STOW — Fifty Jeeps and a dozen motorcycles looped the high school parking lot Sunday, idling behind a military convoy truck and a school bus — all of them decked out in bells and holly, and waiting to follow a red fire truck to Keith Burkett’s house.
Neighbors lined the community parade route with inflatable snowmen, holiday lights and yard signs wishing “Kourageous Keith” a Merry Christmas.
“Christmas is my favorite holiday because of all the happiness and joy in the world,” Keith said, hunching over in pain as his mother handed him another pill for the pain and anxiety.
In this 12-year-old boy’s final days, he has inspired his family, his community and his friends to “never give up.” As the cancer he’s fought for half his life now spreads through his tiny body, as the chemotherapy and radiation that worked before fail him now, Keith has accepted his fate while holding on to hope.
“To get through life,” he said when asked about his never-surrender mentality. “So that maybe when I grow up I can have a wife and treat her right. I just feel like people should be treated the way you want to be treated.”
As the fire truck swept Keith away, Santa Claus, his elves and carolers turned the cul-de-sac outside his front door into the North Pole.
An old soul who listens to '80s music while playing first-generation Nintendo and Atari games, Keith’s battle with a cancer that inflicts maybe 400 kids worldwide all started with a chest pain six years ago on Christmas Eve.
At the time, an X-ray at Akron Children’s Hospital uncovered enough fluid in Keith’s lungs to crowd the beating of his heart. He was treated for pneumonia.
After the surgery, a doctor told Keith’s parents that the lower half of his left lung “looked like hamburger meat.” A week later, a lump developed around the incision in his left side where tubes drained the fluid.
A biopsy identified the quickly growing mass of foreign cells as undifferentiated soft tissue sarcoma. Chemotherapy and radiation shriveled the cancer cells, which were surgically removed with his two lowest ribs. Keith got his first all-clear a few weeks later.
But the cancer returned before Thanksgiving the next year, then again in 2015 and, like never before, about six months ago. What was always in his left side is now rooted in his skull, his forehead, his neck, shoulders, hip and spine.
The American Cancer Society estimates 1,180 children 14 and under will die of cancer this year, a rate that has dropped steadily in the past 30 years with advancements in treatment. Though pediatric cancer is the leading cause of childhood death behind accidents, rare forms like Keith’s get less attention. The success and failure of the drugs and treatments that have so far kept him alive will be his legacy, hopefully raising awareness to save others, said his father, Thomas Burkett, a nurse in Cleveland.
Keith turns 13 in December. It’s always been a special month. This Christmas marks his sixth year of survival.
About two weeks ago, he took a trip to Disneyland where he was too weak to leave the hotel by the third day. Since then, he’s shed weight. He struggles some days to keep food down.
Yet, his spirit holds fast. At peace with life, he’s showing the world how to die with courage.
The death talk
Keith and his mother, Taylore Woodard, headed to a psychologist six months ago. The regular counseling helps with the emotional baggage of three life-altering bouts with cancer.
“He said something real sweet to me,” Woodard recalled. “So I ran my hand through his hair and felt a bump.”
Two months later, the radiation and chemotherapy could only ease the pain. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” Keith told his parents. The family called in hospice care.
Another two months passed before mom and dad had the inevitable conversation of what comes next. “How do you tell a child that he’s going to die?” Woodard said.
But Keith already knew. “He said he didn't want to die alone. He’s never died before. He doesn’t know where to go,” Woodard said in the way a worried mother might seek to console a child on his first day of school.
Seated in the dimly lit living room of her Stow home, Woodard clenched the blanket draped over her lap. “I told him to go toward the light,” she said as the tears flowed.
Keith is Thomas Burkett and Taylore Woodard’s only child. Named after his grandfather, he’s paved the way for six half-siblings from his parents’ second marriages. He’s taken the first — and now the last — steps in life for them all.
A boy’s legacy
Keith had fourth-grade teacher Kim Nixon in his first year at Riverview Elementary. She knew of his previous two bouts with cancer.
But she didn’t expect a student so unfazed.
Keith wanted to be normal. After missing a lot of school the previous two years, he put in extra time to catch up with peers before the end of the year. He met his best friend, Owen, and grew fond of a girl with a beautiful singing voice named Emma. But under the smiles and laughter, “he’s never had a chance to be a kid,” Nixon observed.
Not long after the 2015-16 school year began, the principal summoned Nixon and others who taught Keith to an empty classroom. “I won’t forget this day,” Nixon said of the day Taylore notified the school that her son’s cancer was back.
“My heart sank, and we cried,” Nixon said. Before gathering her composure and heading back to her class, Nixon texted her adult children, then off at college.
“I told them I loved them and I wanted to make sure they appreciated each day,” said Nixon. Not in 30 years of teaching had a student taught her something so profound as to never miss the chance to let your children know they’re loved.
The next morning, Nixon’s students sat on the carpet. Their teacher motioned to Keith. “He told everyone exactly what was going to happen to him,” she said. “He said his hair would fall out. This is a 9-year-old child telling other kids in my class who weren’t aware.”
More tears fell. Every child, Nixon recalled, knew someone who’d fought cancer or died.
Keith missed much of the school year, again. His friends followed his YouTube channel. And one event after another, the community rallied around a courageous little boy.
One of Nixon’s former students who studied at Paul Mitchell’s beauty school with Keith’s mom arranged haircuts for donations at the elementary school. Parents collected items for a basket raffle. And the Team Kourageous Keith T-shirts, with his favorite number 8 in his favorite color yellow and the bear he picked out on the front, were sold all over Stow.
Christmas to remember
With doctors giving Keith about two months to live, Christmas in October was orchestrated by Jeep-lovers led by Andrea Metzler of Stow.
Metzler found out about Keith from Brandy Spreitzer, a kindred Jeep enthusiast who raises money each September for the Ronald McDonald House through a Streetsboro event called “Kiely’s Lemonade Stand.” Metzler runs her own charity called "More Than a Wave,” which is named after the hand gestures Jeep owners exchange on the road. In 2016, she helped raise $10,000 for the family of Braydon Jahns, a Warren boy who died of leukemia days after the fundraiser.
"The idea [for Keith's early Christmas] started with a small parade by his house," Metzler said. “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger … because no one, including the city, said no.”
The day brought a DJ, 110 volunteers, concession stands, charitable T-shirt sales and donations collected by the Stow-Munroe Falls Rotary Foundation, and a Christmas-themed motorcade of off-road and emergency vehicles. The event culminated in the proclamation by Stow Councilman John Pribonic, who recited the definition of courage before declaring Oct. 21 as “Keith Burkett Day.”
On the phone driving to work in Cleveland, Keith’s father reflected on the love of a community. “The human spirit is guiding us through all this,” he said.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.