Debbie Bairos has to excuse herself for a moment.
She sets the phone down to check on her 7-year old son, Ethan, who has fallen down.
He’s fine — it’s nothing more than the result of trying out some moves with his hockey stick while still wearing his socks on the floor. Typical kid stuff.
That was anything but the case a year ago, when Ethan had little connection to hockey. And he was acting anything like a typical kid. That’s when Debbie knew something wasn’t right.
Something was wrong
It was the week after Christmas and the Bairoses had just moved into a new house in a Berkley, Mass.
A friend was over just before school started again and Ethan didn’t budge off the couch. He complained of his legs hurting, something Debbie thought was just growing pains. But the pain in his legs, as well as belly aches, persisted. That’s when his father, Manny, took Ethan to the emergency room.
“They said he was constipated but I didn’t buy it,” Debbie said. Ethan got his belly X-rayed and had blood work done, which revealed an enlarged spleen.
– Brown’s Bobby Farnham
Sitting in front of the computer at work the next day, Debbie typed in Ethan’s symptoms to try to figure out just what was wrong with her son. The first search result?
She pushed that aside and brought Ethan to his pediatrician’s office, where they thought the diagnosis could be mononucleosis, but the doctor said they’d need to do more blood work. Again, the Bairoses could get no definite answers other than something was “abnormal.”
With the online search in the back of her mind, Debbie finally asked. “It is leukemia?”
The answer was yes. Ethan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This form of the disease mostly occurs in young children, and is often detected by lymphoblasts as white blood cells are overproduced in the bone marrow.
In Ethan’s case, there were no leukemia blasts in his blood work, which led to the initial difficulties in his diagnosis. The overall cure rate in children is between 80 and 90 percent, according to WebMD.
Ethan immediately started treatment, spending several weeks in the hospital, receiving lumbar punctures and intense chemotherapy, as his parents alternated nights at the hospital and at home with his younger sister, Madeline.
Even after being released, Ethan followed a strict treatment cycle, including chemotherapy from a visiting nurse and taking chemotherapy pills for two weeks out of a three-week cycle. He went back to school full time for as much as he could in April, but the treatments were having an impact.
“His balance, stamina and self-confidence all plummeted,” Debbie said.
Enter the Brown hockey team.
Unable to carry out normal childhood activities because of the effects of his treatment, Ethan spent time on the couch watching sports with his parents. He attended a variety of games around Boston through the Jimmy Fund, but hockey was the one that stood out.
That’s where Team Impact came in. The organization, based in Quincy, Mass., is tasked with matching up college teams and children like Ethan who are fighting through life-threatening diseases. The Bairoses heard about it at a children’s camp and decided to sign up. While Ethan preferred hockey, the type of sport was irrelevant overall, so long as he had something to help him regain some of his former self.
“His dad said he could have been matched up with the ping-pong team,” said Maura Mahoney, director of communications at Team Impact.
Bobby Farnham is following a legacy of sorts at Brown. He’s the fifth member of his family to play for the Bears but the first on the ice. His father, two uncles and a cousin all played football at Brown.
He wears the number each of them wore on the gridiron: 46. But instead of mastering the route tree he’s a gritty forward who’s attracting attention from the NHL as a senior.
But Brown’s assistant captain is good for more than just his steady play on the ice. Farnham first heard from Team Impact through Tucker Mullin, his friend and a junior on the St. Anselm ice hockey team, and signed up to become an ambassador for the program.
He got a phone call about Ethan soon after reaching out to Team Impact. Ethan’s newfound appreciation for hockey coupled with the school’s proximity to the Bairoses home made it the right fit.
Now it was time to meet the team.
Ethan and his family stopped by the rink after practice one day in October, and Farnham met them and introduced them to the coaching staff and team. Ethan was given his own Brown backpack and jersey.
“He was definitely a little shy at first,” Farnham said. “But he’s opened right up and gives the guys a hard time. He really motivates us. As much as we think we’re helping him, he’s really helping us a lot more.”
At the start, Ethan found himself without any hockey equipment, so sophomore Mike Borge, a Somerset, Mass., native, went to his parents’ house to get his old youth hockey gear.
The team taught him how to skate and made him a part of its routine. His confidence slowly grew.
“After a few times out, you get better,” said Ethan, who had never played hockey at any level before.
“He’ll still fall a little bit,” Debbie said. “They’ll let him score and he’ll say, ‘Hey, don’t do that. I want to do it [the right way].’”
The Bairoses attend most Brown home games and several practices a week, where Ethan proudly struts around in his own No. 17 jersey. His younger sister, Madeline, was adopted by the Brown gymnastics team.
“Ethan takes over the locker room,” Debbie said.
He’s even got his own personal locker right next to senior goalie Mike Clemente.
“It’s phenomenal, he really does feel like he is part of the team,” Debbie said, adding that the coaching staff, players and sports information director Jeanne Carhart have all made him feel right at home.
Need further proof? Look at the team picture from Brown’s Mayor Cup win over rival Providence College on Jan. 1. There’s Ethan, sitting front and center among the players and trophy.
“I can’t really describe what it’s like being with the guys,” Ethan said. “I have a lot of fun with them.”
But that connection extends beyond any practice or game at Meehan Rink. Ethan and Farnham will talk on the phone throughout the week, and when Farnham got word that Ethan wanted to build a rink at his house, he immediately volunteered his time.
“I was kind of joking around with Bobby, like, ‘Hey, when you are you going to come over?’” Debbie said. Not only did he help the Bairoses get started, but he stayed to hang out with Ethan as well.
“I really like skating so my dad just came up with the idea to build a rink in the backyard so we can all skate,” Ethan said.
Each member of the Bears has helped Ethan in some way or another, leading his parents to say he’s got some 30-odd big brothers. But he’s given back to them as well.
“What he means to our program is second to none,” Bears coach Brendan Whittett said. “I think in conjunction to us helping his recovery, he’s helped our guys take a lot of significance in living each day to the fullest.”
As for Ethan, Debbie hopes he can take the example set by entire Brown hockey team.
“I think about what this is teaching him,” she said. “These are Ivy school guys; they work hard. They don’t have to do this. … I don’t think they truly understand the huge impact they’ve had in his life.”
As for Debbie, Ethan’s battle with cancer has inspired her to create her own charity, the Kids Kickin’ Cancer Foundation. (www.kidskickincancer.net). The goal, Debbie said, is to help alleviate the financial burden that is placed on families when a child is diagnosed with cancer.
“It puts a huge strain on the family,” she said. “A lot of time at least one of the parents have to quit their jobs. It’s not fair that a kid who has cancer can’t go to the movies.”
The season is winding down and Debbie is hopeful Ethan will be ending his treatments within the next year. But that doesn’t mean the connection he has built with the Brown hockey team will disappear.
“Ethan and I will talk for the rest of our lives,” Farnham said. “He’s going to be a part of Brown hockey for the rest of his life.”