When David Lauritzen, then 18 months old, received treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of pediatric cancer, at Texas Children’s Hospital, he loved all the toys.
“His favorite part is that we’d have a little cart that would come out (and) you get to pick a toy, not only to play with, but also to take home,” Samantha Lauritzen, 38, of Katy, Texas, told TODAY. “He was so young and didn’t really understand what was at risk and what was going on.”
The Lauritzens felt so grateful for David’s successful treatment, they wanted to do something to help other children and families grappling with pediatric cancer. That’s when David’s Toy Project began.
“My mom asked me what I wanted to do to commemorate (pediatric cancer awareness month in September),” David Lauritzen, now 12, told TODAY. “I went up to my room for a few minutes and then I came down and said, ‘Why don’t we buy toys for kids with cancer?’”
Scary symptom leads to cancer diagnosis
More than a decade earlier, Samantha Lauritzen was changing David’s diaper one morning, she had noticed blood in his urine and immediately visited the pediatrician. She suspected the then toddler had UTI. But the tests revealed that wasn’t the cause.
“(The pediatrician) said that sometimes boys get cysts in their bladder as they’re growing,” Samantha Lauritzen recalled. “The cysts pop, a little bit of blood, no big deal, no harm, everything’s fine.”
But she didn’t believe it was just a cyst.
“The little mommy’s voice inside said I couldn’t leave. And so I just looked at him and told him that I understood what he was saying, but that wasn’t it and we needed to keep looking,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “He didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘OK, then let’s keep looking.’”
A urologist saw David and they soon had a diagnosis, something they had never heard of before, rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer that develops in soft tissue, such as the bladder, prostate gland or uterus, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I was thinking maybe it was a bladder infection or a kidney infection,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “David wasn’t uncomfortable. He wasn’t running a fever. There were zero symptoms.”
The family later learned that rhabdomyosarcoma often does not have any symptoms until the tumor becomes so large it becomes visible on the body.
“It just grows and overtakes the body,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “They don’t usually find rhabdomyosarcoma until the tumor is so big it starts poking out of the body.”
Samantha’s Lauritzen’s motherly instinct helped doctors find the tumor that “was wrapped around his body,” earlier than they might have otherwise. He underwent 10 rounds of chemotherapy and eight weeks of radiation over nine months that included both in-patient and outpatient treatment. While David sometimes felt ill from treatment, he didn’t understand what was happening. But he always loved playing with the toys and lying in bed with his dad.
“We would get spicy Doritos from the nurse every day,” Aaron Lauritzen, 40, told TODAY. “We would eat Doritos in the bed and wipe our hands on the white bed sheets.”
While they tried to make the situation seem as fun as it could be, the Lauritzens felt worried. They adopted David after grappling with infertility and the thought of losing him again was devastating.
“We finally got him and then at 18-months old we’re being told there’s a possibility he’s going to be taken away from us — as a parent it kind of kills you inside. But we did have a lot of hope,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “We had a lot of love. We had a lot of support around us. And in the end regardless of the outcome, we knew we were going to be OK.”
Even after treatment ended, they still felt anxious.
“I don’t know if you ever stop worrying about it,” Aaron Lauritzen said. “It’s more of the moment of focusing on the positives.”
That focus on the good is how in part the family started the nonprofit David’s Toy Project.
Raising pediatric cancer awareness
The family raised awareness in September for pediatric cancer awareness month, but when David turned 6, his mom asked him what he wanted to do. He immediately realized he wanted to buy toys and told his parents that he could use the coins from the jar in his room.
“My mom said that we don’t have enough money,” David said.
So he thought he’d ask people if they’d want to donate.
“I would memorize my own script,” David explained. “I would ask people at the bus stop or at stores or random places for coins he said.”
While he writes a new script every year, his parents remember the first one.
“The first year it was, ‘Hi my name is David. This month is childhood cancer awareness month. I want to buy toys for Kids Cancer Center. Do you have any coins?,’” Samantha Lauritzen said.
People responded generously.
“We were at Walmart in the checkout line and he just turns around to the lady behind us and did his little script,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “Her and then the two people behind her just opened up their wallets and were like, ‘Here you go. Here’s everything.’”
He’d often come home from school weighed down by a backpack full of coins.
“A parent had to carry his backpack home one day from the bus stop because he couldn’t carry it. There were so many coins in it,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “He was just asking his teachers, his principal, his librarian … everyone he came in contact with.”
It worked. That first year, he raised $1,100 to buy 220 toys. The next year, he raised $2,500.
“Basically he doubled it every year and that’s when we shifted from us doing it ourselves to staring an actual (nonprofit) and doing it as a year-round effort,” Aaron Lauritzen said. “We get a lot of corporate donations now.”
Receiving toys can make a big difference for pediatric cancer patients.
“One of the real challenges that our patients describe — both kids and adults and their families — is a sense of isolation or a sense of not being part of the regular group,” Dr. Will Parsons, deputy director of Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center, told TODAY. “Anything that can be done to make them feel like kids again, even as they’re receiving treatment, even when they’re in the hospital, is really important.”
Even with the nonprofit, David does a lot of work, including hosting a lemonade stand and going on shopping sprees to buy toys, with the recommendations of what children in the cancer centers might want.
“I actually purchase the toys with all the money and then we bring them to the hospital,” he said. “But we’re not able to give them to the kids personally.”
Many of the children receiving treatment for cancer are immunocompromised and the hospitals need to reduce their risk of contracting infection. While the family hope that David’s Toy Project increases awareness of pediatric cancer and the need to fund more research into it, they also hope their efforts support families experiencing cancer now.
“We know we can’t make a difference in the outcome of their treatment,” Samantha Lauritzen said. “We can make a difference in the outcome of their day.”