BND Magazine

August 10, 2014

3 Little Birds 4 Life: Leukemia patient get his wish and more

Ashley Swip didn't know Jeff Hursey until last weekend, but she was happy to lend a helping hand.

Jeff, 28, of Belleville, is recovering from leukemia. He's the same age as her brother, Tyler Gifford, was when he died of melanoma in 2010.

"What made it special was that we got to go and hang out with Jeff and meet his family and have a conversation with him about what was going on," said Ashley, 34, of Collinsville. "That doesn't happen very often."

Ashley heads the non-profit organization 3 Little Birds 4 Life, which grants wishes to people 18 to 40 with cancer. Many live in other parts of the country.

Jeff applied for his wish, a new laptop. He received it Saturday at a dinner donated by Papa Vito's in Belleville.

"It's something practical that could help me," Jeff said. "I'm a photographer and an artist, and I use the computer a lot for my work. It's a fundamental tool for my passion."

Jeff also got a new camera bag and photography supplies to go with his MacBook Pro.

Ashley founded 3 Little Birds, named after a Bob Marley song, in 2011 with her husband, Brett Swip, and mother, Deena Pilcher. They were trying to fill a void.

During Tyler's illness, he "fell through the cracks" of organizations that provide support and services to kids and senior citizens with cancer.

"It's kind of a forgotten age," Ashley said. "People just assume they don't need any help. But sometimes they need the most help."

Many have young children to support or mortgages to pay. Some have to quit jobs to undergo treatment.

Ashley granted her first wish to her brother, a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan, six weeks before he died. He toured Busch Stadium, walked out on the field, sat in the dugout and announced an inning.

"He was smiling," Ashley said. "He was happy. We got to spend one more day with the old Tyler, and he hadn't been around for a while. He wasn't laying around sick."

In the past three years, 3 Little Birds chapters have formed in Chicago, Mattoon and Louisville, Ky. The organization has granted 88 wishes.

One woman needed $1,800 for a wig to wear to her wedding. Another wanted to see her daughter compete at a trampoline tournament in Florida.

"No one in our organization gets any kind of salary," said Ashley, a P.E. teacher at Granite City High School and mother of two. "We're all volunteers."

Ashley also uses the platform to educate people about melanoma, which can be curable if treated early.

That wasn't the case with her brother, a loan officer at Bank of America. He ignored a mole on his calf until the cancer had spread to other parts of his body. Amputation and chemotherapy didn't help.

"They pretty much told him, 'You have less than six months to live,'" Ashley recalls. "They said, 'You can participate in clinical trials, but it will be scientific. It won't extend your life.' So he decided he would do that, just to help other people."

Doctors have given Jeff much more hope, although the past year has been difficult.

He started experiencing symptoms such as side pain, bruise-like spots and a sore throat in early 2013. Blood tests revealed acute myeloid leukemia.

"It's blood cancer, so it's not like a lot of cancers that are in the form of tumors," said Jeff, a 2004 graduate of Belleville West High School and 2009 graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

"My bone marrow was producing white blood cells that didn't function properly. They were reproducing quickly, and they were overcrowding my body."

Jeff underwent three rounds of chemotherapy, as well as radiation, before receiving an umbilical stem-cell transplant.

Since that time, his body has been working to build a completely new immune system. His appetite has returned, as well as his hair and fingernails.

"It's looking good so far," Jeff said. "I'm in remission. My transplant was (May 2, 2013), and they typically say after two years without a relapse, you're cured. So I'm kind of in limbo."

Jeff eventually will need a hip replacement because medication he took during treatment damaged his hip joint. He walks with a cane for now.

The former athlete probably won't return to his physically challenging work as a freelance art handler, setting up exhibits. But he hopes to grow his photography business and continue making and teaching art.

His positive, can-do attitude has impressed his parents, Bob and Chris Hursey, brother, Rob, and girlfriend, Kay Renner.

"He's a trooper," said Chris, 65, of Belleville, a professional house cleaner. "Just the way he has handled it all. He never complains. I know I would have never been as brave as he is."

Jeff has health insurance, which covers 80 percent of medical bills. He expects to spend the rest of his life paying the other 20 percent.

Even so, Jeff was reluctant when friends, family and, in one case, complete strangers planned fundraisers to help with expenses.

"It's hard to ask for things," he said. "I feel like I should earn it. I didn't want to be greedy (and contact 3 Little Birds about a laptop), but then I thought about everything I had been through, and I knew the organization was set up for this type of situation."

3 Little Birds receives about 20 wish applications a month. More volunteers are needed to be "wish designers." For more information on volunteering, donating, making wishes or granting wishes, call 888-370-8885, visit 3littlebirds4life.org or email info@3littlebirds4life.org.

"Three Little Birds" lyrics if uou want them:

Rise up this mornin',

Smile with the risin' sun,

Three little birds

Each by my doorstep

Singin' sweet songs

Of melodies pure and true,

Sayin', ("This is my message to you-ou-ou: ")

"Don't worry 'bout a thing,

'Cause every little thing gonna be all right."

"Don't worry (don't worry) 'bout a thing,

'Cause every little thing gonna be all right! "

-- "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley

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