“Our lives changed that day – we were thrown into the dark world of cancer,” recalled Brick resident Kelly Dougard, of the painful day last November she and her husband learned their 6-year-old son Matthew had leukemia.
Matthew’s fight against the disease, a cancer of the blood, has been fought each day since, through painful medical procedures, hospital visits, needles, and being told ‘”no,’ you cant do that anymore, or we cant go there,” his mother said.
A student at Drum Point Elementary School, Matthew loves sports – especially football, basketball and lacrosse – but cannot play for three years due to injury fears.
But one day this summer, the daily battle gave way to a day of extraordinary exhilaration for Matthew, and a chance to honor the life of another person who fought leukemia.
“After my son’s diagnosis, we met so many wonderful people through different organizations and foundations,” Kelly Dougard told Shorebeat, including the Top Hawk program at Kens State University in Ohio.
Top Hawk is a program that provides four American universities with a Cessna airplane on which students can learn about flight and aeronautics. Kent State decided to name its plane for Nicole “Nikki” Kukwa, a Kent State aeronautics student who died in 2006, shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia in her junior year. The plane, in her honor, was named Nikki.
“Kent [State] University wanted to celebrate this new plane in Nikki ‘s memory by flying someone who is going through this terrible ordeal,” said Kelly Dougard, and Matthew was that person. So on July 9, Matthew boarded the plane for a flight up and down the New Jersey coastline, as more than 50 family members and friends gathered on the Kerr Avenue beach in Lavallette to cheer and wave from the ground.
Matthew had the time of his life, his mother said, and family members proudly watched as their young hero flew by.
The flight was also an honor to Kukwa, who was instrumental in establishing the Women in Aeronautics Club at Kent State, and was “an exemplary student and served as an inspiration to those who knew her,” the university said in a statement. To keep her memory alive, a three-day, girl’s aeronautics camp takes place annually in Kukwa’s honor showing her continued, positive influence in aeronautics, according to the school.
For Matthew, the flight came at a time when things were beginning to look a bit brighter.
“Matthew’s prognosis is good and his treatment is going according to a specific plan,” said Kelly Dougard. “He recieves oral chemo daily and intravenously, bi-monthly.”
“My whole family was devastated,” Dougard said, remembering last November, but for Matthew, the fight is one that he intends to win.