Home » A Slice of Heaven: Young cancer patients get the red-carpet treatment at philanthropists’ ranch
By Brian Chasnoff
HONDO – Susan LeBlanc remembers the time her 8-year-old son lay on a hospital bed with tubes in his chest, near death.
Less than one year later, Andrew LeBlanc is steering a paddleboat across a lake filled with perch on a 2,000-acre ranch near here, devising ways to remove the most fish.
“You know, you could just put a pump in here and suck out all the water,” he says in a beguiling Cajun accent.
“He’s full of solutions,” his mother says, smiling.
Last June, Andrew was full of problems.
Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, he endured numerous surgeries and chemotherapies until the cancer finally went into remission in September.
Today, Andrew finds himself on the vast grounds of Squirrel Creek Ranch surrounded by sun perch, palm trees and more than 100 exotic creatures, including Australian flightless emus and African wildbeests. Four other children are here as well, each afflicted with ALL, the most common form of cancer in children.
They came at the invitation of philanthropist Don Faust and his wife, Sidney. Since 1998, the Fausts have opened their ranch gates for 19 weekend retreats, shuttling young patients and their families from San Antonio International Airport to this working cattle ranch/wonderland in stretch limousines.
The guests, once here, are treated like royalty.
“You walk in here, and it’s like a slice of heaven,” says Rick McDonald, father of 6-year-old Alexia, from his seat by the swimming pool.
Alexia, splashing in the water, is an energetic girl with bright blue eyes and freckles on her nose, outwardly well save for the patches of missing hair from more than two years of chemotherapy.
As she bounces from the diving board, her father recalls the first day of Alexia’s diagnosis and the needle that was dug into her pelvis, without a numbing agent, to extract bone marrow for analysis.
“Angie was so strong that day,” he says of his wife, who comforted her bawling daughter through the pain.
Inside his posh, Southwestern-style ranch house, Don Faust, 78, peers at framed photographs of children from past retreats. Pointing at smiling faces and conjuring names, he distinguishes between survivors and those who have died.
“We get so used to the people,” he says, “so close to them.”
Forty years ago, childhood cancer was fatal. Now, with advances in diagnosis and treatment, mortality rates have been cut dramatically. According to statistics, nearly 75 percent of children afflicted with ALL attain remission and survive free of leukemia recurrence.
The Fausts host children with other forms of cancer as well, taking care to organize groups according to specific afflictions. All are patients from the Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston.
The idea for the retreats came in 1998 when a group of ailing children presented the Fausts with a philanthropy award from the Cancer League of Houston. The sight of the pale, balding children both broke and emboldened Faust’s heart. Until then, he had merely been generous with his money.
“But we don’t know where that goes,” says Faust, a wealthy businessman born in Galveston. “This – we know where it goes.”
To accommodate the children and their families, he constructed a wing of bedrooms. He is now drawing up plans for a recreation room replete with a wall-sized movie screen.
While here, the guests are allowed to wander the grounds and choose from a variety of activities, from riding miniature horses to baiting giant catfish.
As far as Faust knows, this cancer retreat is the only one in Texas that welcomes patients’ families.
“We do this as much for the families as for the children,” he says. “(The children) don’t even know what they’ve got, but the parents go through holy hell.”
The divorce rate in families afflicted with terminal disorders is more than twice that of normal families, says Dr. Scott Basinger, assistant dean at the Baylor College of Medicine. Basinger, who attends every retreat, calls cancer a “family disease.”
Alexia’s mother attests to the difficulty of that first summer after her daughter’s diagnosis, when her little girl barely had an immune system.
“It pretty much ruined the summer for the whole family,” says Angie McDonald, now relaxing in a deck chair by the pool. “You can’t even go to the grocery store.”
Many families who have attended the Fausts’ retreat express their gratitude in effusive letters, with one in particular thanking them as much for the “ostrich eggs and camel spit” as for the couple’s warmth and kindness.
Today, the ostrich eggs await.
The guests step onto a long wooden trailer. Alexia pulls a disposable camera from her well-stuffed goody bag, preparing to snap some photographs.
The trailer lurches forward, pulled by a giant tractor, and the guests gaze out at rocky mountain elk, big-faced buffalo, zebras and kangaroos.
When a long-lashed llama ventures extremely close, Alexia is transfixed. She shrieks with delight as the trailer lurches forward and the llama follows.
When the guests return to the ranch house, where a hot barbeque dinner awaits them, they all appear to have momentarily forgotten the conditions that first carried them here.
Asked why he organizes his retreats, Faust is reduced to stammering, as speechless as when he tries to contemplate how a child could be afflicted with both cerebral palsy and a brain tumor.
“I’m very thankful,” he says at last. “I’ve been successful. I just want to share how good God’s been to me.
Just before the children must depart for continued treatment, everyone gathers beneath a grove of palm trees to offer a small tile that each has painted in honor of the weekend.
Faust is there, unable to speak, standing beside a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and against dying alone.