By Mike Brue
RURAL GRAND FORKS
When Chris Hutton learned last year that his wife was pregnant, “it seemed at that point,” he recalled, “it was the happiest news I’d had in a long time.”
Then came the past six months, when, he said, “everything was going on.”
“And seeing him now. . . .” the Grand Forks County sheriff’s deputy and first-time father, 37, said, his voice and eyes showing some emotion, “every day it’s like, ‘Oh, gosh, THIS is just the happiest time in my life.”
Hutton glanced over at the Hutton’s living room sofa, where 5-month-old Mason Hutton wiggled on mama Kelly Hutton’s lap. Papa Hutton’s smile brightened his own face — including two of Kelly’s favorite facial features.
“The dimples!” Kelly, 29, exclaimed, noting Chris’ smile. “You got to remember, the dimples GOT me.” That was back in 2007, three years before they wed.
“I just hope Mason gets the dimples,” a chuckling Chris replied.
With smiling eyes, Kelly turned to look into Mason’s. She leaned forward, putting their noses just inches apart. “Yeah,” Kelly said, in an animated whisper.
To hear Chris and Kelly Hutton tell it – not just in their words, but in the tones of their voices – life is pretty good these days.
Had they insisted otherwise, few would fault them.
The “everything . . . going on” that Chris Hutton noted: Kelly’s cancer and Mason’s brain injury.
‘The Black Cloud’
Mason is nearly six months removed from a traumatic birth. No heartbeat, with his neck and body entangled in his umbilical cord. No oxygen for his first eight minutes outside the womb. Tests soon indicated bleeding in his brain and subsequent seizures, causing bilaterial brain damage and some hearing loss. The extent of impact on his development: too soon to know.
Kelly, 29, is weighing her medical options, several months after early September surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis to remove a large, high-grade aggressive sarcoma. The cancerous mass was found on her right rib cage. Twenty-five radiation treatments in July and early August preceded the surgery. The medical outlook for Kelly: extremely favorable, with a slight risk for cancer to reappear.
Kelly recalls, with a chuckle, the “what did I do now?’ look she gave her husband after the pair first learned about the cancer back in June.
“’Well, what else can happen?” Kelly told Chris then.
“We call it the Black Cloud,” she said.
Her smile reveals part of their approach. The Huttons try focusing on the rest of the sky. Or, they pull out an umbrella when life threatens rain.
“Through the whole thing, Chris and I would say that we’re ‘cautiously optimistic.’ Because your world can crumble tomorrow,” Kelly said. “But you hope that there’s hope, and you look more at the positives than at ‘what ifs’ . . . .’’
Friends, coworkers, family members and many of their healthcare providers have provided “overwhelming” support that, they say, both touch the couple emotionally and move them through some of their more challenging times.
Saturday’s benefit on Kelly and Mason’s behalf, from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Eagles Club in East Grand Forks, Minn., is the latest, most public example. It’s both gratifying and humbling, Kelly said, “because of how much they want to help and how much they care.”
Kelly and Chris Hutton’s efforts to steer a more positive, appreciate-the-moment course come from a mixture of advice, observation and – in Chris’ case – personal experience.
“My father was already very ‘don’t let anything beat you. You can do whatever you want in life as long as you put your mind to it,’ “ recalled Chris, son of an Air Force airman. His family moved to Thompson, N.D., in 1980.
That ‘can do’ attitude helped Chris during his two North Dakota National Guard deployments, particularly in 2004 and 2005, when he and other members of the 1-118th spent just 10 days shy of a year in Iraq. Duty included plenty of dangerous patrols.
Thomas Hutton’s fatherly advice again came into play in late July 2006, when his son, riding his motorcycle, was struck by a hit-and-run driver on a south Grand Forks street. It led, a few weeks later, to the amputation of his lower right leg.
Chris had six surgeries during the first few weeks following the collision. He also had conversations with a friend, Wyatt Halvorson, a technician in Altru’s prosthetics and orthotics department whose own lower right leg had been amputated years earlier.
“Basically, to me, there was no choice,” said Chris, an avid outdoorsman who wished to continue living his life much as he had already lived it. “And it wasn’t a hard decision to make because, in my mind, mentally, I saw the damage at the accident scene. I actually saw my foot. And by seeing the damage, I had already anticipated I would wake up after surgery and it would be gone.”
After he was fitted with a prosthesis in early autumn of 2006, Chris returned to work, at first pulling lighter, less physically strenuous duty.
He also was back on a motorcycle that fall.
Lunch, golf and marriage
In early 2007, during temporary assignment to Grand Forks County Courthouse security, Chris first encountered Kelly Organ, a Forest Lake, Minn., native who a few months earlier moved to Grand Forks and joined the Grand Forks County Office of the District Court Clerk.
Their first communications were brief and professionally courteous.
One day, Kelly stopped to ask Chris about places to have lunch one day – and then invited him to join her. Chris had never had that happen before, he recalled with a grin.
“I call it confidence,” Kelly recalls.
A nice lunch that day? “Yeah,” Chris replied. He looked at Kelly. “Blue Moose?”
“Nooooo,” she said. “The China place. On Columbia …. Panda Buffet.” She looked, with playful indignation, at her husband. “Nice of you to remember….”
Friends at first, they eventually began dating in late 2007. The relationship progressed. Both had been married before, and neither pushed the idea.
In August 2009, Chris gathered family members, friends and others “who were involved in my recovery process and everything like that” at Manvel (N.D.) River’s Edge Golf Course for a special private golf tournament. “I called it the ‘Dude, Where’s My Leg?’ Tournament,” he said.
Before a rather conspicuous gallery of familiar faces near the No. 2 hole, Chris proposed to a surprised Kelly.
“I didn’t know this was that important of a game,” Kelly recalled.
To Chris’ proposal, she answered, “Of course.”
Chris and Kelly returned to Manvel golf course on June 19, 2010 – this time to marry on No. 5, near the base of a big, fallen tree, split on the bottom, that had survived with new growth on each half.
Marriage didn’t alter the Huttons’ recreational pursuits of their courtship days. They golfed together; Chris is the better player, but, Kelly says, she hits straighter drives. They hunted together. And they’ve played co-ed softball together, on a team with T-shirts that read, “Some Assembly Required.”
“He runs faster than I do,” Kelly said. Still, the last time Chris’ prosthetic leg fell off while rounding second base, she laughed while “everyone else went to help him.“
“We like to laugh a lot,” she explained. “I think I’m pretty blunt with my sense of humor, where he’ll try to be funny . . . but he’s just not as funny.” She laughed.
Humor would help them in times to come.
Enter the Black Cloud
When the Huttons were about to begin parenting together this spring, the black cloud began forming. They just didn’t know it yet.
Discomfort near Kelly’s right rib cage led her to the doctor’s office. “It felt like a pulled muscle,” Kelly recalled. “They thought (Mason) was just pushing out on my ribs. . . . Sarcomas are so rare, I don’t fault them for not thinking of that.” She was scheduled for physical therapy.
Other than that, everything about Kelly’s third trimester of pregnancy proceeded smoothly, the Huttons recall.
Sometime around noon on May 19, a new physical distraction emerged – but this time, it involved what Kelly didn’t feel. She noticed an absence of the usual movement in her womb.
Chris, home from a National Guard weekend drill, called Altru’s labor and delivery unit. After following a recommendation to drink orange juice failed to stir any new movement in the womb, the Huttons were told to come to the hospital.
“They hooked me up to the monitors,” Kelly recalled. “They found the heart beat – and all of a sudden it just tanked.”
The couple realized the seriousness of the situation only when a nurse friend who had been with them left the room and came back in surgical attire. “Then I kind started panicking a little bit,” Kelly said. Dr. Durga Panda, a neonatologist, arrived. Dr. Michael Brown, an obstetrician-gynecologist on call, also came in, “and two minutes after he got there, I was being rolled down the hallway.“
“They told Chris, ‘You stay here.’ . . . It wasn’t until I got to the surgery room that I realized where I was, with those bright lights above you, and the anesthesiologist says, ‘I need you to breathe in deep,’ and Dr. Brown said, ‘Kelly, we’re going to put you under. We need to get him out.’ ”
Trauma at birth
Mason Patrick Hutton was born about 14 minutes later, at 7:18 p.m., but the battle to save his life was hardly over. After about eight minutes of oxygen deprivation, Drs. Panda and Brown and the surgery team helped restore the newborn’s heartbeat and produce his first post-birth breaths, the Huttons were told.
Minutes later, Chris, now in a waiting room, watched as Dr. Panda came in, “and his body language is one of being upset,” he recalled. When the doctor mentioned “two accidents,” Chris recalled, “at that point, in my mind, I just lost my wife and I just lost my son.” As he recalls the moment, Chris informed the doctor that his law enforcement experience would help him handle what needed to be said, and that “you need to tell me right now what’s going on.”
Hutton recalled his own reaction as the doctor explained the birth trauma situation. “Right away,” Chris said, “it’s ‘so what’s the next step. Let’s go. . . . Let’s get him to where he’s gotta go.”
Soon, Mason was taken by air ambulance to Fargo’s Sanford Health medical complex and its neonatal intensive care unit. There, a special cooling cap device – the only one available in North Dakota — was fitted on the baby’s tiny head in an effort to reduce swelling that takes place when brain tissue is deprived of oxygen. Because swelling can cause brain damage, the device can reduce the baby’s chances of developing a disability, or reduce the severity of impairment, depending in part how quickly the cap is used after the infant’s birth.
Mason wore the cooling cap for several days. Chris drove back and forth between Grand Forks and Fargo to split time between his newborn son and Kelly.
An anxious Kelly, newly discharged from Altru on May 22, drove to Fargo with her husband to be reunited with Mason. It would be her first extended period with the infant; she had seen him briefly after the emergency C-section. “I didn’t feel I was able to make that bond that moms get when their kid is born and they get to spend time with them,” Kelly recalled. “I kind of felt nervous to meet him.”
When Kelly finally saw Mason again, he was swollen from edema, showing little movement, in part because of intentional restraints. “There had to be 10 different monitors, monitoring every little thing,” his mom recalled.
The brain scan at Sanford Health confirmed that Mason had some bilaterial brain damage that probably were caused by bleeding within his brain and subsequent seizures. One doctor informed the Huttons that she expected Mason to have cerebral palsy, a condition that can affect an array of brain and nervous system functions. Bleeding in the brain and low levels of oxygen in early infancy are among the circumstances that may cause cerebral palsy.
Sanford’s NICU nurses helped to calm the Huttons by both recalling situational observations from the nurses’ past experiences and by helping the couple set single daily goal for Mason – perhaps one less attached tube, for instance, or one less monitor. “We usually met them,” Kelly recalled.
After living in a Fargo hotel for a week, the Huttons stayed with one of Chris’ cousins in that city rather than resuming daily commutes between Grand Forks and Fargo.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s own discomfort near her ribs had become too painful for her to successfully ignore. “It was horrible pain…and very sharp,” she said. “It felt like somebody was stabbing you. Constantly.”
At Altru in Grand Forks, new medical scans of Kelly’s right rib cage were followed by a biopsy, which was sent to the Mayo Clinic complex in Rochester, Minn. “When I heard they were sending it off,” Kelly recalled, “that’s when I kind of went, ‘Oh, great. It probably is cancer. . . .I’m 29 years old. I’ve never really been sick. Never had any surgeries. I don’t smoke. I don’t do any of that stuff. No WAY this is going to happen to me because we don’t have enough going on.’ That’s when I kind of let it go to my head a little bit.”
Once the sarcoma diagnosis was confirmed and sarcoma specialists at the U of M were chosen to oversee treatment, Altru Drs. Brown and Panda worked with Sanford Health to arrange a deal for Mason’s ambulance transfer back to Grand Forks, Kelly said. That helped ease the Huttons’ transportation burden.
Baby Mason ended up spending only about a week and a half at Altru before being released in late June. Chris returned to his sheriff’s department work that day. With Kelly’s radiation treatments ahead, she started to worry about how she would care for Mason — during her treatment and beyond. “What if something happens to me?” she thought. “He doesn’t deserve this either.”
Once her radiation treatments began in Grand Forks and she became extremely sick, Kelly said she found herself struggling with guilt — about feeling too tired to hold or feed Mason, about how her illness was affecting Chris and other family members. “I was more concerned about what would happen to everybody else than what would happen to me,” she recalled, chuckling.
Chris, meanwhile, kept many of his concerns to himself. “He didn’t want me to know he was thinking about, ‘What if she dies?’ He didn’t want to worry me with that possibility,” she recalled.
“I think what happened to me prepped me to help her through her situation and to what happened to Mason,” Chris said. “To be on the supportive side, to keeping a positive outlook, to deal with things as they come, to don’t start letting it beat you up.”
Reason for optimism
The September surgery at the U of M gave the Huttons reason for new optimism, in part because the malignancy was so localized. “My surgeon, when I met with him post-op, he said, ‘I’ve never seen a pathology report come back as good as yours,’” Kelly recalled. Radiation had killed “99 percent” of the sarcoma, the Huttons were told, and the surgical margin of error – the extra tissue and rib removed – showed no cancer.”
Back in Grand Forks, oncologists at Altru Cancer Center and the Cancer Center of North Dakota gave their own take on Kelly’s situation, asking her to weigh several follow-up treatment options in case there are unattached cancer cells somewhere in her body. She’s close to making a decision, she said Friday.
Kelly returned to her role as a civil court clerk supervisor Oct. 1.
In the meantime, Mason’s growth continues. His parents say he sleeps well and continues to meet development goals; his progress is checked weekly.
“He goes to an occupational therapist and physical therapist,” Kelly said, “and they say the same thing – that he’s right on schedule. They say, ‘The lucky thing for you is you get all this extra attention so we’re going to catch things that we wouldn’t catch in a normal baby.’ ” Chris and Kelly receive advice on ways to foster his development, too.
They view the hearing aid in Mason’s left ear, which he received this fall, as a symbol of good news. Earlier tests suggested that Mason lacked any hearing – “probably the most downer moment” since his birth trauma, Kelly recalled. — even though his parents noticed their child reacting to loud barks from the family golden retrievers, Izzy and Kloe.
Kelly said the Huttons’ “jumping for joy” moment may have been when Mason, at 3 months of age, “started reaching for stuff and grabbing for stuff and talking and responding more.”
“That’s when I think I turned and said, ‘He’s going to be fine. He’s got this,’” Kelly recalled. “And I stopped worrying about the long term, the what ifs, and wondering if he’ll get cerebral palsy. The development issues.”
But the full extent of Mason’s bilateral brain damage will be revealed only with time, largely over the next year and a half. Kelly concedes that it still can be hard sometimes “not knowing,” if only because she’s “an organizer” who likes to be prepared. “I like to have things in order. If you could tell me now, I’d rather know than not.”
‘Lucky in life’
Kelly paused long enough for Kelly to talk to Mason, or even trade sounds.
“Aggggggnnnggh!” he exclaimed excitedly.
“HoooyyyyyEEEEEE,” she replied.
“I’ve always considered myself pretty strong,” Kelly said. “I’m the youngest of five kids, but . . . I was the oldest in some ways. I took care of people. I made sure everybody was getting along. But this has showed me how strong I am, and how strong Chris and my relationship is. A lot of people would have crumbled under all of this. . . .
“I never realized how lucky I was in life. Being the youngest, a lot of things were just given to me. And I was always good in school, and I was the one to go to college. I kind of took all that stuff for granted.”
Not these days, she said. Not with that black cloud within sight.
“I think I’m stronger than I even was before,” she said. “I think I had cancer for a reason. It put things in perspective, and I’ve been able to prioritize my life a little more, and I think it’s makes me more appreciate what I do have . . . that maybe I didn’t put enough focus on before and maybe I should have.”
She turned to speak to Mason, now on his back on the living room couch, his lower legs in his mother’s safe grip. His eyes seemed riveted on her own.
“Are you listenin’?” she said, again in a soft, animated voice. “Are you listenin’ to Mom? Soooo serious!”
The writer, Mike Brue, is communications director for NDAD.
About NDAD Community Fundraisers
- NDAD-sponsored community fundraisers are conducted by friends and families of a person with a disability or a serious health challenge.
NDAD acts as custodian of the funds raised, which can be used to help the individual with medical and other urgent needs and expenses, including helping with doctor, clinic or hospital bills and paying pre-existing bills. NDAD allows the client to use the bank of his or her choice to hold all funds that are raised.
The community fundraiser service is offered free of charge by NDAD. All funds raised are spent on the client’s needs – in Mason and Kelly Hutton’s case, medical-related bills and related expenses. It’s a service NDAD has provided across North Dakota for the majority of its 37 years. References are available.
The service offers benefits in several ways. NDAD is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, meaning any funds donated to NDAD qualify for a charitable donation and are deductible for donors who itemize. Funds donated to bank accounts that are not under 501(c)(3) status are not deductible funds.
Donations directly to a needy individual also may cause that person to lose eligibility for various public assistance programs that are based on income. With NDAD as fund custodian, the funds should protect eligibility for public programs. NDAD tracks all funds raised and expenses paid. The client, family member or representative can bring in the donation, and NDAD will provide the necessary accounting functions.
Approved bills must be submitted to NDAD, where they will be paid with donated funds — a service that can be of great relief to individuals or families dealing with overwhelming situations. If clients are at medical facilities out of town for long periods of time, it also can be a great convenience.
NDAD’s long reputable service in North Dakota also is a factor sometimes when potential donors consider a fundraiser sponsored by the organization.
Also, NDAD provides marketing and consulting expertise to help with fundraisers, including creation and copying of posters, letters or any other advertising items necessary for fundraisers.
NDAD’s Community Fundraisers program can help you with a fundraiser in your town — at no cost. Learn more by calling (701) 775-5577 or toll free 1 (800) 532-NDAD. Learn about other NDAD-sponsored fundraisers at http://www.ndad.org/fundraisers.asp .