Cook: Kids who thank God on way to chemotherapy

Kids these days. They say the strangest things.

Take Sara Carr. She's 17, and hasn't been to school all year. She can't. Too much chemotherapy.

All her long brown hair, gone. A stuffed social life, reduced to trips to the hospital. Her healthy body, now occupied with fevers, chills, aches, vomiting, migraines.

That's what a fight against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma does. Yet you can't twist Sara's arm hard enough to make her complain.

Me? I complain about slow Internet connections and weak coffee. Or when the mail is late. I swear: I take it all back.

I wish you could see Sara. Just south of her headscarf, she's grinning this 500-watt, floodlight smile that ought to be hanging in the Hunter Museum of American Art. She talks about Thanksgiving as if it's a holiday made just for her.

"Oh yeah," she said. "I have a lot to be thankful for. Life seems more valuable now. I know I'm going down this road for a reason."

I spoke with Sara inside Erlanger's Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, which focuses on two things that should never go together in life: children and cancer. I walked in, expecting to see shaken lives that should be marked "Fragile. Handle with care."

Instead, I found folks who have more reservoirs of courage in their back pockets than I've ever known. People who will get more out of the first 10 minutes of Thanksgiving Day than I might in an entire decade.

"These kids are living lessons on how to live life with joy," said Dr. Eric Gratias (pronounced "gracious"), one of four oncology doctors at the center.

The center schedules more than 3,000 patient visits a year. Despite a cure rate of more than 80 percent -- childhood cancers are far easier to defeat than adult varieties -- it's the last place on earth a parent ever wants to go.

"If you ask parents to rank their top five nightmares, usually their child getting cancer is near the top," said Gratias.

He has this perfect blend of kindness, honesty and humor, and everyone I talked to praised him -- and every nurse, staff member and doctor there -- by name.

But he still can't answer the Big Question: What kind of world is it where kids can get cancer?

"We live in a fallen world. Bad things are going to happen," he said. "But I think there is a purpose to everything, even if I don't always know why."

Moments after he tells me this, I'm standing by the bedside of Mattie Ballentine.

She loves mac and cheese, chocolate and vanilla ice cream and a stuffed brown bear named Homer. Like Mattie's mom and granddad, Homer's never missed a trip to the hospital with his beloved Mattie.

She's 8.

"She has the best attitude," said Lindsey Whittaker, Mattie's nurse. "She has taught me so much."

Last Thanksgiving, Mattie couldn't eat too well. Sores covered her entire mouth. Her lips were black. Imagine that last canker sore you had. Multiply it by a zillion. All because of her fight against leukemia.

Her mom had to cut up her grilled cheese into little bites and gently place them way back on the downhill side of her tongue. Chocolate Yoo-hoo sipped through a straw, mixing with the blood in her mouth from all the raw sores. Happy Thanksgiving, right?

"She never complained," said her mom, Luanne.

So here's some good news: Mattie's cancer is in remission. So is Sara's. They're expected to make a full recovery.

And so is Christian Bryant. She turned 18 on Tuesday. Three months ago, Gratias told her she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"Even though I am battling cancer, I am more grateful now than ever before," she told me. "It has just made me realize how truly blessed I am."

I've known Christian for six years. She's the type of teenager you hope and pray your own kids become. Wise beyond her years, more loyal than gravity, 10 times tougher than any chemotherapy treatment. She hates attention and isn't going to like me writing this. But that's too bad.

Sometimes being heroic comes with some unwanted attention.

"Most of all, I am thankful for generosity, love, hope and faith," she said. "I sure do have a lot to praise God for."

I think we all do. I'll start with Sara, Mattie and Christian.

David Cook can be reached at