In his 12 short years, Anthony Bardwell touched almost everyone he met. Often quite literally. "He'd walk into a room and give high-fives, knuckles and hugs," says Anthony's mom, Cheryl, of the "sweet and loving" boy who passed away in January from complications of cancer. Anthony was also "the strongest person I ever knew," Cheryl tells us, adding that he left every doctor's appointment "saying thank you to the people who poked and prodded him, because he knew they were trying to make him better."
Anthony was "poked and prodded" more than most, often due to complications related to Down syndrome, including heart problems that required two open heart surgeries. Then in 2014, he was diagnosed with what was believed to be a benign brain tumor. A surgical team near the family's home in the Twin Cities removed the tumor, but a year later it returned. Anthony enrolled in a clinical trial in Chicago, but that, too, failed to stop the tumor's growth. Cheryl and her husband, Kevin, then brought Anthony to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, where doctors determined the tumor was cancerous. Anthony began receiving proton beam therapy in December 2015, and the promise of a new treatment, combined with the "amazing" Mayo staff they encountered, gave the Bardwells a renewed sense of determination.
"Every doctor we met with gave us their undivided attention," Cheryl says. "I felt a sense of warmth and felt that in their hearts, our son wasn't just another case. I felt they truly cared about Anthony and wanted to give him the best treatment." Other staff, too, demonstrated their deep concern for Anthony, including Ben Tempel, one of Anthony's nurses. "I have no doubt he's an angel in disguise," Cheryl says of Ben. He "listened to every little thing I mentioned about Anthony and would incorporate that into his care," she says, adding that Ben "connected with Anthony." So much so that Ben attended Anthony's visitation in January, a gesture that still brings Cheryl to tears.
Recently, Cheryl returned to Mayo Clinic with a friend, Libby Smith, to deliver blankets that Libby had knit for donation in honor of Anthony. And while Anthony wasn't present physically, Cheryl says his spirit certainly was. She and Libby presented the blankets to staff in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and learned the gifts would help meet an important need. Since some babies can't leave their incubators, they miss out on skin-to-skin contact with their mothers. To promote bonding and connection, "staff put blankets next to the moms, and then put the blankets next to the babies so they can smell their mother's scent," Cheryl says.
That's something Anthony would have loved. "He was the kind of kid who always wanted a touch or a hug," Cheryl says, adding that she hopes the blankets will provide a measure of comfort to the families that receive them. "It's tough to be in a hospital, and tough to see your kid sick," she says. "Sometimes, a little thing can bring a minute or two of happiness." And sometimes, a little boy can keep touching lives, even after he's gone.
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