Wyatt Kicks Cancer


When you meet Wyatt Cottrell, the first thing you notice is his energy—whether it’s playing hide-and-seek, riding his tricycle or roaming the family’s 30 acres of land with his grandfather, Wyatt is a blur of motion and near-constant chatter.

“He is wide open and wanting to go,” says Autumn Cottrell, his mother. “He likes to climb trees and the rope wall at the park—pretty much anything that uses his legs, he is into.”

This may not seem unusual to anyone who has spent time around a 3-year-old boy, but Wyatt wasn’t always this way.

Wyatt has not had a typical childhood. He was diagnosed in January 2015 with rhabdomyosarcoma in his leg and began a treatment regime at Brenner Children’s Hospital that would last until April 2016. Today, he is in remission.

“When he rang the bell (signifying he was cancer-free), it was very meaningful,” says Autumn. “The nurses from our inpatient stay wanted us to bring him by so they could see him, and the Arts for Life people made him his own poster. Dr. (Tom) McLean stayed and took pictures with us, and all of his doctors came by and gave him hugs and high fives.”

“He has been very courageous throughout the trip he has just completed,” says Betty Burwell, Wyatt’s great-grandmother. “He is a real role model to us all. He doesn’t like his shots and doesn’t like his hospital visits, but he handles it with his mother and daddy by his side.”

Wyatt photos

Inspired to Give

Wyatt’s courage and the compassion and caring shown by the staff at Brenner Children’s inspired Burwell, called “Grandberry” by her family, to make a charitable gift to the hospital.

“I felt that with all that he’d been through and all that he’d been given—all the help he had—it was time that the Brenner staff were honored and acknowledged for everything they had done for him,” Betty says.

After seeing how Wyatt’s time in Brenner Children’s affected not only his parents but also his grandparents and other family members, Betty decided that she wanted to help pediatric cancer patients and their families. She saw that the more comfortable the child is and the more comfortable the parents are, the better everyone can bear the time spent in the hospital.

“It was very difficult, seeing a child go through cancer,” Betty says. “I know how caring the medical people and other people involved with these children are, and I’m grateful.”

A Lump in His Leg

Wyatt’s journey began soon after Christmas 2013. He woke up one morning crying, and Autumn felt his legs, where she found a large lump. She took him to a doctor, where the lump was diagnosed as a deep bruise. Autumn was unconvinced, however, and when the lump got bigger, she took Wyatt to the ER for an ultrasound and got an MRI scheduled for two weeks later. The results of that MRI confirmed what she suspected all along: cancer. The Cottrells, who live in Blowing Rock, N.C., were referred to Brenner Children’s.

“If Brenner hadn’t been there, I don’t know where we would have taken him,” Autumn says. “We could have ended up in another state, far away from family. … It was really helpful to be close.”

There the Cottrells met Tom McLean, MD, professor of pediatric hematology and oncology. After spending time with him and discussing the options for Wyatt, the Cottrells knew they were in competent and caring hands. Juggling Wyatt’s treatment and the needs of his older brother, Syiles, required a lot of family support. Jim Cottrell, Wyatt’s grandfather and president of French Swiss Ski College at Appalachian Ski Mtn., was unfamiliar with Brenner Children’s before Wyatt started receiving treatment there but quickly learned his way around. He considers it a blessing to have such a comprehensive pediatric facility within driving distance.

Wyatt photos

“I think the staff has done an incredible job not only on the medical side of things but on the emotional side as well,” Jim says. “The treatment wasn’t always a smooth ride … but they did an incredible job of rolling with the punches. … They tried something until they found what worked.”

In addition to being fairly rare, Wyatt’s cancer did not respond to the first type of chemotherapy. In fact, his tumor started to grow, so they had to move to the second line of chemotherapy. Fortunately, this proved more effective and the tumor shrunk enough to be removed surgically. Although doctors predicted he would spend a week in the hospital for pain management, Wyatt had other ideas. He was up and going the very next day, says his father.

The Cottrells still had a long road ahead of them with Wyatt’s chemotherapy, follow-up scans, blood work, physical therapy and more. The family temporarily relocated to Clemmons during his treatment, and extended family—both in Blowing Rock and Winston-Salem—rallied around them. They appreciated the amenities and services Brenner Children’s offers to help patients and their families make the best of such a situation. Wyatt especially enjoyed the playroom, tricycles, Child Life specialists, and volunteers who did arts and crafts with him and other pediatric patients.

‘It’s a Great Thing’

Today, Wyatt zooms from one activity to another and looks forward to going to preschool where he can be around other children, something he could not do while undergoing chemotherapy. For his family, his energy and enthusiasm are something to delight in and never take for granted.

“I’d like (Brenner Children’s staff) to know how thankful we are for them listening to us and letting us choose what we did and didn’t do for Wyatt’s health, for taking the time to get to know him and for saving his life,” Autumn says. “It’s a great thing, what they do every day.”