During the past two summers, Austin Ritz, a confident young singer and guitar player, had the honour of being the first performer on stage at the fabled Stewart Park Festival. But the Perth teenager’s voice was sadly missing from this year’s musical gathering because he has been fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).
A growing group of community members collectively known as #AustinsArmy is rallying around Austin and his mother, Jackie, who have not only dealt with the challenges of cancer, but also the complicating side effects of his treatment, including high fevers, headaches, blood clot, pneumonia, anaphylactic reaction, collapsed lung, mucusitis, meningitis, SVTs (abnormally high heart rhythms) and repeated low blood counts.
“The last year has been an emotional rollercoaster to say the least,” says Jackie, who notes Austin was diagnosed on July 26, 2016. “No parent ever expects their child to get cancer. Austin is a well-rounded young man with interests in sports, music and drama. He plays football, baseball, volleyball and track and field. He’s a pretty good snowboarder too.”
In May, Austin entered a state of unconsciousness caused by a fungal infection in his brain. After many weeks, multiple surgeries and application of anti-fungal medications, he has resumed chemotherapy treatments and is on the road to recovery again, with the leukemia in remission. While antifungal treatment is likely to continue for up to a year, Austin is also scheduled to continue treatments – mainly oral chemotherapy– until 2020.
Meanwhile, as any family who has dealt with cancer well knows, treating the disease is costly not only emotionally and spiritually, but also financially, including lost income for those taking care of their loved ones. Recognizing that tough reality, Chelsea Fowler, who owns Peter’s Restaurant in Perth and employs Jackie as her bookkeeper has assumed leadership in #AustinsArmy. Fowler is organizing a series of fundraising initiatives that includes t-shirt sales with the slogan “No One Fights Alone” as well as two major events in August.
“Austin and our kids grew up together in school over the past 12 years,” Fowler says, adding that when Austin was first diagnosed, his fellow students at Perth and District Collegiate Institute immediately jumped into a supportive role, conducting bake sales, an open mike performance hosted by the drama class, and other fundraising initiatives. Fowler saw a role for other community members to join in support as well, and went on to create a Facebook group that now hosts more than 1,300 members, with dozens of volunteers helping out. “We’re hoping we can take some of the pressure off of Austin and Jackie,” she says.
On Saturday, Aug. 19, the Perth Legion has been booked for a benefit dance, BBQ, and silent auction. A week later, the Classic Theatre Festival will be hosting a benefit performance of the mystery thriller I’ll Be Back Before Midnight on Saturday, Aug. 26 at 8 p.m.
With all the challenges facing them, Jackie says the community support makes a huge difference. In addition to being grateful for the dedicated team of healthcare professionals working with Austin, Jackie also points to the assistance of a series of organizations that help families who are fighting cancer, including the Ronald McDonald House, Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario, and Candlelighters, which runs a childhood cancer support program.
“Our hometown and friends have been there for us providing encouragement and love,” Jackie says. “Although no words of thanks can ever be enough, I look forward to personally thanking the hundreds of friends and family who have reached out to embrace us. Our goals over the next year are to resume as many of Austin’s previous activities as possible. I am so proud of Austin’s strength.”
Tickets to the benefit dance and Classic Theatre Festival show are available at Peter’s Restaurant in Perth (84 Gore Street East) and by calling 613-464-2486.
This article was first published in the August issue of Hometown News. For more articles from our August issue, pick up a print copy at a local retailer or read our digital version.