visitor to Gagnon and his fellow hikers. “The bear came back two or three times. We kept trying to hang our supplies higher but we weren’t successful.”
He started the trip hiking with an Englishman nicknamed “Hop-along” as he had a funny way of walking, Gagnon said.
“We met the first day and hiked for the first few days together. He was very brave. He would run out and scare the bear away,” Gagnon said. “The trick to is don’t make eye contact, but try to scare them away. Don’t let them get used to hanging around with humans.”
Gagnon said he heard the story of the recent fatal bear attack in Denali National Park, the first such attack in the park’s history, so he knows full well – despite its rarity – of the possibilities of such trouble and the dangers inherent in wilderness walking.
Doctor Dave, as he is known on the trails, was separated from Hop-along soon into the trip. “It was raining, and I wanted to keet hiking but he stayed put,” Gagnon said, adding that people often get trail names from some quirk of their personality.
He returned home on August 12, when he met his son and wife at Mount Katahdin. He finished the journey by hiking to the summit and back with his son.
While on the trail, Gagnon said he had a cell phone, but there were days - even weeks - when he didn’t have cell service. Up next for the intrepid traveler is a more intellectual pursuit – he’s writing a book.
Submitted to potential publishers before he departed, he is now working with Vantage Press to fine-tune the work, a fictional account “about the things that happened to me as a doctor over the years.”
While the book doesn’t include any aspects of his journey, he is going to talk to his editor about possibly adding a chapter. “They say the book works pretty well as it is, so shouldn’t need much editing,” he said.