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Family finds “1,000 reasons to smile” after beating childhood cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic

When 2-year-old Ben Shurts was diagnosed with leukemia in late 2019, the experts at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital helped his family navigate childhood cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic at the same time.
Parents Garrick and Jessica Shurts pose with their five children in front of an inspirational chalk art message they created this summer. The family is participating in #ChalkForMasonic, a four-day fundraiser support our pediatric cancer research program.

Garrick and Jessica Shurts’ driveway is often covered in chalk art.

Usually, the pastel pictures are just for fun – a low-stakes creative outlet for the family’s five children. But this summer, the Shurts chose to share a different, more meaningful message on the pavement outside their house.

“When life gives you 100 reasons to cry, show life that you have 1,000 reasons to smile,” they wrote.

The family chose this inspirational quote because it represents the sunny spirit of their youngest child – 2-year-old Ben Shurts – who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in late 2019 and for nearly a year has been receiving treatment at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. But the chalk art serves a second purpose, too.

This September, the Shurts are participating in #ChalkForMasonic, a special four-day event hosted by Caribou Coffee, the University of Minnesota Foundation, and M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. The event, which coincides with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, begins on Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 4.

During that time, we’re asking people, businesses, and organizations in our community to create heartfelt or inspiring chalk art messages for our childhood cancer patients and then share photos of their art on social media using the hashtag #ChalkForMasonic. For each submission we receive, Caribou Coffee will donate $1 to support the life-saving pediatric cancer research taking place at our hospital.

Learn how you can take part in #ChalkForMasonic.

“We thought it would be fun to participate because it’s something the kids could participate in, too. Our driveway is always covered with chalk drawings during the summer,” said Garrick Shurts.

The Shurts’ family’s childhood cancer journey began in November 2019, when Ben was diagnosed with AML, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow and affects the body’s ability to make blood cells. It is one of the most common childhood cancers, and children like Ben who have Down syndrome are at increased risk.

To treat his cancer, Ben and his family chose M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, the only children’s hospital in the state affiliated with the University of Minnesota Medical School and Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. Our partnership with these premier research and academic institutions allows us to translate the latest scientific breakthroughs into life-saving treatments for kids.

AML treatment typically involves chemotherapy. For children with Down syndrome, the chemotherapy doses are less intense, but the course of treatment is extended. Working closely with the family, Ben’s doctors and care team developed a treatment plan that included six rounds of chemotherapy, each involving a one-month hospital stay, followed by one week of rest at home.

Navigating a childhood cancer diagnosis is incredibly challenging process for any family. But soon after Ben’s treatments started, COVID-19 began to gain a foothold across the country. This made the situation a lot harder for Ben, his four older brothers and sisters, and his parents.  

“Ben’s parents, Garrick and Jessica, are such calm and gracious people, but I know that the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions were a real challenge,” said M Health Fairview Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist Lucie Turcotte, MD, MPH, who led Ben’s treatment team.

“Ben’s siblings couldn’t come to see him, and only one parent could be in the room with Ben at a time. Family support is so key when you have a child with cancer, and they weren’t able to have that support,” Turcotte said. “They handled a very difficult situation with such grace.”

M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital adapted quickly to keep patients, families, and staff safe during COVID-19. As the pandemic continued, Ben’s care team and the Child-Family Life Services team found innovative ways to support the 2-year-old and his family by delivering art and music therapy, speech therapy and other services in new ways.

Ben endured all six rounds chemotherapy with no significant complications. His parents took turns staying with him in the hospital in late 2019 and the first half of 2020, playing with Ben and caring for him so that he continued to flourish and thrive. Energetic and outgoing, Ben loved his nurses and even learned to walk in his hospital room.

“Ben was in the hospital for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and his birthday, but he was home in time for the Fourth of July,” Garrick said.

Today, 2-year-old Ben is still the sunshine of his family. He rang the end-of-treatment celebration bell at the children’s hospital with a mile-wide grin. Though his cancer is in remission and his chemotherapy is behind him, Ben and his family still receive follow-up virtual and in-person care from Turcotte and the other experts at the hospital.

“I have been so impressed with how well our team, and these families, have adapted during such difficult circumstances,” Turcotte said. “As a doctor, it has been humbling and inspiring to see.”