Mukilteo boy with ‘true grit’ will be ‘Chief for a Day’

MUKILTEO — Connor Dunham doesn’t remember life before cancer.

He was diagnosed with leukemia two weeks after his second birthday.

At 9, he’s cancer free, but the disease and the treatments have damaged his body and slowed his growth.

Connor has graft-versus-host disease, a complication from his bone marrow transplant on Sept. 27, 2006. The donor’s immune system is fighting with Connor’s own immune system inside his body. He’s also taking growth hormones to help build his 49-inch, 52-pound frame.

This year, Connor is the Mukilteo Police Department’s “Chief For A Day.” For the event, police departments sponsor a local child who has a chronic disease or terminal illness. They take the kids for a day of fun at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.

“We just want to give back to the community,” Mukilteo police officer Colt Davis said. “It’s our way of helping these kids with chronic diseases or illnesses have fun and get out and give the family a break. We’re here to support you and make sure your life is fun.”

* * *

At first, it just seemed like a cold.

Connor’s parents took him to the pediatrician. He tested positive for strep throat. He was given antibiotics. He got worse. He stopped putting pressure on his left leg.

The Dunhams were told to go to the emergency room. He got a spinal tap and more lab work.

The next day, the Dunhams were told it was leukemia. At the time, they lived in Alaska.

At 3 p.m. that same day, Connor and his father, Steve, were flown in a medical helicopter to Boeing Field in Seattle, then taken to the hospital.

His mother, Alicia, and younger brother, Carson, who was just 4 months old, got on a plane at midnight.

The Dunhams were told they could expect to stay in Seattle for six to eight weeks. They stayed 364 days.

During that time, they lived at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle. Connor remembers playing foosball there with his dad, he said. His younger brother, now 8, spent most of the first year of his life there.

“Carson did everything from walk to rolling over inside the walls of the Ronald McDonald House while Connor was getting treatment,” Alicia Dunham said.

Connor had the bone marrow transplant after he didn’t respond to early treatment.

He also underwent total-body radiation and chemotherapy. His blood type changed, and his chromosomes.

“Science is amazing,” Alicia Dunham said.

* * *

The Dunhams moved to Mukilteo from Alaska about three years ago to be closer to medical services. Steve Dunham took a job in the North Dakota oil fields. He’s away from home for weeks at a time. To Connor, it always feels like years.

It’s a sacrifice the family makes to afford his care. Even with insurance, last year they paid $14,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs, Alicia Dunham said.

They miss their family and friends in Alaska, but she likes having a team of trusted experts nearby. She quit her job as a pharmacy technician when Connor got sick.

“Now she can be a house-mom,” Connor said.

Connor, wearing a Los Angeles Lakers cap and a Mukilteo youth soccer jersey, shook his head at times at his younger brother, who likes to join in conversations when he can find a spot. Carson, though almost two years younger, is bigger now, at 56 inches and 102 pounds.

Together, the brothers ride bikes, play street hockey and share video games.

Connor, an aspiring race car driver, likes to watch NASCAR. He got into racing after seeing the Disney movie “Cars.”

“I don’t like NASCAR so me and him fight over the TV a lot,” Carson said.

Connor is playing baseball for the first time this year. He also plays soccer. It works best if he can be an extra on the team. He doesn’t like doing physical therapy, so the family compromises, using team sports for his exercise, Alicia Dunham said.

“I just like being on a team and making new friends,” Connor said. “I like that you just go get the ball. It’s just really fun.”

He takes three pills in the morning and four more at night.

Good days are doctor’s appointments without shots, Connor said. He also likes it when his brother spends the night at a friend’s house, and he gets to hang out with Mom on the weekends.

Bad days are when it rains.

* * *

Over time, the graft-versus-host disease has spread in Connor’s body. It started in his stomach and mouth. He was prescribed steroids. It eventually spread to his liver and skin. He’s lost range of motion in some joints. He started taking the growth hormones in January.

One day Connor and Carson were playing with toy cars. Carson placed his hand flat on the car to move it. Connor used his knuckles. His wrist wasn’t bending right to grasp the car. It was another step back.

It’s not clear how the physical and chemical changes of puberty will affect his progress. The goal is to try and keep as much physical ability as possible, Alicia Dunham said.

He’s still a child though, she said. He adapts.

“Kids are amazing like that,” Alicia Dunham said. “They just want to be kids.”

Until recently, the boys didn’t realize their lives were different than those of their peers, Alicia Dunham said.

Connor goes to Camp Goodtimes West, an annual camp for families affected by cancer. Last year was the first year Carson was old enough to go with him.

Because of doctor’s appointments, and the trip to Seattle, Connor misses an average day and a half every week from his fourth grade class at Columbia Elementary in Mukilteo.

At school, Connor learned about the idea of random acts of kindness. A handwritten sign on the inside of the family’s front door reminds the boys to look for ways to be kind to others.

For Connor, one chance came when he saw a crying toddler on a feeding tube at the hospital. He tried to get the child to smile. Carson chimed in to tell about his act of kindness — he once folded the laundry.

Columbia Elementary staff asked the Dunham family if they were interested in participating in Chief For A Day.

“I’m like, ‘Woohoo, yes!’” Connor said. He’s looking forward to getting his uniform and badge and meeting the other kids.

“So much gets taken away from him as far as a normal childhood goes, so any chance to do something special or be in the spotlight, I think he totally deserves it,” his mom said.

Columbia Principal Wendy Eidbo described Connor as having “true grit.” His perseverance inspires others, she said.

“He’s one of the toughest students I’ve seen at an elementary school — a significant qualification for a police chief,” Eidbo said. “He consistently remains upbeat even though some days may not be as easy as others.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

Chief For A Day

The main Chief For A Day activities in Burien are held in August.

Mukilteo police plan a fundraiser March 22 to raise money for Chief For A Day.

The live-music event is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, 8401 Paine Field Blvd., Mukilteo. Tickets are $20 and available at the police station, 10500 47th Place W., the Chamber of Commerce office, 4902 76th St. SW, Matt Martin State Farm Insurance, 12308 Mukilteo Speedway #4, and Papa Murphy’s, 12721 Mukilteo Speedway.

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