ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) -- KTTC is honored to begin introducing viewers monthly to some of the youngest among us, facing the unthinkable with bravery and optimism. In our first "Kids With Courage" segment, Caitlin Alexander introduces us to 6-year-old Ryan Bennett.
We met Ryan and his family over video call in order to maintain social distancing. As a first grader, he explained that at school, he enjoys recess and lunch.
When asked to describe him, his parents, Mandi and Richard Bennett, began with his laugh.
"[Ryan] has a very deep belly giggle and throughout all of treatment and everything he's gone through, he's kept a smile on his face, kept his laughter," Mandi explained.
About a year and a half ago, Mandi and Richard noticed their youngest was extra tired and had some bruising on his arms.
"It was two days later he was admitted to the hospital with a leukemia diagnosis," Mandi said.
"It's hard to talk about even now. I'd say our world just completely got turned upside down," Richard said.
A medical team at Mayo Clinic St. Marys placed a port for Ryan's chemotherapy, and he settled in for in-patient treatment for the first 30 days.
Dr. Carola Arndt is a pediatric oncologist at Mayo Clinic Children's Center. She is Ryan's physician.
She told KTTC, "This diagnosis comes as a shock to any parent. Fortunately, the cure rates have dramatically improved over the decades so that nowadays, most children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia can be cured. However, it comes at a price of hard treatments for the patients."
Mandi couldn't leave Ryan's side during his stay in the hospital. It was during these difficult days that the Bennetts found Brighter Tomorrows, a non-profit organization in Rochester that aims to support families touched by childhood cancer.
Mandi said they felt very blessed to be, "able to talk and vent with people that understand and cry." They brought their other children along to Brighter Tomorrow events to meet other families going through similar situations.
Ryan lost his hair during treatment. The boys in his family also shaved their heads in a show of solidarity.
With the help of his parents, his three siblings and prayer, Ryan said he's stayed brave.
He and his mom recite Joshua 1:9 when times are especially tough.
"Here is what I am commanding you to do. Be strong and brave. Do not be terrified. Do not lose hope. I am the Lord your God and I will be with you everywhere you go," Ryan recited.
He entered the maintenance phase of his treatment last December.
Mandi said that means a chemo pill every day and a spinal tap or chemotherapy through his port once a month.
Of course, that was all before a new, unexpected challenge made itself known early this year.
"Obviously, COVID was a major concern," Richard said.
Brighter Tomorrows set up the Bennetts with a pediatric infectious disease specialist to talk about navigating these terrifying times.
The conversation helped them eventually determine that with proper safety precautions in place, Ryan, who was now in remission, could return to the classroom at a smaller school.
"Ryan used to feel abnormal wearing his mask around in public, and now at school, everybody has to wear a mask. So there's definitely some silver linings to it," Richard smiled.
Ryan had his hair back in time for that first day of first grade photo.
He will continue with treatment until he's 8 years old, but his contagious laugh will continue long after that.
"We are optimistic he will continue to do well, " Dr. Arndt said. "I believe he will be either an architect or a builder when he grows up, given his fascination with LEGOs!"
"He's got a long life ahead of him, and we want it to be the best that we can have," Mandi said.