By Laura McAlister
The blue bows on mailboxes in Mountain Brook might not mean much to some, but to Sean Fredella, they represent hope, support and, most importantly to him, prayers.
The 11-year-old knows each time he sees one of those bows that someone is praying for him and hoping he overcomes his fourth bout with cancer.
“The support we’ve had from the community has been overwhelming,” said Nell Fredella, Sean’s mother. “The blue bow thing was something my friend thought up as a way to welcome him home. His favorite color is blue, and they told him, when you see one of those bows on a mailbox, someone is praying for you.”
The idea to place the bows on mailboxes came late last year shortly after Sean was diagnosed with a rare tumor behind his right eye.
Sean had been cancer-free for more than three years. He was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 when he was two years old. He received treatments, but in November 2005 he had a central nervous system relapse and had to receive two more years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
They seemed to be working. Sean was “completely asymptomatic,” Nell said, but the doctors said the cancer had returned and Sean would have to have a bone marrow transplant.
His brother, Ryan, now 15, stepped up to be his donor.
“Sean did very well with that,” Nell said of the transplant. “It was a horrible recovery. It was really rough, but he did recover. We had to feed him with a little medicine dropper like a little baby bird. He was so sick, but he made it through.”
By August 2008, Sean was able to return to school at St. Rose Academy and later Mountain Brook Elementary. He was cancer-free for 3 1/2 years when Nell and Todd, Sean’s father, noticed their son had an unusual amount of congestion.
“He couldn’t breathe,” Nell said. “Then his eyes started bulging. They did a CT scan and found a rare adult tumor behind his eye.”
The technical name of the tumor is esthesioneuroblastoma, and doctors say it was likely caused by all the chemo and radiation treatments Sean has received.
With the diagnosis, the family knew they’d once again be traveling back and forth from Birmingham to Houston, where Sean is receiving treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Nell said the treatment will be very aggressive. It will include five rounds of chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove the tumor. Then Sean will have to have another six to eight weeks of radiation therapy.
Sean has already started the chemotherapy, but the family is unsure when he’ll be able to have the surgery.
In addition to the treatments taking a toll on the family emotionally, Nell said it’s also been difficult financially. That’s another way the blue bows are helping Sean and his family. At first the bows were placed on mailboxes as a show of support and prayer, but now they are also being sold to help pay some of Sean’s medical expenses.
It started with a family the Fredellas know from church, Laura Niemann and her daughter Courtney, who began making and selling the bows. Then Smith’s Variety joined in to help.
“I didn’t know them, but I was approached by the Mountain Brook PTO about helping,” said Smith’s owner Mary Anne Glazner. “I thought and prayed, and God said I needed to do this, so that’s what I did.”
Mary Anne got her staff to create the bows, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Sean’s medical expenses.
She couldn’t put a price on the bows, Mary Anne said, so instead she just asked customers to contribute what they could.
“The first guy who came in asked me how much, and I said, you give what you give, I’m not going to tell you,” she said. “He gave me $50, and the next person did, too. I had another ask, and I told her the same thing and what the others paid. She said she could top that and gave me three $20s.”
The bows are also being sold at Scribblers in Mountain Brook.
In all, about $3,500 has been raised since the bows were first sold in December.
Nell said she’s overwhelmed with the support, and the financial assistance has also been a blessing.
“I have to say with all the plane flights back and forth (from Houston to Birmingham), the money has been so helpful,” she said. “We do a lot of going back and forth, which is fine. I’d spend the last dime I had and the shirt off my back to do whatever it takes to get him better.”
Before Sean’s most recent diagnosis, Nell and Todd were active with Children’s of Alabama’s Cancer Hope and Cope fundraiser, which raises money to help families with expenses related to cancer treatment, such as gas, lodging and parking.
The couple also is in the process of reaching out to other families dealing with cancer who need financial assistance.
“We’re working on setting up a fund at Children’s called ‘Sean Strong’ to help families in need, families that are in financial crisis and are going through any type of cancer,” Nell said. “Until you go through it, you just don’t know.
“People have been so great to us, though. We’ve had strangers send checks in the mail to help with airline tickets or just buy Sean a Lego toy.
“We’ve been touched by this community. It’s really humbling.”