It’s important, where we live and why. The Crozet Gazette has been gathering your thoughts about what makes Crozet special, and writing about them in the continuing series, “Why Crozet,” for the past 14 months. When Lois Gilbert approached the Gazette to take out an ad thanking those who helped her throughout her family’s two-year struggle with serious illness, we wanted to help her reach the community in this way instead. Gilbert reminds us of everything that’s really important here and everywhere: family, health, generosity and good-hearted neighbors and friends. This is the 15th in a series.
Just when life seemed the hardest, Lois Gilbert found help and hope everywhere she turned. Her son Gray, a healthy, athletic child, was diagnosed with leukemia at 6 years old. Gilbert recalls the family’s two-year struggle as a time of anxiety and grief, but also the time that her community came through for her in ways she hadn’t expected. She’d moved to the Highland neighborhood with her children, Gray and his sister Stella, a few years before.
In December 2019 Gray awoke in the night with terrible lower-back pains. “I’m an OT (occupational therapist) Gilbert said, “so I’m good at re-directing people in pain, and also good at judging levels of pain. I have all kinds of tricks up my sleeve.” Re-direction didn’t work, and her son (“usually a bubbly, neat little guy,” she said) was clearly in excruciating pain. Another episode followed, and the worried mother sought medical help. Her first visits were to the Blue Ridge Family Practice with Maura McLaughlin, a family doctor she’d met earlier when both had children in Millstone at Ivy Preschool.
Gilbert was working with a client when McLaughlin called her, indicating she had some test results. “I didn’t want to miss the call, but I also didn’t want to upset my client, an Alzheimer’s disease patient,” she said. She took the call outside. “Basically, it was ‘go home, get Gray and get to U.Va. immediately.’”
Gilbert comes from a large, close family and grew up in a small town, so she knew the value of caring family and friends. “My sister drove to Charlottesville from Maryland and was with me before we even left the emergency room,” she said. Immediately, there were quirks of fate only possible in small towns and cities: “It turned out I’d met the pediatric surgeon, Jeff Gander, also a Millstone parent, who placed Gray’s port (a central line enables chemotherapy and other medication to be delivered without multiple needles) that day.” Then, when she saw the pediatric oncologist, they discovered Brian Belyea’s son was Gray’s first grade reading buddy at Brownsville. “It was comforting to be with people who were familiar to me in some way,” she said.
As sad as it is to have a sick child during the holidays, the timing had its benefits: “If you have to be a child in a hospital, U.Va. at Christmas is the place to be,” Gilbert said. “Every day was full of holiday celebrations and surprises.”
Word spread quickly, and friends came to the hospital hoping to provide some company and compassion in the beginning days of shock and confusion. Some, like Natalia Bost and April Bennett, brought their children, Gray’s friends, as a distraction for the sick little boy. Others, understanding Gilbert’s worries about her daughter, made Stella a priority. Gift baskets never failed to include something for the worried child. “I made sure to bring her to the hospital with me sometimes, too,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s worse for children if they don’t have a real picture of what’s going on.” A niece included Stella, then 8, in a family trip to Disney World.
Meanwhile, back in Crozet, the neighborhood was mobilizing. “We were never forgotten,” Gilbert said. Signs announcing Gray’s condition popped up at Sal’s Pizza and the Green Olive Tree, and parents and teachers from Millstone Preschool and Brownsville and Crozet Elementary Schools stopped by with food and surprises. Mothers and students at the schools held bake sales, raising enough from homemade brownies and cookies to surprise the Gilberts with a number of gift cards. One day, Highlands neighbor Seth Warner came to the house with a bicycle for Stella.
The support continued throughout Gray’s two-year treatment period, Gilbert said. Once he was home, she wanted to strike a balance between protecting her son and helping him regain his strength.
Unbeknownst to her, Vicki and Buck Thomas, the aunt and uncle of one of Gray’s closest friends, were already plotting a way to encourage Gray to ease back into his former level of activity. They showed up with the “Traxxas Stampede RC” truck, an exciting toy that Gray had admired often when visiting his friend, Matthew Heilman. This unexpected and generous gift boosted Gray’s spirits and got him out of the house on the cold winter days while he was receiving treatment, Gilbert said. “Their generosity brought me to tears.”
Months went by as Gray recuperated, mostly at home. At Parkway Pharmacy, Paul Plantz and Donna Jeffery managed the complex prescriptions that were ordered and refilled every few weeks, and took it upon themselves to solve insurance-company issues when necessary. At Halloween, Cynthia Cole brought over a huge bowl of candy for the family to dispense. Krista Weil imported Bodo’s bagels from Charlottesville and made casseroles and holiday treats, Jon Trick came by with a surf board for Gray and did errands as needed, and Flannery Boucannon and others stepped in to help out with child care.
Once the pandemic hit, Gilbert said, life didn’t change that much for her family. Instead, “the rest of the world was living like us.” Sarah Hartman, a Brownsville teacher, became Gray’s home school teacher. Here, again, serendipity was at play: “I met her when she came to pick out a kitten I was giving away.” And serendipity again: “I was able to connect with a high school friend from Maryland who now works at U.Va.”
Gilbert’s family worried about her as well as her children, and a niece, knowing her preference for healthy food, somehow managed to arrange with Charlottesville’s Juice Laundry for a standing order. To save the busy mother from having to pick up the standing order of green smoothies, Sherry Keenan, the mother of one of the owners and an Old Trail resident, volunteered to deliver the smoothies and healthy cookies to Gilbert’s home in the Highlands every week.
Gray, now 8, is a healthy, active child who has finished his treatment. “Of course, you never have the feeling that it’s really over,” Gilbert said. She remembers a decision early in her difficult journey when she chose to remain in Crozet for her son’s treatment rather than return to Maryland, where she was sure to have family support. “At first, it seemed easier logistically to stay here. I only had to leave my neighborhood and make a couple of turns to get to the hospital,” she said. “But it also turned out that all the support I needed was right here.”