In 24 hours on February 12, Gage Sauder turned 11, lost a tooth, had surgery, and chemo. During his month-long stay in Methodist Children’s Hospital, he would be administered high dose chemotherapy every 12 hours for six days, receive a stem cell transplant and face the hardest part – weeks of brutal recovery battling side effects.
No parent ever wants to hear the dreaded double C words – childhood cancer. But, hearing it twice with the same child in a oneyear time frame is, to put it mildly too much. Yes, this is Gage’s second fight with cancer. You would think this family would be weary and worn, but yet they are filled to the brim with gratefulness.
“There is so much good in the world,” said Jamie Hillier Sauder, Gage’s mother, who was raised in Pleasanton and has been an elementary school teacher for 20 years. “It never ended in this hospital. Just when you thought there would be a day of no one showing up, someone else knocks on the door and the whole day changes.” Jamie said that with every visitor and every basket of goodies there would be about a four-hour positive change in Gage who suffered from severe nausea amongst other side effects from both the intense chemo and stem cell transplant.
Jamie said that the kindness of her family and friends from San Antonio and Pleasanton, Kansas and college, teacher friends and neighbors who have shown up big for Gage and all her family has been nothing short of amazing. The Sauder family who resides in San Antonio include Aaron Sauder (dad), Jamie (mom), Kate, 15, (sister) and Matt, 13, (brother).
Gage was diagnosed initially January 17, 2018, with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He missed the remainder of his 4th grade school year and Jamie took a leave of absence from teaching to help care for him along with her husband. Gage was cleared of cancer in July 2018, and he had his port taken out. In August 2018 he returned to school at Vineyard Ranch Elementary in San Antonio entering the 5th grade. But, this Oct. 19, Gage’s cancer returned. He once again had to leave school and began chemo shortly after that. Gage did not lose his trademark beautiful red hair the first time he had cancer but did this time around.
Jamie says that throughout this all, Gage has remained himself a brilliant, kind, brave, creative, fun, vibrant and happy child. Leaving school is difficult as Gage, according to his mom, is super social and has dozens of close school friends and never-ending “play dates.” But, even though he was gone from school, he was far from forgotten.
Vineyard Ranch Elementary and his school mates organized a fundraiser sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society called “Pennies for Patients” which over a twoyear school period raised $8,750. On their fundraising page, a poster of Gage appeared with these words, “As an Honored Hero and two times fighter of cancer, Gage shows others never to give up, because if you beat it once you can beat it again.” His friends sold hot chocolate on freezing days to raise money. A janitor from his school gave his $250 Christmas bonus to “Pennies for Patients.”
Jamie’s sister Christi Hillier Kinsel who teaches at Jourdanton High School also had her classroom gather funds via the “Pennies for Patients” in Gage’s name. Christi, who is the Jourdanton High School FCCLA advisor, explained that every year they participate in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society campaign “Pennies for Patients.” “This is near and dear to my heart this year as my sister Jamie’s son Gage was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma,” said Christi. “Pennies for Patients targets schools because kids can bring pennies. It’s not like you have to donate $25 or $50. It’s just, if you have change, you donate.” Christi took a different take on collecting to make it more in line with her class content and connecting with focus on the family. “When I talked to the contact person for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, I told her instead of boxes to collect, I want to connect it with focus on the family”. She had her students create flour dolls that they pushed in strollers to collect from friends, family and local businesses. One student even took hers to the Atascosa County Livestock Show where she was showing an animal. “When my sister found out about Gage she kept saying ‘My baby’. So the tie in is that this could be anyone’s baby. No matter what their age when a parent finds out a child has cancer, that’s your baby.”
The money collected from “Pennies for Patients” does not go directly to Gage but all donations go toward life-saving research for those who have Leukemia and Lymphoma and to patient support programs that help patients and their families with many resources to help them through their diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship.
During Gage’s stay at Children’s Methodist Hospital, he was visited by the Spur’s Coyote mascot, The Got Hope Organization, Ropin’ Dreams, Hill Country Legion Team, DPS Troopers from Atascosa County, and the Capes & Crowns Foundation. Additionally, all those plus many other organizations and dozens of family and friends showed up with baskets of goodies, amazing room makeovers, virtual reality gear, video games, painting sessions, yoga lessons and more.
In February, a few volunteers from the Capes & Crowns team traveled from Portland to Methodist Children’s Hospital to create “Movie Theatre” like posters of cancer patients as their favorite hero. The Capes & Crowns Foundation goal was that for just a few hours kids with cancer could forget about their treatments and doctors, and instead focus on their inner superhero bravery while still being a kid. To see a video of Gage and the other children being presented with posters go to Capes & Crowns Facebook page to the March 7 post. Gage and his family are featured at 1:44 of the video.
“Capes and Crowns transformed Gage into the hero he is – fighting his biggest battle,” said Jamie. “The love here at Methodist Children’s Hospital never ends.”
Atascosa County DPS officers Lt. Jason Reyes, Trooper Kenny Mata, and Sergeant Deon Cockrell came to visit Gage on March 5 bringing him some “cool gear” and staying to work a puzzle with him. “Gage has done more for us than we can ever do for him,” said Lt. Reyes.
The Got Hope Organization took a sterile hospital room and turned it into a kid’s dream room complete with a virtual reality setup that helped Gage stay active. The Got Hope Organization said about Gage, “I love his expressions, but I love his personality even more. He exudes hope, determination, faith and a heart of gold. His family is amazing and I could have visited with them all night.”
High dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplants are not used as the first treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma but are aggressive treatments when lymphoma returns. Gage had autologous stem cell transplant whereby his own stem cells were used. They are collected several times in the weeks before treatment. The cells were frozen and stored while Gage received high dose chemo and then were put back into his blood by a nurse via a syringe very slowly over 45 minutes. According to Jamie, Gage was lightly sedated and asleep during this procedure. When he woke up two hours later, the Methodist Children’s Hospital staff sang him a special Happy Transplant Birthday song that they sing to patients who have undergone stem cell transplants.
“The recovery part is the hardest because he did not understand why he could not come home since he was finished with the chemo,” said Jamie. “He asked me ‘Why am I still here?’. I had to tell him that all the chemo he had was breaking everything in your body to nothing so when your transplant cells come in and decide to find a home, you are not going to feel good.” Jamie said that her words were true. He was nauseous, and he had a track of sores that started in his stomach. He started feeling so badly and Jamie emphasized that it was the constant flow of angels outside and inside the hospital that brought him brief reprieves from the side effects.
Jamie said that you do not get to stop being a mom in the hospital. “At their sickest, you are the one saying brush your teeth, take a shower and do your homework. When someone else comes in, it is just different. I get it. I am a Kindergarten teacher. I can get anyone’s 5-yearold to do whatever I want, but the parent cannot!”
Gage’s stay in the hospital was a month long, but he returned home with much fanfare on March 7. The goal is for Gage to be back to school for 6th grade in August. Gage goes back to meet with the oncology doctors next week to learn more about next steps. Then will return for visits every 21 days for immune therapy. For now, though, the doctors say he is cancer free.
Jamie thanks God for the partnership she has with her husband Aaron, who spent nights with Gage at the hospital so she could get a good night’s sleep. They did a lot of Facetiming with each other and their children when they were two ships passing in the night. It’s been difficult on the teenagers watching their brother sick and not having all access to both their parents. But, Jamie said they also have bonded stronger as a family. Jamie said the first words she thought after hearing cancer had returned was “No, we did that already we can’t be doing this again”. But, she said just as quickly as the thought came, it left and she said, “We can do this.” And, they did.