When cancer patients are facing treatments, blood and platelet transfusions can help give them the strength they need to fight another day.

Dave and Cassandra Klimek of Miltona said this has definitely been the case for their son.

At just 5 years old, Kaleb has already endured three rounds of chemotherapy treatments, has been poked and prodded hundreds of times and has had a number of blood and platelet infusions, among a plethora of other procedures, tests, scans and so much more.

“He’s our whole world. We love him so much. And he is such a fighter,” said Cassandra, emphasizing the importance of the blood and platelet donations.

When Cassandra was pregnant with her first born, she ended up with severe preeclampsia, a dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure that can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both the mother and the baby.

She was told it was one of the worst cases ever. Because of the preeclampsia, Kaleb was delivered via emergency c-section at just 34 weeks. His lungs were not fully developed, among other health problems, and he almost didn’t make it.

“I just knew something was wrong. His first cry was so little, so faint,” said Cassandra. “They took him out of the room and had to bag him for the first 10 minutes of his life.”

Kaleb ended up staying two weeks at Alomere Health, which at the time was known as Douglas County Hospital. He was then transferred to the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis where he spent another three months. At just 1-month of age, Kaleb had his first big procedure – heart surgery.

After those long three months in the hospital, Kaleb was finally discharged and the Klimek family was finally able to go and start their life as a new family of three.

“Life was good for awhile,” Cassandra said.

A long, bumpy road

In May 2019, Kaleb got a bloody nose that wouldn’t quit. His parents took him to the emergency room at Alomere Health and then was transferred to the St. Cloud Hospital. During his time at Alomere, Kaleb’s parents learned that he had a low platelet count. He was at around 80,000, when most normal platelet counts should be between 150,000 and 450,000.

On their way to the hospital, Kaleb’s nose bleed finally stopped. And by the time Dave arrived at the hospital to be with his wife and son, Kaleb was already on his way to being discharged.

While still in St. Cloud, the family was able to see an ear, nose and throat doctor and made an appointment for the next morning to have a cauterizing surgery to help prevent any more nose bleeds. The surgery went well and life was back to normal – for about a week.

Cassandra and Dave started to notice that Kaleb started to have more and more bruises on his arms and legs. Typical for most boys who play hard, but there were just so many unexplained bruises.

The family was then referred to a hematologist at the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. At the beginning of June, about a month after his first bloody nose, Kaleb was seen by a team of specialists at the Cancer and Blood Disorders Clinic at Children’s Hospital.

After extensive testing and matching of the symptoms he was having Kaleb was diagnosed with having idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, known as ITP. This occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s platelets. The cause is not officially determined, but in children, it can follow a viral infection.

In a post on Kaleb’s CaringBridge page, Dave wrote that the diagnosis made sense because Kaleb had a cold in late winter that seemed to last a long time. He also said that it made sense because of the increased bruising, nosebleeds and the reddish purple spots that showed up from time to time, which were caused by tiny broken blood vessels.

His platelet counts had also dropped down to about 35,000.

The decision at that time was to monitor Kaleb for any changes because most children diagnosed with ITP get rid of it on their own.

As summer continued to wind down, so did Kaleb’s platelets. He dropped down to around 25,000 and by the time October rolled around, his parents learned that his levels had dropped to around 17,000.

His doctors were now discussing treatments and the likelihood that the ITP could turn into a chronic condition.

On Oct.30 – his birthday – Kaleb was admitted to the hospital and stayed there for eight days. During this time, he had multiple nosebleeds and it was a rough few days. His parents met with specialists and Kaleb had a couple rounds of treatments. After those eight days, he was released with a game plan in mind.

When the treatments weren’t working like expected, it was decided that a bone marrow biopsy would be needed. That procedure was set for Dec. 16.

In addition to everything going on with Kaleb, there was some good news for the family. Kaleb welcomed home a new baby sister in the fall of 2019. Although also born early – at 36 weeks – due to Cassandra once again having preeclampsia, baby Alayna was born healthy with no medical issues.

A diagnosis that changed everything

In mid-December, Kaleb’s parents learned that his bone marrow biopsy sample was being sent to a specialist in Chicago for further testing. The reason? A few indicators in his cells showed the presence of leukemia but his doctor’s wanted a second opinion.

On Christmas Eve last year, Kaleb had to have a platelet transfusion – his first of many. It went well, but not well enough.

Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 2, Cassandra and Dave had to bring their son to the Oncology and Blood Disorders Clinic for a second platelet transfusion. This is when they received the news that their worst fears were coming true.

Kaleb was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, known as AML. This type of cancer is fairly rare, especially in someone as young as Kaleb. AML is a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. In Kaleb’s case, it was found relatively early, showing up only in his bone marrow and not in his blood.

Dave and Cassandra said there are no words to describe the amount of pain they felt when hearing the words, “Your child has cancer.”

“After hearing those words, everything was magnified. We went through so many emotions,” said Cassandra. “In a matter of hours we went from being happy, living life with two beautiful kids to a living parent’s worst nightmare.”

Cassandra said she was devastated by the news and as she sat in the hospital bed with her son, she just sat there hugging him so tight as she sobbed. Kaleb’s parents said they kept wondering, “Why Kaleb? Hasn’t he already been through enough?”

“This brought me back to 2014 when Kaleb was born,” said Cassandra. “I told myself ‘This is hard, but Kaleb is strong and he is such a fighter.’ I prayed to God, ‘Please don’t take him away from me.’ He is our life. If I could have, I would have taken this diagnosis from him in a heartbeat.”

The Klimeks said their son has endured more things in his short life than most people will ever go through in their entire lives. The first few days after the diagnosis were pretty emotional.

At one point, Cassandra remembers Kaleb looking at her, telling her not to cry.

“I stopped crying and just held him, kissed him and told him how awesome he is,” she said. “Kaleb is tougher than anybody I know. If anyone can get through it, he can.”

Dave didn’t want to remember that day. He said all he kept thinking was why his son had to go through everything he’s gone through and then be given the diagnosis of cancer. But he, too, said his son is tough and resilient and will make it through – all with a smile on his face.

“If any adult went through half of what Kaleb has gone through, they wouldn’t be smiling,” said Dave. “On his most miserable day, Kaleb will flash you a smile and I think, ‘Where do you pull that from?’ ”

Kaleb has two more rounds of chemo treatments to go through, but his parents feel good about where he is at. His cancer was caught early and he was in remission after his first round of treatments.

They know they can’t control the effects cancer is having on their child – and family – they said they can control how they respond.

“We will love and lift each other up every day. Kaleb will win this battle and we will be behind him 110%,” said Cassandra. “Never stop believing in hope because miracles happen every day.”

Always advocate

So far, one of the biggest takeaways for Dave and Cassandra is being advocates for their son. This isn’t something new to them, but they’ve had to step up their game during their son’s medical journey.

Cassandra said just because a medical professional says something, doesn’t mean they know everything. She said if something feels off, parents need to trust their gut and ask lots of questions. Additionally, if need be, she said to ask for a second opinion.

“As a parent, you know your child best and if a provider is not listening, find one that will,” she said. “We are huge advocates for our son. When it comes to the health and safety of Kaleb, we will do whatever we need to in order to make sure he receives the best possible care.”

The Klimeks said there have been times when they have had to talk to people in higher authority so they could take charge and make the necessary changes that were needed for their son.

“Kaleb deserves a lot better than what he has gotten at times during his treatments,” stated Cassandra. “For the past five years, we have never once regretted advocating for him. Be your child’s voice, someone has to. Every child deserves this.”

A perfect match?

Although at this time, Kaleb does not need a bone marrow transplant, there may come a day when he does. Because the probability of them being a good match was unlikely, Dave and Cassandra were not tested. However, because siblings are more likely a good match, they did a swab test on Alayna.

Cassandra will never forget the day she got the news of the result.

Kaleb’s doctor approached her with a huge smile on his face and was holding a piece of paper in his hand – the results of Alayna’s swab.

She is a perfect match.

“I was shocked,” said Cassandra. “It was incredible news. I didn’t cry, but it was so awesome to hear and gave us a peace of mind in the event Kaleb would ever need a bone marrow transplant in the future.”

Dave couldn’t agree more, saying that knowing their daughter was a perfect match was so awesome to hear.

Cassandra added, “It was like it was fate. What are the odds of having another baby, that we didn’t even know we would be able to have, and then we find out she’s a perfect match. It truly is incredible.”

The couple was told to tuck the piece of paper away and to hope and pray they would never need it.

Over the course of their son’s journey, the couple have been asked what people can do. The number one thing? Contact the Red Cross and donate blood and platelets.

Kaleb will be starting his fourth round of chemo and is still requiring blood and platelet transfusions.

“If it wasn’t for people donating, our son would not be here today,” said Cassandra. “Please go and donate today.”

Other ways to help

An account has been set up at Bell Bank in Alexandria to help the family with ongoing expenses. To donate, send a check to Bell Bank, c/o Kaleb Klimek Benefit Account, 1001 Broadway St., Alexandria, MN 56308.

To follow his journey, check out his CaringBridge page at caringbridge.org/public/kalebklimek.