Sitting at the dining room table playing a racing game featuring brightly colored wooden snails, Mark Isabelle looks and sounds like a regular 5-year-old boy.
"Mommy, I'm hungry," he said, rolling the multi-colored die and moving his orange snail ahead one space.
The steroids Mark is on this particular week make him a bottomless pit, constantly hungry for a long list of food, ranging from today's lunch of macaroni and cheese to tacos, nachos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at 3 a.m., said Mark's mom, Wendy Isabelle. It's a way of life that has become normal for the Isabelle family, which includes dad Alan, brother Chris, 8, and sister Megan, 12, since Mark was diagnosed with leukemia last May.
On the outside, Mark appears healthy, playing games, laughing loudly and eagerly listing the names of each car in his plastic carrying case. But Wendy Isabelle knows that the slightest change could send Mark to the hospital for another round of tests, doctor visits and medicines not already included in her highly-detailed daily list of dosages for her small son.
Mark isn't able to go to preschool at Messiah United Methodist Church as he's done for the past few years, so his mother has created a sort of home school to keep him learning. The two practice colors, letters and patterns on a daily basis and go for walks around the neighborhood to give him fresh air. Mark is not getting the social aspect of school, his mother said, but it's the best they can do.
THE ISABELLES have tried to keep life as normal as possible, including reminding Mark that he has to obey the rules and help around the house just like his siblings.
"We don't tiptoe around the fact that he has cancer," Wendy Isabelle said. "One of his doctors said that you have to have rules at home because when he beats this, you have the choice of having a monster who's been getting his way for years or someone people will love to be around."
Mark steps away from the table and disappears upstairs for a few minutes, off to help his dad work on the installation of a new shower. For his birthday, Mark received a small toolbox filled with orange-handled tools.
The family has no shortage of support and generosity from friends and neighbors, Wendy Isabelle said. One of her close friends, Patti Allis, has offered to organize a blood drive, inspired after one of Mark's weaker moments.
"I was all ready to go visit him one day, but Wendy called and said I couldn't see him because he wasn't doing too well," said Allis. "I felt so bad that I couldn't see him but I really wanted to do something to help him feel better."
Rolling up her sleeve, Allis made a donation of platelets, which were taken out through a process similar to donating blood.
"When you give blood, they typically take out one pint in half an hour," Allis said. "When you donate platelets, they keep you a little longer."
Platelets are separated from red blood cells through a centrifuge, Allis said, and the rest of the blood is pumped back into the circulatory system.
"When you go to give platelets, it's like going to a spa," Allis laughed. "You get all these warm blankets, a personal DVD player, it's very nice."
The need for platelets is higher than the need for blood because platelets cannot be frozen and typically have a shelf life of only three to five days, she said.
"Any type of blood can donate platelets, they don't have to match a certain type to be used," Allis said. "All cancer patients need them so this is one thing I can keep doing to help Mark."
While Mark might not be receiving her gift of "liquid gold," as she calls it, Allis knows that other children or adults will benefit from her donation. In the past eight months alone, Mark has received 12 transfusions of blood or platelets to help bolster his immune system.
"There are hundreds of other little boys and girls who are going through something like this, or worse, and they need this," she said.
OVER THE PAST eight months, Mark has kept his energy and spunk, Allis said. But a small, subtle change has taken place.
"He was a baby before he got sick," she said. "Now he's a little boy. He's a walking miracle."
So far, a dozen people have signed up for the blood drive Allis has organized, scheduled for Monday, Feb. 5 at Hunt Valley Elementary, where Mark will attend when he's healthy enough to return to school.
"I'm really hoping to get between 45 and 49 people signed up because people will get turned away" as being unable to donate, Allis said.
Others who are unable to donate are still encouraged to help out in some way.
Renee Wheeler and her husband, Skip, have lived across the driveway from the Isabelles for 14 years. While neither of them can donate blood due to health conditions, Renee Wheeler said they'll both be at the blood drive.
"This blood is going to save Mark's life," she said. "We'll do whatever we can to help."
Wheeler said she's also going to stitch a small picture of Mark onto a bookmark she's making for her sewing group, along with a butterfly, the symbol for leukemia patients.
"It's the least I can do to try to help Mark in some way," she said.
Mark will be fighting leukemia for the next three years, divided into 12 treatment cycles of 83 days each, Wendy Isabelle said. In the meantime, she is grateful for the loving doctors and nurses who watch over him, in awe of their patience with her son who refuses to "get used to" the endless stream of pinpricks, blood tests and medications that begin with chemotherapy at 6 a.m. each day.
"Mark doesn't go in trying to make friends with anyone," Wendy Isabelle said. "His attitude is get me in and let's get this over with. He doesn't want to get used to it, and I don't want him to either. I want him to fight this."
When asked about his doctors, Mark will only say that they are nice. Any further questions are ignored — he's got games to play and movies to watch.
Looking to this coming summer, Wendy Isabelle is already thinking about coaching Mark's T-ball team and spending hours at the Hunt Valley community pool. She thinks about him starting kindergarten at Hunt Valley in September.
In stocking feet, Mark comes back into the kitchen, hands balled into fists on either side of his pudgy face.
"Mommy, Mommy, I don't know what to do," he says, fidgeting and anxious. It's the steroids confusing him again, Wendy Isabelle explains. She takes him to the couch, gives him one of his favorite blankets and a small DVD player with the movie "Barnyard" and suggests he tries to relax.
When he was first diagnosed, Wendy Isabelle said she fought the urge to ask why this happened to her child. "I talk to God all the time," she said with a smile. "I keep saying, 'He's in Your hands, what can I do but my best to be strong?'"
She long ago decided to put her faith in God, doctors, medicine and science.
"Right now, Mark's biggest concern is going back to school," she said. For his sake, that's her top priority too.