By David Fleet
Groveland Twp.- Ben Atkins is a trooper.
On Monday, sirens screamed, lights flashed and Ben, a 9-year-old township youth battling cancer, was picked up at his home in a firetruck accompanied by a Michigan State Police escort for a gathering of firefighters and law enforcement at Grange Hall Road Fire Station 2.
Along with the MSP and township firefighters, waiting at the fire station were officers from the Detroit Police Department, Oakland County Sheriff Office, Walled Lake and White Lake police departments. The Oakland County Sheriff Office helicopter along with a SWAT Team vehicle also dropped for the day.
About 30 officers along with firefighters lined the entrance drive of the fire hall as Ben arrived with his parents for lunch plus a special reception.
“I was under the impression it was just a tour,” laughed Georgianna Atkins, his mother. “I was in shock and in awe of all the first responders who came together on Monday. He wants to be all this—a trooper, firefighter and a pilot. This made me happy because Ben had not been happy lately. To see everyone today come together for him made him very happy.”
About two years ago Ben was a student at Holly Elementary School when he started having severe leg pains.
“It became so bad that he could not walk outside to our car,” recalls Georgianna. “He was x-rayed at McLaren Clarkston Emergency Room then transported by ambulance to C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital, Ann Arbor.”
Ben was at C.S. Mott for three weeks.
In January 2017, Ben was diagnosed with osteosarcoma a rare bone cancer which can spread to other organs or tissues in the body, most commonly starting with the lungs. Chemo was started immediately and lasted for three months. In April, surgeons removed his right femur which was replaced with a donated bone.
Chemo was finished in September 2017. Then in May 2018 his leg swelled to triple its size.
“The cancer was back so they started chemo again, now for another two months. Still, Ben remained so happy and outgoing. During his chemo he’d be playing and then stop and throw up. Then he’d just go back to playing like nothing happened. They named him ‘Chief of Security and Happiness’ at Ronald McDonald House.”
The township fire department’s friendship with Ben began last summer when a State Trooper was asked to visit him for his half birthday in July. One of the contractors working on the family home, to make the bathroom more accessible for Ben, contacted the state police, said Georgianna.
“One of the workers at our home had lost a son to cancer,” she said. “They also made the upgrades to our bathroom at no cost.”
Michigan State Police Trooper Andrea Sutton, from the Metro North Post, Oak Park made visits to Ben.
“The mom had called and said her little boy was battling cancer,” said Sutton. “So I visited and sat with him for a few minutes. He’s an inspiring little boy. The day I was there he was playing videos games and full of smiles. He’s taking on a big challenge right now.”
Last summer troopers informed the township fire department of Ben’s story.
“Not wanting to be outdone by the cops we jumped in the fire engine and headed down to his birthday party to surprise him,” said Ryan Crawfis, GTF firefighter/engineer who along with Firefighter Jeff Burdess helped coordinate Monday’s event. “It was a great day. Ben got to ride in the fire engine around the park, use the air horn, and show off to all of his friends. Since then, my crew and I have made regular visits to his home, issued him official uniforms, and have sworn him in as an honorary firefighter.”
In July 2018 doctors amputated Ben’s right leg from the hip down.
“The chemo was just not working,” said Georgianna. “The cancer had broken through the bone into the soft tissues.”
On Aug. 30 the Michigan State Police arrived and took Ben to the Detroit Lions vs. Cleveland Browns Football game. The trip to Ford Field included a long ride in a police cruiser down I-75.
Ben had the opportunity to chat with players and despite the loss, when he returned home he still wanted to play for the Lions, she said.
“Someone has to make the Lions better,” he told his mother.
The family received a second opinion from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Ben underwent a clinical trial with a treatment of 3F8 monoclonal antibodies.
“The treatment had a 50 percent success rate,” she said. “Chemo was less successful. We did two cycles of that treatment. Then following scans at Mott (Ann Arbor), they found tumors in his chest.”
The cancer had spread to the lining of his lungs and the tumors were too close to his heart to remove.
“We left it up to Ben if he wanted to continue with chemo,” she said. “He said, ‘chemo was not a cure and he wanted to stay with Hospice.’”
A music fan of Jason Aldean county song, “Big Green Tractor,’ Ben had dreamt of opening a tractor yard where people could test drive tractors just for fun. While not a “green tractor,” on Monday, Ben along with Trooper Sutton took a ride in the township’s ATV. Ben drove.
The township fire department will continue to work behind the scenes to support Ben and walk with his family through this difficult time. “We consider the Fire Department the bedrock of our community and its an honor to be able to assist in any way we can, “ said Crawfis.