Garrett L. Nelson

A Dundalk first-grader whose two year battle with cancer inspired all who knew him

April 09, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Garrett Louis Nelson, a first-grade student at Grange Elementary School whose courageous two-year battle with kidney cancer inspired young and old alike, died Sunday of Wilms disease at his Dundalk home. He was 7.

Garrett, the son of John A. and Gwen R. Nelson, was born in Baltimore and raised in his family's Dundalk home.

"Garrett loved to make everybody laugh and smile. He was a huge Orioles and Ravens fan. When he was 3, he began playing soccer," said his father, who is the owner of Holabird Metal Products, a metal fabrication company.

Just before his 5th birthday, Garrett was diagnosed with Wilms disease, a rare kidney cancer that is also known as nephroblastoma, which affects children between the ages of 3 and 8.

Dr. Teresa A. York, a pediatric oncologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, had been Garrett's physician from the beginning.

"He had a much more advanced stage - which was Stage 5 - and it was in both kidneys when I first saw him," Dr. York recalled.

"He was a very brave and courageous child who always faced his treatments with a smile on his face. He had a big heart and was very mature for his age. He had strength and was such an inspiration," she said. "I was honored to be his doctor and tried to help him beat this thing so he could live life and be normal. You couldn't help but get close to Garrett. He became like family to me."

Garrett eventually lost a kidney and his cancer came back. He was on chemotherapy throughout 2009, Mr. Nelson said. "Because of the treatments, he could no longer play sports and started doing other things, like playing with his cars and Legos."

Even though the treatments made him sick, Garrett insisted on going to school right from the hospital.

"He never complained and would say, 'Dad, I'm OK, how are you?' " Mr. Nelson said.

Throughout his illness, the community came together to help Garrett and his family. Last October, 75 people gathered to give blood, while Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts got to know him.

"He was very courageous and kind-hearted. I've been here eight years at Grange Elementary, and he was the bravest student I ever taught," said his teacher, Shannon M. Halpin.

She said he loved school and all subjects. "He was always raising his hand to answer questions and always was asking for more books and extra work," Ms. Halpin said. "He was a model student, and because he was so good at math, we called him our 'math master.' "

Because of his illness, Garrett had to leave school in October but returned for parties and special events.

Garrett attended Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church in Dundalk, where he became friendly with the church's pastor, the Rev. Jack Ward, who shared his interest in the Ravens.

"He was a delightful kid and was active in our Sunday school," said Father Ward, who has been pastor of Prince of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Edgewood since January. "We always talked about football and the Ravens. He loved them as much as I do."

Erin C. Garner is a social worker in the department of pediatric oncology at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"I've known and worked with Garrett for 3 1/2 years, and I think knowing what he was facing, he was very strong and courageous. He always had a very positive outlook," Ms. Garner said.

She said that Garrett also worked with other ill children at the hospital.

"He helped other children and was a role model for them," Ms. Garner said.

Garrett's tumor eventually spread to his lungs and stomach, and on Easter Saturday, he was very restless.

"Throughout the day, he asked, 'Dad, is that you?' and held my hand," Mr. Nelson said. "And on his last day, he was still smiling."

"He was incredibly brave right up until the end. He dealt with it and had no fear," Father Ward said. "He told his brother, Austin, not to worry, that he'd always be with him, and even though he couldn't see him, he'd be there to listen."

At 6:30 Sunday morning, Garrett died.

"He sat up and said, 'Yes,' and then died," Father Ward said.

"The doctors at the University of Maryland and Children's Hospital did all they could to save our son, But there is nothing as hard as this, having to bury your 7-year-old son," Mr. Nelson said.

Mr. and Mrs. Nelson had established the Garrett Caring for Kids Foundation to help support children who were suffering from various illnesses and their families.

Mrs. Halpin said that Garrett's classmates were saddened when they learned that he had died and were making cards to give to his family.

"The whole school is going to plant a tree in memory of Garrett sometime this spring," Ms. Halpin said. "We're all very saddened here by what happened."

A Mass of Christian burial was offered for Garrett at his church Wednesday.

In addition to his parents and brother, Austin J. Nelson, Garrett is survived by his paternal grandparents, Bernard and Andrea Nelson of Selbyville, Del.; his maternal grandparents, James and Sandy Nelson of Dundalk; and several aunts, uncles and cousins.

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