William Byrd’s performance at the 2017 Mountain Valley Conference track and field championships in May was dismal to say the least, but his subpar performance led to an important discovery for the now-senior.
“I felt really bad and my coach (Maynard Mai) suggested that I should probably go in and get a blood test or get a physical,” Byrd said.
Several other students at Glide High School had contracted mono, or infectious mononucleosis, with symptoms including fatigue and muscle weakness. So the following Tuesday, Byrd and his mother went to the Roseburg Urgent Care to get some lab work done.
Dr. Matt Driver told William and his mother, Christina Byrd, he’d run some basic tests and give them a call if needed. The two didn’t think anything of it and continued their daily routine.
“We went to the grocery store and went home and then the phone rang at like 10 minutes before 8,” Christine Byrd said. “(The doctor) said ‘all the tests look good, except the white blood cell count is extremely high.’”
Dr. Driver had called ahead to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland and advised the family to go up there right away.
A healthy person has anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 white blood cells, William had 330,000.
The family packed their bags and headed up the freeway to arrive at the emergency room around 11 p.m.
“When the doctor came in, like in the movie, and pulled up a chair and sits down next to you ... at that moment I told him, I know it can be leukemia,” Christina Byrd said. “That’s when he told us ‘we’re certain it’s leukemia. It’s just a matter now of what kind.’ By this time it had to be like 4 in the morning.”
Throughout Wednesday, William’s blood was submitted for DNA testing and it was confirmed that the 17-year-old distance runner had Chronic Myeloid Leukemia or CML.
"I was shook up," Mai said when asked what his reaction was when he heard about the diagnosis. His wife, Lois, added, "We were devastated."
CML is a type of cancer that starts in certain blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.
According to the American Cancer Society, “In CML, a genetic change takes place in an early (immature) version of myeloid cells — the cells that make red blood cells, platelets, and most types of white blood cells (except lymphocytes). This change forms an abnormal gene called BCR-ABL, which turns the cell into a CML cell. The leukemia cells grow and divide, building up in the bone marrow and spilling over into the blood.”
William’s CML is still in the first phase and it is very likely that cells will respond to the treatment.
“There is no accurate information yet on how long patients treated with these drugs may live,” according to the American Cancer Society. “All that is known is that most patients who have been treated with these drugs, starting in 2001 (or even before), are still alive.”
“I don’t let anything worry me,” William said. “I discovered in getting cancer that I have no control so why worry? I’m a Christian so I believe God has a plan no matter what, and why fight it? He’s in control and I just let it happen as it comes. I can pray and ask for help when trouble comes.
“It’s not super uncommon, but it’s an uncommon form of leukemia in younger adults,” William added.
“His doctor said in Portland there are like three kids a week that are diagnosed with leukemia,” Christina Byrd said. “But she said it had been about three years since the last one with CML.”
A spinal tap of the bone marrow could’ve confirmed the disease sooner than the DNA testing of the blood, but the doctors were concerned about the effect that would have on William’s running.
‘He’s always been in the top finishers’
William finished last in the 1,500 at the district meet in La Pine in 6:31.27, which raised red flags with parents and coaches. The then-junior had run the same distance more than a minute faster the year before at 5:06.97 and 5:12.58 his freshman year.
Mai had been the head track and cross country coach at Glide High School since 1974, before officially retiring in 2002. Despite the retirement, Mai has remained involved with the programs and the school on a volunteer basis.
"He's pretty competitive, he just didn't have it in him that year," Mai said. Lois Mai added, "It looked like anemia to me."
Mai noticed not only the difference in time, but also the exertion.
“(William) has always been in the top finishers. Not first, but not at the bottom,” Christina Byrd said. “William again was last in the 3,000 and all the distance runners from other school were waiting around. It took a while for him to finish and that’s when Mr. Mai said ‘you really need to go in, something is not right, you need to get him checked out.”
William started running the winter before his freshman year and hasn’t slowed down since. He’s competed in marathons, half-marathons, 50Ks and the 50-mile race and isn’t letting anything stand in his way.
In fact, William came home from treatment at Doernbecher’s on May 31 and ran in the Mt. Hood 50, a 50-mile race near Mt. Hood, just over five weeks later on July 8.
“Once I got on the medication and back to a normal white blood cell count it was amazing to see how much better I felt and what right is supposed to feel like,” William said. “My running got a lot better during the couple months, late May and June felt good and coming into the race I really felt good and it was an awesome race.”
The 50-miler is the longest race he’s ever competed in, but he plans to run a 100K before starting his freshman year in college.
His first ultra run came during his sophomore year in high school when his mother found out about the Swiftwater 50K and texted him some information. He has run the 50K that starts in Glide three times since that notification, including this year’s race on Sept. 23.
‘From a blood test perspective, I’m totally healthy’
Every three months a DNA test will be performed on a blood sample of the young runner to ensure the medication is working, but the first test revealed that some of the cancer cells had mutated to become immune to the medication.
He will go back toward the end of the year to go in for the next test to see if the current medication is working properly. There are at least five different medications to try before a bone marrow transplant will be considered.
“My white blood cell county today is down at 6,000 which is normal for any healthy person and everything else is looking fine on blood tests,” William said in an interview Friday. “I’m healthy other than the DNA in some of the cells have the cancer DNA.”
The senior has been seemingly “healthy” throughout all of it, showing no signs of fatigue and no physical signs of an illness.
Most people would have noticed their symptoms earlier with a white blood cell count as high as William’s and perhaps even sustained organ damage.
According to his mother, doctors have attributed his health to his exercise and diet
“The healing process for him went so well because he did not have vices he had to get rid of,” Christina Byrd said. “Normally when you get sick you’ve got to quit eating certain foods, or change your diet or get more exercise and he eats really well and like the doctor said that’s half the battle.”
William and his mother, stayed at the Ronald McDonald house close to the hospital and were able to walk, sightsee, visit the zoo and OMSI.
The two walked between 6 and 10 miles each day and the Rebound Sports Medicine team, the team physicians for the Portland Trail Blazers, were able to look William over and determined that running would be good for him.
“As long as I’m honest with them and tell them when there’s a problem and how I’m feeling,” William said.
‘I like to stay active’
“If you’re going to get cancer this is the way to have cancer,” William said about not slowing down because of the diagnosis.
At school, he is the president of both FFA and the National Honor Society.
“I try to distract myself,” he said. “That’s why I like running, I can push myself and see how much I can do. At school I take the hardest classes, right now I’m taking half my day at Glide and half at (Umpqua Community College).”
William is also a youth leader at Pine Grove Community Church, and he helps with the sound system each Sunday.
‘If I’m going to get anything out of having cancer ...’
William’s busy schedule is even busier now that he has had to change his career goals. The young runner was a candidate for the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in West Point, New York, and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, but had to change careers due to the cancer diagnosis.
Spending weeks in the hospital made him aware of the things that go on behind the scenes to help advance medicine and it sparked an interest in a completely new field.
“I started researching and I discovered bio-medical engineering, or bio-engineering, which is basically a cross between biology and engineering — taking the ideas and concepts of engineering and applying it to the world of biology,” William said.
Through this field he would be able to help create artificial organs, limbs or medical machinery to help assist doctors.
The senior is in the process of early admissions at Stanford, and will know by Dec. 1 if he gets into the university.
“Right now my top school, my number one choice is Stanford,” he said, although he has a long list of school he’s interested in such as — Rice; University of California, San Diego; University of Texas, Austin, and Arizona State.
Because of the change in career plans he has also been busy applying for financial aid and scholarships.
“We kind of banked on Air Force Academy or West Point so now we have to rethink that,” Christina Byrd said. “I told him ‘you get in and we’ll find a way to pay for it.’”
When asked if the leukemia diagnosis gave him a good essay topic for scholarship applications, he said, “I mean if I’m going to get anything out of having cancer than it might as well be free tuition.”
‘How do you say thank you?’
The entire family has been blessed with an outpouring of support by the community, although it all feels a little strange to them.
“We’ve always been on the giving end, not on the receiving,” Christina Byrd said. “We kind of keep to our family, so you don’t really think that people will come out like this. It was just ... how do you even say thank you?”
In Portland, the family got to stay at the Ronald McDonald house, because of the travel distance home, where every last detail was thought through. Since then they’ve received offers from nonprofit organizations such as Bailey’s Treasure Box and Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It’s surprising,” William said. “I’ve always had to work hard for everything I wanted. I don’t feel like I deserve to get it.
“I guess it’s a good thing. You get cancer, you get a laptop,” he said.
When Christina and William were at the Ronald McDonald house, Chris Byrd was left at home to take care of 14-year-old Brandon Byrd.
“You always hear about that once something strikes a family, but when you experience it, it’s real,” Christina Byrd said. “People really do care.”