Meet Batman Sam: Walkersville boy fights to keep cancer at bay; parents seek to raise awareness | Health
Using jelly beans and gobstoppers, Sam Southward began to understand what it meant to have cancer at age 2.
Early in the Walkersville boy’s diagnosis last year, staff at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center tried to help him understand his illness with a candy analogy. White and red blood cells, represented by jelly beans of the same color, plus yellow jelly beans symbolizing platelets, were used to illustrate the activity in Sam’s body. But in the way of those good cells were ‘lazy’ leukemia cells.
“Every time he gets chemo, we take out a Gobstopper, and that’s us removing one of the lazy cells,” Melissa Southward said of her now 3-year-old son.
She and her husband Blake Southward thought something was wrong in August 2020 when Sam kept getting nosebleeds and his skin appeared yellow. They insisted on a blood test and found out that Sam had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) — the most common cancer in children, according to Dr. Patrick Brown. Brown is Sam’s primary pediatric oncologist and director of the Pediatric Leukemia Program at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
Three-year-old Sam Southward of Walkersville was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2020. His cancer is in remission, but the battle continues daily. At the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, he was nicknamed “Batman Sam.”
Photo courtesy of Katie Main Design + Photo
In ALL patients, leukemic cells grow rapidly, making it difficult for the bone marrow to make normal cells, according to a Johns Hopkins article featuring Sam’s story.
When Melissa and Blake met Brown to learn more about Sam’s diagnosis, they were surprised to see the doctor smile.
“No family wants to hear that their child has been diagnosed with cancer,” Dr. Brown to the News Post. “But if you have to deliver that news, the type of cancer that Sam has is the type where we can be extremely optimistic.”
According to Brown, between 7,000 and 8,000 children are diagnosed with ALL each year in the US, but the disease has a cure rate of about 90 percent.
After eight days at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Sam’s bone marrow showed no signs of cancer and he was discharged from the hospital. Twenty days later, he was considered in remission.
Sam will continue chemotherapy until November 12, 2022, to give him the best chance of avoiding a relapse.
Close to Johns Hopkins, Sam has become known for a heroic nickname that seems to match his attitude. When a nurse asked Sam what his superhero name would be, he proclaimed himself “Batman Sam.”
On a recent visit to the Southward home, Melissa and Blake wore Batman-inspired T-shirts as they shared their story. Sam sat on his mother’s lap and ate cereal while his 2-year-old sister Evelyn filled the kitchen table with toys. A wooden train pulled the letters, SAM. The sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating the side of Sam’s face.
Melissa and Blake Southward play on a swing with their children Sam, 3, and Evelyn, 2. Sam, fondly known as “Batman Sam”, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.
Staff photo by Bill Green
A few yards across the table stretched a string of colorful beads, connected by string. Sam pointed to his favorite bead, an airplane.
“Every bead here represents something,” Blake said.
Rainbow beads mark lost friends, black symbolizes shots, speckled beads are for procedures, and chemotherapy doses are represented by yellow, pink, and white. Johns Hopkins calls this Beads of Courage.
“If Sam does something special or is extra brave for a day, he gets to pick a special bead,” Melissa said.
“I’ve got an alligator there,” Sam said, referring to one of his special beads.
If you talk to Sam’s parents or his doctor, they will tell you that the boy shows courage on a daily basis.
“He’s a great kid,” Brown said. “One of the things that makes this job so much fun is how incredibly resilient children are in the face of these difficulties.”
In the comfort of his home in early October, Sam looked like any other nearly four-year-old. He got a little cranky when his sister tried to sit on their mom’s lap, but his smile beamed as he threw a ball in their backyard with his dad.
However, some days are not so typical. Sam had a seizure over Christmas and was hospitalized in September – Childhood Cancer Awareness Month – due to a liver problem.
“While his leukemia is very treatable and we hope it’s curable, that doesn’t mean the treatment itself is easy,” Brown said.
The Southwards say they are talking about the bad days and sharing their stories to raise awareness about childhood cancer.
“My hope is that one day, just like how the whole world turns pink in October, everyone turns gold in September,” Melissa said, referring to the color for childhood cancer awareness.
According to the Johns Hopkins website, less than 5 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s budget goes to pediatric cancer research, and more than 12,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year.
During 23 years at Johns Hopkins, Brown said he was grateful to see former patients graduate, start careers and get married. And while Sam continues with treatment, Brown hopes he’ll live a normal life, too.
“He’s a real superhero,” Brown said.
Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter: @MaryGraceKeller