Former UK basketball star, local cancer patient form special bond
By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
A visit to the local Children’s Clinic for an ear infection led to Kelly Melton’s leukemia diagnosis.
And, it goes without saying, leukemia was the last thing on mother Lisa Melton’s mind when she told nurse practitioner Allison Bastin-Muse that her son, a first-grader at Science Hill Independent School, had been tired lately.
“He looked pale to me and didn’t seem like himself,” said Lisa. “He was falling asleep in class. He’s been in preschool and kindergarten and he’s never done that.”
Muse, who Lisa said is now like a member of the Melton family, listened, and she ordered a blood test. What came back was alarming, and Lisa said they were sent to Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital for a second blood test to ensure Muse’s equipment wasn’t faulty.
It wasn’t. The LCRH tested confirmed the results of the first test: Kelly’s blood count was very wrong. Later that night, after an ambulance ride north to Lexington, doctors at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital told the family Kelly’s white blood cell count, a tell-tale sign that something is gravely wrong, was at 160,000. Lisa said a white blood cell count of 50,000 and above may be a sign of leukemia.
The family, which includes Kelly, Harrison, Kelly, and three siblings, dazed, began to learn just what Kelly’s illness would mean. Kelly, who was six years old when he was diagnosed, would likely need to undergo three years of a number of treatments, and the family would bounce back and forth between their home in Science Hill to the hospital in Lexington in between treatments.
And the road thus far hasn’t been easy. Kelly has undergone chemotherapy – both in pill form and through a port through which the drugs can be directly placed into his body – and he’s seen ups and downs as a result of the harsh, but necessary, treatment. Fevers have appeared, resulting in more hospital stays, and Kelly even fought pneumonia and respiratory failure. A medicine has led to serious side effects, such as “absence” seizures that last only a few seconds and are characterized by a vacant stare.
“There’s a lot of decisions that you have to make,” said Lisa. “You do a lot of praying and you lay it in God’s hands and you just wait.”
But Kelly’s struggle has also resulted in new relationships with a few young men he never would have come in contact with had he not been diagnosed. Kelly has bonded with University of Kentucky football players, and even well-known UK Basketball center Nerlens Noel, since November.
“We’ve made quite a few friends since we’ve been up there,” said Lisa.
Lisa laughed as she remembered their first meeting with the then-UK freshman. The Meltons are UK fans through and through. But she admits she didn’t realize who Noel was when he first appeared in the doorway of their son’s hospital room late one night in November.
But she does remember shooing he and his friends back out into the hall after seeing they hadn’t donned masks or gloves, as Kelly was in quarantine.
“Someone knocked on the door and I just said ‘come in,’ assuming it was a nurse,” said Lisa. “And then this really tall guy came in and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t have a mask! Get out of here!’”
Lisa said Noel and his two friends retreated into the hallway and returned dressed appropriately. That first meeting sparked an unlikely friendship between Noel and Kelly. The 19-year-old has visited the now-seven-year-old a number of times, and Kelly gained somewhat of a celebrity status earlier this month when he was photographed attending the Kentucky Derby with Noel.
Lisa said Noel reached out to them first about the derby trip, and Harrison’s first response was: “Are you crazy? There’s no way I’d turn him loose with all those people.”
The parents were, admittedly, concerned about letting Kelly go somewhere with so many people.
“I knew they would take good care of Kelly, it wasn’t a question of that,” said Lisa. “We just didn’t know, with all those people, and his port is certainly very tender.”
The Meltons asked Kelly’s doctors about it, and they were given the go-ahead.
“They said ‘By all means, let Kelly do what he wants to do while he’s feeling good,” said Lisa.
One photo, showing the 6-foot, 10-inch tall Noel hoisting a masked and snappily-dressed Kelly over a puddle at the derby, has gone viral, and Kelly has been interviewed by a number of news outlets about his relationship with Noel.
“He had the time of his life that weekend,” said Lisa.
But Noel is only one figure in Kelly’s life right now. Even though Kelly spent his seventh birthday and Christmas in the hospital, he had great company.
UK football players Christian Coleman (defensive tackle, junior), Jonathan George (running back, senior), Max Strong (kicker, freshman), Landon Foster (Punter, sophomore), Kelly Mason (long snapper, sophomore), Ashely Lowery (safety, junior) and Martavius Neloms (cornerback, senior, and now a rookie with the Detroit Lions) have reached out to Kelly a number of times over the past months.
“They still made trips over to see Kelly, which impressed me,” said Lisa.
The players have helped take Kelly’s mind off of the treatments – and the resulting pain and sickness – and the leukemia itself.
Neloms, before he began his stint with the Lions, even stopped by to brighten Kelly’s day after finding out the young boy was having a difficult time.
“(A family friend) sent him (Neloms) a text saying Kelly was having a bad day, and 10 minutes later he was in the room to pick Kelly’s spirits up,” said Lisa.
Kelly has even taken to nicknaming his new friends. Strong has been dubbed Blondie, Foster has been called Speedy, and Mason has been called Kelmeister. Kelly has been able to attend a UK football game, thanks to his new friends and Coach Mark Stoops (who visited Kelly once as well), and he was able to take everything in from the sidelines and alongside the players themselves.
And Kelly and his family have been surrounded by local support. Science Hill School has been raising money to go to the family, and family friends created the “Kicking It 4 Kelly” Facebook page – with “The number four, not the letters,” according to Kelly – to keep everyone informed and to ensure Lisa and Harrison are able to concentrate on Kelly and his siblings instead of dispensing information.
The Science Hill Volunteer Fire Department even made Kelly an honorary firefighter, complete with firefighting gear.
“It really does take a community to raise your children,” said Lisa.
The kindness shown to Kelly has made the difficult journey easier on Kelly himself, but the Melton family has dealt with a number of things no family should ever have to go through.
Kelly’s stay in the hospital during his birthday and Christmas was a struggle, especially with three additional kids at home. And Kelly’s only wish for Christmas was that people pray, and he asked that people give blood.
Kelly, Lisa and Harrison said, is strong in his faith. In fact, when he was first sent to Lexington, he was most concerned about missing homework for class and missing Sunday School.
“Kelly has a tremendous amount of faith, as well as we do,” said Lisa.
“That’s kept us going.
“It’s kept him going,” continued Lisa. “I know I couldn’t have taken one-tenth of what he’s taken so far.”
“You can’t Mommy?” asked Kelly, after Lisa’s comment. “What about Daddy?”
Harrison echoed Lisa’s thoughts.
“No, I couldn’t,” answered Harrison.
Kelly’s request that people give blood seems strange, coming from a seven-year-old, but the reasoning behind it shows Kelly’s utmost regard for everyone around him – even fellow patients.
Kelly had needed as many as five blood transfusions during his hospital stay at Christmas. He was worried he had taken all the blood away from others who needed it.
“He was scared he was going to run them out,” said Harrison. “He got a little worried that the other children wouldn’t have enough blood.”
The Meltons are looking toward the future – toward a healthy Kelly.
They’ve been doing everything they can to help him learn while he’s taking treatments, as homebound school can be inconsistent depending on his hospital stays. They’re hoping to integrate him back into school next year as he continues treatments.
And Kelly’s looking forward to returning back to his normal life as well.
“I can play soccer once I’m through with all this,” said Kelly.
And Kelly’s faith has even comforted his parents in the face of many unknowns. Harrison couldn’t help but break down one day, in a quiet moment away from the hospital. Kelly had some soothing words for him.
“He said ‘Don’t worry, Dad. I’m going to kick this, and if I don’t, I’m going to go to heaven and be with Jesus, so don’t worry about it,’” said Harrison.