Joshua was always the sick one.
Mary Porter's oldest son - one of three she adopted as a single mom - first became seriously ill when he was only a few weeks old. At 5 months, doctors discovered a progressive kidney disease, and offered a grim prognosis. Joshua wasn't expected to live past the age of 2.
He surprised everybody, though, surviving in spite of numerous illnesses and set-backs. But when he turned 8, his health began to deteriorate rapidly, and his mother received a familiar warning: he probably wouldn't make it through that summer.
Again, he pulled through, though he remained in very poor health. When he was 10, he began to receive dialysis treatments, and that fall he was admitted to Phoenix Children's Hospital for a kidney transplant operation. The kidney he received was "a perfect match," his mother said, and Joshua's health improved dramatically after the surgery.
"He's had no serious problems since," Mary said. He will have to take several anti-rejection medications for the rest of his life, but he is able to enjoy an active, normal lifestyle. Now 16, Joshua is class president at his school for the fourth year in a row, and serves on PCH's Children's Advisory Council, an eight-member group that helps advise hospital staff about issues important to patients.
Joshua's brother Chad, younger by only a year, offered a sharp contrast to his health problems as the boys grew up together.
"Chad was the picture of health," his mother said. Standing six feet tall by his mid-teens, he excelled in sports - especially basketball and football. Except for a few bouts with strep throat, he was never ill. But last spring, life changed for this strong, athletic teenager.
After a Memorial Day weekend trip to California, Chad came home feeling feverish and exhausted. His mother wasn't surprised, since he had just spent 15 hours at Magic Mountain and two nights on a bus with his eighth grade classmates. When he still felt sick a week later, Mary suspected mononucleosis and took him to their family doctor. After a quick blood test, the doctor grew concerned.
"He told me it didn't look good," Mary said. The doctor referred her to a physician at Phoenix Children's Hospital, and Mary immediately recognized the name from the outside wall of the Children's Cancer Center - right next door to the clinic Joshua visits for routine blood tests. "I knew right then it was pretty bad," she said.
Her fears were confirmed a few days later. Chad had leukemia.
"This is worse than the worst thing you can imagine," Mary said after watching her All-Star athlete suffer through six months of chemotherapy.
"The first six months were downhill all the way," she said. Chad was hospitalized at PCH six times, received 29 units of blood and was bedridden from June through Christmas. "I never thought I would see him bounce back," Mary said.
The hardest part for Chad was the time spent in the hospital, when he was too sick to get up and really didn't feel like having visitors. But his little brother, Daniel, always managed to cheer him up by bringing him gifts or by saying "dumb things" that made him laugh.
Another bright spot came in December, when the Porters acquired a new family member: a golden retriever named Rufus ALL (named for Chad's type of cancer - Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia) Porter.
The cancer went into remission, and Chad finished his first phase of intense chemotherapy in January, following up with a less intense maintenance program that will continue through the next three years. After a semester of homebound school, which conducts classes through conference calls and home tutoring, Chad was able to return to school after Christmas.
He has taken up basketball again, although he returned to school too late in the year to play for his high school team. Next year, he hopes to play both basketball and football for the school. This summer, he plans to take a whitewater rafting trip to Utah with other patients and physicians from the Cancer Center.
"He's just doing great," his mother said.
Mary is amazed at the support that has come from friends and even strangers during their ordeal.
When Chad was first admitted to the hospital, she called friends and family members to ask for help in renovating his bedroom while he was away. Thirty people showed up, and in a single evening the bedroom was completely remodeled - with new carpeting, drapes, fresh paint and a newly-installed ceiling fan.
During the same hospitalization, the family's pool filter broke, and Mary made arrangements to have it repaired that week. Because she was spending most of her time that week at the hospital, she had to explain to the repair company why she could only be home for a short time to meet the repairman.
When the repairman came a few days later, he introduced himself, put his arms around her and told her his own son had been diagnosed with cancer in March. Using spare parts from his own home, the repairman fixed the filter at no charge. (The original estimate for the work had been $534.)
At Christmastime, someone left an envelope on her doorstep that said simply, "To Mary, from Santa." Inside was a generous supply of retail and grocery store gift certificates. One of Mary's college friends sent $100 in pizza gift certificates that have provided dinner for Joshua and Daniel on evenings their mom had to be at the hospital. And when Chad started losing his wavy hair to chemotherapy treatments, hats came in from every direction - from friends, acquaintances, and his mother's co-workers at Shamrock Foods.
"Every time I turn around, something like this is happening to us," said Mary, grateful for the support that has helped carry the family through one of the darkest periods of her life.
"Out of a truly horrible experience, some truly wonderful things have happened," she said.