There is hardly a person who hasn’t been directly or indirectly affected by cancer. We all know someone who has battled cancer: a loved one, a close friend, a neighbor, or your co-worker. Perhaps you are a cancer survivor. Among the horror stories of chemo and radiation treatment, we hear of the men and women who treat and care for patients of all ages day in and day out. We hear about the facilities that shine like beacons of hope, running like clockwork to provide the latest in medical research. But most of all we hear of strong families who have endured their worst nightmare, thrown into a situation they didn’t ask to be in, faced with losing a loved one too soon. This is a story about a three-year-old boy who lost his battle to cancer and how community members have come together to support the cause, raising money in his memory for Arkansas Children’s Hospital through the annual RussVegas Half Marathon.
Let me tell you how to fight like Bryce.
Bryce Bowden passed away in July of 2016 after a long fight with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). His parents, James and Nkaujtsim Bowden, said the RussVegas Half Marathon could not have picked a better inspiration for the Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) Angels program. “Bryce was the perfect example of everything that you do in a marathon — endurance, strength, overcoming adversity. That’s who he was,” James said. “I mean the kid had half a lung and we’d take him out to the Bona Dea trail and he ran like two miles on half a lung.”
James and Nkaujtsim described Bryce as a strong, caring kid who loved sports. “He brought out the good in everybody,” Nkaujtsim said. “He would always feel so sorry for the other kids if they were hurting or if their mommy wasn’t there, and he didn’t realize he was the sickest one in the room. He was worried for everybody else.”
“He was playing golf and baseball by the time he was one and a half at a level he should not have been playing at,” James said. “He had [equipment for] every sport there was — soccer goals, golf clubs he would drag around, and he could dribble a real basketball before he was two.”
James’ parents, Jim and Marilyn Bowden, shared stories about their grandson. “As soon as you walked in the door he would grab you by the hand and want to run down the hall,” Jim said. “You’d drag the machine with him and try to keep up.”
“Everybody would always ask me and Nkaujtsim, ‘how were you so strong?’ and that was just a stupid question,” James said. “We didn’t have an option. Trust me, if you were put in that situation you would be incredibly strong. Bryce just made it so easy.”
Stories like these are why “Fight like Bryce” is a fitting slogan.
As part of the ACH Angels program, participants can sign up to raise money for Arkansas Children’s Hospital in exchange for a free race registration in the Russ Vegas Half Marathon. This year the Angels raised approximately $75,000 toward the cause. Much of that money is used to ensure better training for hospital staff . “One of the biggest problems we saw when we were in the hospital was that nurses were not being trained on the specific field they were in,” James said. “Nurses get a broad spectrum on what they are trained on and now they are getting training on that one specific thing that has to do with childhood cancer.”
Bryce received his cancer treatment while the family lived in Birmingham, Alabama. Later he was treated at a hospital in Texas before the family eventually moved back to Arkansas. The Bowden family said there are significant differences in the facilities out of state compared to Arkansas Children’s Hospital and hope the money raised each year through the RussVegas Half Marathon can go to improvements. “Little Rock is so behind on the things they need compared to Birmingham,” Jim said.
Better equipment is also a spending priority. “The biggest thing that kills kids is not the cancer it’s the infections,” James said. “With the new machines they don’t have to do a lot of disconnecting and connecting. They don’t have to expose a line here and there. Those little things are going to be what saves a kid’s life. Out of all the people we’ve met, I don’t know of a kid yet that has died from the cancer. It’s usually the infection. The treatments they received knocked down their immune systems so much that they get an infection they can’t fight off.”
James and Nkaujtsim also mentioned the little things hospitals can do to make comfortable for families in their situation. They shared that families including themselves often had to find food outside of the hospital, pay for parking blocks away and walk back to the hospital, and how it was almost impossible to get uninterrupted sleep when doctors and nurses would come into the room every 30 minutes. “You have to realize that you are taking care of a family, not just the child,” James said. “You have to have healthy parents to take care of the child and in that situation I know it’s the smallest things but those are the things that make a difference.”
James also recounted how the family had lived off of savings while in Alabama. When they moved back to Arkansas Bryce relapsed two days after they bought a house. After not working for a year, James made the difficult decision to go back to work. “It was a decision that we looked at for quite a while and Bryce looked like he was making good progress,” James said. But I can tell you that I would work the rest of my life to ensure that a family didn’t have to take one day, one hour or one minute away from their child while going through a situation. Looking back I don’t think I should have ever done it.”
But family and community support can help ease the financial burdens for parents. “I would say that we were really fortunate we had people set up fundraisers for us after we were back in Arkansas because there are a lot of families out there that don’t get that,” Nkaujtsim said.
The ACH Angels program provides a unique opportunity for people to connect with a family’s story and motivate others to support the cause. RussVegas organizers were searching for an inspiring story for the Angel’s program when they heard about Bryce. “It’s a pretty small world here with landscaping and construction and all of that,” James said. “And from what I gathered it was right after he passed that they found out he was Jim’s grandson. People see “RussVegas” and it’s just “RussVegas,” but a story is what gets people involved.”
Members of the community can get involved in several ways. They can make a monetary donation, volunteer time to help at the event or just show support. “The thing that my company did was send 14 people down town to set up all the barrels and take all the barrels in,” Jim said. “It was a major undertaking. RussVegas needs that type of physical support.”
Other businesses across town have contributed to the RussVegas Half Marathon as well. Mobley Concrete has a couple of what they call “moving billboards.” Two concrete trucks, one painted pink for Susan G. Komen and one painted blue and white for Arkansas Children’s Hospital. A percentage of the trucks’ gross income goes toward their respective organizations. I spoke with Mike Ellington, sales and operations manager, and owners Luke and David Duffield about why it is important for Mobley Concrete to support the Russ Vegas Half Marathon. “The trucks are also for our friends, family and employees who are dealing with cancer, have lost loved ones or friends to cancer,” Luke said. “I think we are all subject to that.”
Luke said the trucks are not an original idea. There are different Komen trucks across the country, but added that as far as he knew the Children’s Hospital truck was the first and only one. “Mike met with Russ Vegas organizers and the ACH Angels for the approval of the design and then the Mobley employees took that truck and completely rebuilt it,” Luke said. “There are pictures of it where it is literally down to a steering wheel and the frame.” The quote on the side of the concrete truck drum reads, “Until they don’t need us, we need you. It starts off with baby hands prints and as the drum rotates the hands get bigger,” Luke said. “There’s an amazing amount of thought that was put into it and one our guys designed and painted it.”
Though it was a time crunch to get the truck done, teamwork made it happen. “It was about two and half weeks from the day of the RussVegas Marathon when we went ahead and made the call to make that truck,” Mike said. “The amount of work that went into it was probably more than two and half weeks worth of hours. But by having so many people get involved with it, we literally just finished polishing the wheels for its first run out on the day of RussVegas last year.”
“The pictures of them building the truck are pretty amazing,” Luke said. “They were here in the middle of the night, nobody wanted to leave. Everyone stayed until it was done because a lot of them have been affected.”
According to Mike, this year the Arkansas Children’s truck has raised roughly $6,000 for the hospital.
Along with the trucks, company employees donate their time to volunteer the day of the race. “Our other companies do all of the traffic control for the marathon, Luke said. “If everyone does a little bit then the task is not that big.”
For the men, it means a lot to give back to a community where they grew up and are now raising their own families. “We grew up here and our kids are here, and it’s something that you hope you never have to deal with,” Luke said. “You hope you are never there but you understand that to have a facility like that in Arkansas is a real blessing.”
“It gives us a sense of pride to know that we are spreading some of that money to places that need it and helping people that need help,” David said.
Denali Water Solutions in Russellville is another business supporter to the Russ Vegas Half Marathon and has been making donations since its inaugural year. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” said CEO of Denali Water Solutions, Andy McNeill. “We do it because there are friends and family members that participate in these things,” Andy added. “But one of the most important things and the reason why we do it is because we are really invested in the community.”
Denali Water Solutions is supportive in the behind the scenes kind of way. “In terms of the Russ Vegas half marathon, one of the things we did was early on to get a jump-start we basically said we would match funds,” Andy said. “So there was an initial day that said if you can get money by this date we would match any thing that you do and we really go into that not knowing if we are going to write a small check or a big check. We hope a big check, but it really puts the pressure back on them to do those things.”
Employees also give their time to volunteer at the event and some even participate in the race. Andy added that one of the cool aspects about the marathon is that it promotes things that are positive, like good health. “We are just happy to be a part of it and are happy to see them do it,” Andy said. “Really, the hard part is not for us, the giving is easy. The hard part is all of the energy and momentum that they create. We want to support anybody who does things like that.”
I asked James and Nkaujtsim what it was like to see thousands of people running in memory of their son. “It is super sweet,” Nkaujtsim said. “Marilyn and I got to experience people coming up to us and ask, ‘are you Bryce’s mom?’ and that made me really sad, but it also made me feel good that they paid attention behind the ACH Angels and watched Bryce’s video that RussVegas had made.”
“We had one guy come up to us after a lady that ran past us said ‘way to go Bryce’s mom!’ The guy stopped running and said, ‘wait a minute, you’re Bryce’s mom?’ and when he heard that Nkaujtsim was Bryce’s mom he just gave her the biggest hug and got teary eyed,” Marilyn said. “He basically said that he did the marathon because of Bryce’s story.”
“We just tell everyone just how proud we are of him,” James said. “He took on things grown men can’t take on and he did it with a smile on his face. I’m extremely proud of him. To this day I try to live up to half the man that he was and I can’t even do it. That kid ran for 3-4 weeks with a heart rate over 160. I tried running for 20 minutes outside with a heart rate of 160 and couldn’t make it. And he did it for 3-4 weeks. I always try to look for Bryce in everything that happens to me now.”
The 2016 RussVegas Half Marathon raised $50,000 for Arkansas Children’s Hospital and topped that amount in 2017 by raising in excess of $70,000. More than 300 volunteers along with local businesses pitched in to make RussVegas 2017 a spectacular success. If you would like to volunteer your time or your company’s resources for RussVegas 2018, contact Chis Olson at email@example.com