Running around the Hunt Valley pool, Mark Isabelle looks like a typical 4-year-old boy: bright eyes, smiling face, giggling when his mom tries to hold him still for a hug. And that’s precisely how his mom wants him to feel.
Diagnosed in May with leukemia, this is the first summer since Mark was 18 months old that he’s had to stand on the deck, said his mom, Wendy Isabelle, watching her three children, Mark, Chris, 7, and Megan, 11, running around with their friends.
“Mark would’ve been a Guppy this year,” said Wendy Isabelle, keeping an eye on her youngest son, an orange Popsicle in his mouth.
On Thursday, July 20, his swim family rallied around his other family for a fund raiser in his name, complete with T-shirts that proclaimed “Hunt Valley Cares,” a plain white shirt that bears a heart with his name in the middle.
FOR THE PAST few months, Wendy and Alan Isabelle have been relying on the love of their friends and family, along with their strong faith, to keep their family as positive as possible while Mark has endured the first few rounds of steroid treatment in preparation for intense chemotherapy that will begin on July 28 and last for 16 weeks.
“He’s happy. He’s doing well but the drugs aren’t as heavy right now,” she said.
More than 100 swimmers from the Hunt Valley Swim Club signed up for a biathlon in Mark’s name on Thursday, at which children up to 18 competed in a series of swimming and running events. They had paid $10 to register for the event and collected donations and sponsors, with all the proceeds going to help the Isabelles cover Mark’s medical expenses.
“They just rallied around Mark,” Wendy Isabelle said, her eyes welling up with tears behind dark glasses. “It’s been emotional, lots of ups and downs, trying to keep his spirits up. With faith and family and friends, you can do anything. We’ll get through this. We have to.”
Surrounded by children in bathing suits, happy to be in the pool on a hot, sticky July morning, Mark entertained his aunt and uncle by performing his “sprinkler dance,” putting one hand behind his head and pointing the other arm out, ticking slowly across the front of him like a lawn sprinkler, with another orange popsicle hanging from his orange-stained mouth.
“I hope people remember Mark in the fall, when the drugs are really hard,” said Wendy Isabelle, her growing quieter. “From day one, the schools, the baseball team, our church … you can’t imagine how much people have been pulling for him and for us.”
Chronicling the races with his camera, Alan Isabelle said his wife was “much better” at expressing their concerns and their gratitude.
“There are days when Mark seems pretty darn normal,” he laughed, knowing his son is a typical 4-year-old who fights with his brother and sister and sometimes makes a little too much noise. “But it’s really great to see all this support.”
MANY OF THE FAMILIES in the Hunt Valley Swim Team know Wendy Isabelle from her other role in the neighborhood, she was a coach for the Central Springfield Little League baseball program for several years.
“This is so neat, the way everyone’s coming together,” said Shirley Isabelle, Wendy and Alan’s sister-in-law, visiting from Florida.
She and her husband, Alan’s brother Doug Isabelle, remember when their son, Matthew, was diagnosed with diabetes as a child. They can understand the tense visits to the hospital, the endless doctor's appointments and the pain of having to administer medicine to a child who doesn’t quite understand why they’re sick.
“It’s a heartwarming thing to see,” Doug Isabelle said. “It’s really a testament to the community that so many came out to help.”
Other than Mark’s weight gain, about 16 pounds due to steroids, Doug and Shirley Isabelle said they don’t see any big changes in their nephew.
“He’s still a happy little kid,” she said. “We keep on praying for him.”
Many of those who have known the Isabelles for years talk of the strong role faith has come to play in Wendy’s life, how she’s asked her friends to pray for her family since Mark’s diagnosis.
“That’s all she wanted,” said Patti Allis, whose daughter was in Girl Scouts with Megan Isabelle. “Wendy is a very spiritual person … if any family can handle this, it’s them. Every morning I wake up and I pray for them.”
Bonnie Krysinski said a swimming and running biathlon was a perfect event. "We’re so thankful Mark was well enough to be out here with us," she said.
Krysinski, whose sons were on Wendy Isabelle’s team for several years, said she wishes the Isabelle family “complete success with Mark’s treatments.”
NEAR TABLES lined with donated breakfast donuts and Pop-Tarts, Elizabeth Thompson said the whole event was pulled together in about two weeks, courtesy of a lot of hard work between herself and Hunt Valley Swim Team coach Lynn Ann Nickley.
“We had a concept and the next day we put out the sign up sheets,” Thompson said. Messages were placed on the Hunt Valley team’s Web site and extended to the other swim teams in the Northern Virginia League, which has over 12,000 participants.
“Other pools are taking up donations and we have donation jars that will stay here by the pool during lessons with Mark’s picture on them,” said Thompson.
As Thompson was detailing the kindness and generosity of the swim team family, a man who lived in the neighborhood by the pool stopped by and dropped a $20 bill into the donation jar. He didn’t know the Isabelles, but saw the cones on the side of the road outlining the race paths and the pictures of the happy little boy and wanted to help. He didn’t give his name, just his good wishes, then turned and left.
“Can you believe that,” Thompson asked, a wide grin spreading across her face. “This is what I mean. People just want to help.”
As Mark’s big sister, Megan Isabelle stopped for a moment before her race to say that her little brother is “still a hyper kid” despite his leukemia.
“We don’t go outside as much as we used to because it’s been really hard,” she said, but otherwise, it’s life as normal in their house.
“It’s really cool that he can be here today,” she said of her little brother. “Then again, he’s always right in the middle of everything.”