June 6, 2007
By LORETTA WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer
SIMSBURY -- At a time of year when high school and college graduates are celebrated, two eighth-graders at Simsbury's Henry James Memorial School are stealing some of the limelight.
Matt Russell, 14, and Alicia Robinson, 13, each possess a quiet confidence and commitment to their studies and school community that sets them apart. Focused, accomplished and mature beyond their years, both dream of becoming doctors and have excelled despite different kinds of obstacles.
Educators at Henry James were asked in March to nominate two students - one boy, one girl - for an annual award by the Connecticut Association of Schools honoring middle school scholar-leaders. They nominated Matt and Alicia, who joined 288 similarly distinguished nominees from middle schools statewide at an awards banquet Monday at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.
For Matt, an unassuming young man with shaggy brown hair and braces on his teeth, just being in school is an accomplishment. Diagnosed at the age of 11 with an advanced type of cancer rare in children older than five, he missed the end of fifth grade and all of sixth due to the aggressive, at times grueling, treatment to beat the disease.
Erin Murray, principal of Henry James, recalled being impressed by Matt's return to school in the seventh grade.
"His outlook was always one of `I'm going to beat this, whatever it takes,'", she said. "He was taking part in a clinical trial, but he kept up with his academics. He was an honors student in seventh and eighth grade. He was on student council and involved in lots of activities in the community."
Matt's ordeal began with pain in his left leg after a day of snowboarding in January 2004. It took 10 weeks and visits to multiple specialists to determine it was stage IV neuroblastoma, a cancer of the network of nerves carrying messages from the brain. In Matt's case, the primary tumor was on his right adrenal gland, but his bone marrow also was riddled with cancer cells.
The search for a cure took him to hospitals in Connecticut, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Treatment included repeated rounds of chemotherapy in and out of the hospital, 15 hospitals stays, three visits to the emergency room, one stay in the intensive care unit, three surgeries, radiation, a stem cell transplant and more transfusions than he can count.
Nearly two years after returning to school, Matt still has difficulty talking about it.
That did not stop him, however, from sharing his story in February with legislators considering a bill requiring insurance companies to cover clinical trials out-of-network. The bill, signed into law last month, will save others from going through what he did to get the lifesaving treatment he needed.
"It was nerve-wracking," he said of the speaking before the legislature's Insurance and Real Estate Committee, "but I guessed it would help people, so I wanted to do it."
As for Alicia, don't be fooled by the tiny frame; she's a giant in the eyes of fellow students and staff, Murray said. She's a standout on the student council, first to step up and volunteer and a stellar student who represents the epitome of diligence, she said.
"Her smile turns your day around," Murray said. "She's just sweet, positive. It's contagious. She bobs through the halls. She's so excited about learning."
Alicia, a straight A student in the Project Choice program, has been commuting from Hartford since the second grade to attend school in Simsbury. The second-oldest of four children, her school day begins with the 40-minute bus ride from Hartford at 6:30 a.m. and ends when she returns home, usually aboard a late bus leaving Henry James around 4:30 p.m.
Alicia's mother, Janice Mendez, said her daughter's intelligence began to show when she was in preschool. She often complained of being bored and asked for more homework, she said.
"Growing up she always liked to read and write," said Mendez. "Going to bed, she always had a book in her hand."
Alicia's goal is to be a pediatrician. Inspired by a doctor who treated him at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Matt said he wants to become an oncologist.
Both students say they were happy and shocked to get the CAS award.
"It was really proud of myself," said Alicia. "It made me realize I really have done something. It motivates me to think I really can achieve whatever I work for."
"I just try to work hard," added Matt, "and I guess it paid off."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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