“There must be a fire.”
That was the first thought that crossed Zachary Swart’s mind when he saw more than a dozen firetrucks gathered together as he neared his home in Saugerties, N.Y., for the first time in months.
The 16-year-old had just spent a long and arduous summer in New York City recovering from his third battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Zach had put everything he had into his cancer fight, beginning with chemotherapy. When that didn’t work, he enrolled into a CAR T cell immunotherapy study at Memorial Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
“I barely squeezed in — he was able to push me through,” Zach said of his doctor, Kevin Curran, a St. Baldrick’s scholar researcher who was able to secure the teen a spot in the clinical trial.
The treatment went well, but Zach’s fight was far from over.
Next, he underwent full-body radiation for a week, followed by a bone marrow transplant.
His brother Ben, who along with their other brother Gabe volunteered to be donors, came back a complete match.
“It was a pretty amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, really,” Ben, 20, said. “Though it’s not something you want to have to do, it’s kind of one of the last resorts. It felt pretty good to be able to help.”
Zach agreed, saying, “I was pretty relieved that there was a 10 out of 10 match somewhere, and it was my brother, which was perfect. We had a lot of odds in our favor.”
The recovery was hard, but Zach pushed through. And on Aug. 31, he finally got to come home, where the Centerville-Cedar Grove Fire Department was waiting for him.
“I thought there was a big fire or accident,” Zach said of the scene before him. “I came around the corner and there was a big sign that said ‘Welcome Home Zach.’ I didn’t realize everyone was there for me and that was crazy.”
Zach comes from a family of firefighters — his father and two brothers volunteer at the Centerville-Cedar Grove Fire Department — and he plans to serve himself, so the gesture meant the world to the Swarts.
“The comradery is amazing,” his brother, Ben, said. “It was great; it was the most incredible thing ever.”
“I was astonished,” Zach agreed.
Now home and continuing down the path of recovery, Zach is looking forward to getting back into a routine and partaking in all the pastimes of the average teenager.
“I’m looking forward to eating take-out food. I have to eat home-cooked meals, which is fine,” he said with a laugh. “But it would be nice to have a burger from McDonald’s. That should take a little bit of time though.
“I’m definitely a lot better,” he continued. “Each week I get a little stronger and more energetic. I’m getting there.”