Visiting with us during a chemotherapy infusion, you would never know the battles 18-year-old Blake McComas and his family have endured. Three years after losing his older brother to cancer, Blake was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia when he was just 11. Today, he’s still fighting, but it’s his laughter – not his tears – that fills the halls of the Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart.
The family found their way to us after traveling from their home in Wewahitchka, Florida to be seen in Panama City, where an affiliate hospital recommended our special kind of care. Here, Blake was cared for by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, whom he calls “one of the best doctors I’ve ever met.”
Later, when he was transferred to another hospital, his father Mark says, “It was a completely different scenario. Here, they will always come in and ask if we need anything. There, we were on our own. He was a number, not a patient. I don’t want him to be a number.” Desperate to get him back, Blake’s parents got in touch with Dr. Schwartz and asked if he would take him on as a patient. He’s been caring for Blake ever since.
“It is hard to fathom undergoing treatment of leukemia for six years. Blake was forced to grow up early and deal with challenges that no one, let alone a child, should have to face,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Despite all of his struggles, he has matured into a courageous young man who is determined to beat his leukemia. He focuses more on the people he loves than on his own challenges. I am really proud of the person he has become.”
Blake loves his family – Mom, Dad and younger brother Braedin – but he also loves the people who have come to feel like family – among them his team of doctors, nurses, chaplains and child life therapists. As if on cue, Chaplain Frank knocks at the door of Blake’s room.
“Usually they just say ‘hi’ and leave. He’ll come in and have a conversation, which I actually like,” Blake says. “He plays card games and video games, watches TV. I’ve even asked him if he could just sit around a little while because I was feeling down and needed someone to hang out with me.”
Others who have made a difference in Blake’s countless days here (he stopped counting at 100) are his nurses – especially the ones who joke around with him.
When he was first diagnosed, Nurse Shane played a funny game on the dry erase board. The two would write each other’s names and then come up with silly acronyms, like “Shaved Hairless And Near Escape” for “S-H-A-N-E.” During their famous syringe fights, they would fill syringes with water and squirt them at each other. Another nurse, Bebe, would make Blake eggrolls and lie in bed with him, cuddling and talking. Even nurses who have retired or moved away come back to see Blake.
On days when he struggles to keep his trademark sense of humor, the Child Life team is here to lift his spirits. This special division of the Children’s Hospital plans pizza and ice cream parties, movie nights and other activities – and they’re here with a “distraction cart” when little ones need IVs or other procedures.
Blake says he’s received journals, drawing supplies and other gifts … “things that make life brighter.” There are visits from baseball players, Blue Angels, and even a miniature horse, which made Dad do a double-take coming off the elevator one day. It’s all about celebrating the victories, big or small. When Blake came in for his final chemotherapy treatment before he relapsed, the nurses brought noise poppers and gave him a framed photo to mark the occasion.
Even though he’s spent more time with us than anyone would wish, Blake stays optimistic. And although he has amassed an impressive knowledge of healthcare, he doesn’t want to go into the field himself. A lover of video games, he plans to study computer science.
Blake has had experiences with many of the Sacred Heart Health System hospitals along the Gulf Coast, and with every department. From social workers (who Dad says have been very good with the paperwork that allows him to take family medical leave from his job) to the kitchen staff (who Blake says will make him anything he wants, even if it’s not on the menu), “Nothing you ask is too much trouble.”
Speaking of “Trouble,” that’s one of the nicknames Blake has earned during his stay here. Miss T in Food Services calls him “Home Skillet,” and Miss Tequila calls him “Baby Doll.” “The best part of being here is the people,” he says. “I just love the people.”
One moment in particular stands out, when Blake had an important procedure coming up and his parents had to travel out of town to visit his ailing grandfather. “I was so scared,” Blake recalls. “The doctor told me he would care for me like I was his own son and he wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
His advice for other kids fighting battles of their own is not to be afraid. Blake’s mother has recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and Sacred Heart will continue to be there for their family in every way we can as Dad navigates the struggles of being two places at once. (There’s even a Sacred Heart clinic in Blake’s small hometown of Wewa.)
“Don’t be afraid, and take it one day at a time,” Blake says. “This hospital will do everything they can to help you get through it.”
“It’s an amazing community of a hospital,” Dad says. “It portrays what a hospital should be … a home away from home.”
“It’s a family,” Blake adds.
There’s no doubt Blake has become part of our family. He’s made a huge impact on our nurses, caregivers and physicians. Now that you know his story, we hope this brave young man has made a mark on your heart, too