Teaming up to put cancer on ice

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March 8, 2012, 10:22 pm

(NECN: Ally Donnelly) - It's an interesting place for a little boy: the sweating, stinking, pulsing locker room of the Brown University Men's Hockey Team.

Seven-year-old Ethan Bairos, however, is not just some little boy; he's on the team.

"I'm part of the team and I'm on it," he says playing War in his Berkley, Mass. "But I don't play in games. I just watch 'em."

Ethan was drafted by the Brown Bears last October as part of Team Impact. It's a new Massachusetts non-profit that pairs kids who have life-threatening illnesses with college sports teams.

"It made me feel like I was a winner," he says.

It's not only a chance for the team to cheer on the child, but it offers a change in perspective for the world-revolves-around-me student athlete.

Twenty-three-year-old co-captain Bobby Farnham is one of Ethan's 30 new big brothers.

"He motivates and inspires through his actions every single day. To go through what he's gone through and have the energy and passion that he has every day at the rink is inspiring in many ways," says Farnham.

Ethan has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He was diagnosed in December 2010 after belly aches and leg pain could no longer be dismissed as growing pains. His parents Debbie and Manny Bairos were stunned to hear the word cancer.

"From head to toe, it was a big flush," Debbie said. "You feel like you're gonna pass out. It's disbelief."

Manny agreed, "Your whole body, your brain. It seems like you're in a movie and you're the person in slow motion and everything is just flying by you."

The next year was a dizzying array of tests and treatment at Children's Hospital Boston and Dana Farber Cancer Institute. It was a brutal schedule of steroids and pills and chemotherapy.

"You think of all the dreams you've had for your child," Manny said holding back tears. "All the plans that you've mentally had in your head. And it seemed to me, at that point, like everything was dwindling away. And, and there was no way that I was gonna let it happen."

A year later, Ethan is in remission, but still has to get chemo at Dana Farber in three-week rounds.

"It just makes you feel like you're gonna throw up," Ethan said. "It's no fun at all."

What is fun?

What's all fun is the time Ethan gets to spend at Brown.

In fact, the whole family goes: Manny, Debbie, Ethan and little sister Maddie.

"It was like going down a hall and opening up this one little door and there's this city behind the door," Manny said.

Ethan finagled an all-access pass to that city. The precocious second grader has his own locker and is in huddle for pep talks and reem outs from coach. He's in the stands cheering them on. And he's on the ice - Every. Possible. Second.

"I really like to mess around with them," Ethan grinned.

Disease and illness force a new normal on these kids. Ethan, this year alone, has missed 40 days of school. He can't join organized sports, and he can't launch himself off the monkey bars.

This becomes his recess. This is his team.

"I think he gets more from being on the ice, being in the locker room," Manny said, "than any other therapy that he could have."

Debbie agreed. "To see your child go through what he's gone through and then to see him get back what he lost. I truly believe it's because of this program."

The Bairoses say hockey has given a once shaky Ethan energy, stamina and balance.

It's hard to believe that before Team Impact Ethan wasn't much of a sports fan. In fact, he didn't even know how to skate.

"It was amazing. Amazing to watch these guys teach him and show him and, I mean, when he got tired, and he'd get tired very, very quickly, they took him on top of two crates and pushed him around," Debbie said.

Farnham said, "He fell probably fell a hundred times his first time and he kept getting back up. One after another, he'd fall and get back up where he didn't want to get off the ice."

And then, there was his first goal ever.

"All the guys were around the net," Farnham remembered. "And he shot the puck and it went in. The whole team had a huge celebration."

Co-Captain Jack Maclellan smiled as he remembered Ethan's early days.

"It's crazy how much better he's gotten in the couple months he's been on the ice; it's pretty cool to see," said Maclellan. "Before, when he first got on the ice, he really couldn't move around. Now he flies around. He still falls a bit, but he's really good with the puck. He shoots it harder than some of our defensemen."

Brown's had a tough year. They were 8-16 for the regular season.

Farnham said, "I had my head down after a loss one time and when he came in he picked it up and he says, 'Hey keep your head up.' you know? And I said 'you're right.'"

Ethan knows what it's like to need that reminder to pick up and dust off.

"All the hope and support from my friends and family, that's what helped me."

And, Ethan says, he isn't afraid anymore of the cancer coming back.

"Because I know I can make it through it," Ethan pauses. "In one shot."

A shot he takes with the help of his team, a team that just made him an honorary captain - for life.

If you’d like to learn more about Team Impact or donate to the non profit, log on to:

Tags: hockey, cancer, Brown University, sports, Ally Donnelly, childhood, Brown University men's hockey team, Team Impact, Ethan Bairos, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
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