Preface: I (Diane, Kevin’s mom) found this on Kevin’s iPad last night. He had started to write his autobiography last September while in Houston, after a failed clinical trial and a last-ditch round of chemo to abate his leukemia enough so that he could return home to DeKalb. He developed an outline for his autobiography but this is the only chapter he wrote, and it is just a rough draft.
My name is Kevin Ballantine. To say that I am anything but normal would be quite an understatement.
I was never an easy child (my favorite word growing up was “Why”), and I’ve been told that whenever I got an idea in my head I was impossible to stop. If I wanted to go climb a tree, nothing short of my parents physically holding me back was going to stop me from reaching at least the first few branches and grinning back down, full of the joy that comes with achieving a goal. My mind was constantly running at a hundred miles a minute, and I came up with at least a few zany ideas.
One of these was an engine powered completely by magnets.
I was in fifth grade at the time, and was obsessed with this engine for a few years. I even built the frame of a flying vehicle that would be powered by this motor. I built it in the basement of my house, just like Gibbs from NCIS, until my parents decided that me accidentally spray painting the basement floor wasn’t the greatest thing in the world. The idea as it first came to me would have never worked, thanks to the laws of perpetual motion, but it did evolve. I made changes in my mind, then gradually forgot about it until my high school physics class covered the electric motor. I realized that what I had eventually come up with (and not bothered to pursue) was just a variant of the electric motor.
This story highlights another of my traits as a kid – my short attention span. Most of my ideas fizzled and died simply because I moved on to other ideas. But that was my style – pour myself into something for a short period of time, maybe finish it, and then move on to the next project of the moment.
This style continued into my college years at Cornell. I entered my freshman year as a Mechanical Engineering major, but decided that while I liked the classes I wasn’t really interested in the career paths that would be open to me. So I decided to switch majors, but wasn’t entirely sure what major would suit me best. I had worked on quite a few movie projects in high school, and was always the one who did all the editing work on the computer. I absolutely loved editing, but regardless I enjoyed every part of the film-making process. I had been involved in everything from writing my own script to shooting scenes to actually acting (although I didn’t think I was very good at acting and was always self conscious about it). But then I looked at what it would take to make it in the film industry, and I’d have to move to the west coast and stumble upon an incredible amount of luck in order to be successful. Neither of those seemed feasible to me, so I looked elsewhere.
In character with my high energy personality, I have always had a love of severe weather. On multiple occasions I’ve driven out into the country, parked in the edge of a cornfield, and watched the lightning flash all around me. I haven’t had the chance to go tornado chasing yet, but it is on my list of things to do before I die. All of this points to pursuing a weather related career, so I decided to try and switch to meteorology. This required switching colleges within Cornell, so I had to take business classes along with meteorology classes. I failed them miserably, and was denied admission to the meteorology major.
Back to square one.
Since I wasn’t allowed to switch, I was back in the engineering college and the closest thing to meteorology was a major called science of earth systems. The first required course was all about the earth, and I dropped it about a month into it. I couldn’t stand doing labs where we scratched rocks on some special surface to determine how hard they were – and rate their hardness on a scale of one to ten. That, to me, was just about the epitome of boring. So I went back to mechanical engineering with a renewed passion. And I actually enjoyed the classes! But I didn’t do that well, and was still unsure at the end of that semester. So I decided the best thing to do was to take some time off and figure out what I wanted instead of wasting money at one of the most expensive schools in the country.
But first I had to fulfill a commitment to the Cornell Drumline. I’d been elected section leader for the 2008 calendar year, and decided to take a break after the spring 2008 semester. I stayed around for fall 2008, living in my fraternity (which is another story, revolving around my ability to rationalize things) and working as a delivery driver for a Thai restaurant. I have never seen another place that delivers Thai food, save for that restaurant in Ithaca, NY.
After serving as section leader for the drumline, I headed home to DeKalb to attend Northern Illinois University for a semester. At this point I was trying to decide between Government and Chemistry as possible majors. I’ve always been passionate about politics (a topic that will be covered later in this book), and chemistry is in my blood. My dad and his dad both have Ph.D.s in Chemistry, and it’s the one subject I’ve been drawn to most, and have (for the most part) understood the most as well.
About a month into that semester, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. That began a journey that I am still on today, and a story that I will get to at a later point. This is still the story of who I am. That is a part of who I am, but in a different way. Part way through my journey, I returned to Cornell, with a final major in mind. I intended to major in Chemistry, and head down the path of Education – I want to be a high school chemistry teacher. I still have that goal, and if God brings me through this I intend to pursue that degree at NIU.
When I was a kid, I attended “smart camp” at Northwestern University during the summers following sixth through ninth grade. It was called the Center for Talent Development, and the campers lived in the dorms for three weeks and attended classes from 8:30am until 2:30pm Monday through Friday. I made many friends that I still have today, and memories that I will never forget.
It was there that I first discovered the awesomeness that is Ultimate Frisbee. I remembered this while searching for jobs for the summer of 2008, and was hired to be a Residential Assistant for both sessions. I lived in the dorms and had my own group of students, and absolutely loved the experience. I discovered I loved working with kids, and during my soul searching in the hospital I remembered this fact – which led to my realization that I wanted to be a teacher.
Most of my teaching experience so far, however, has been limited to my brother and sister. Based on my experiences with them I will definitely need to take a few classes in teaching, because I need to refine my techniques (not to mention improve my patience by a decent amount).
My brother and sister are both adopted from India, which means I’ve had quite an interesting childhood. Indian culture was always part of our lives, especially Indian cuisine – which I must say is absolutely amazing if you’re willing to put in the time to make it. This has led to my belief that food isn’t worth eating unless it has flavor. I met a friend in college who would only eat pasta if it just had butter on it, nothing more. No tomato sauce, no Alfredo sauce, just butter. I couldn’t grasp that concept. Flavors are what make a food great, at least in my opinion, and without them it’s just not worth bothering.
Apart from the culture and cuisine, my family also traveled to India twice – once to pick up my sister in when I was thirteen, and then again when I was nineteen. Taking a tour of India is something that changes your life, no matter what age or stage you’re at. I remember watching an episode of The Amazing Race (the only episode I’ve ever bothered watching) where the contestants had to travel to the Amber Palace in Jaipur, India. I’d been there myself, so I decided to watch. Two of the contestants were former cheerleaders for the Dallas Cowboys, and during their drive through the city of Jaipur they both started crying from the sheer poverty that was present everywhere they looked. That is exactly what I experienced (minus the tears), and the effect stayed with me as I went through my teenage years, learning about who I was and shaping who I wanted to be. I learned a lot about what was truly important, and what didn’t matter. I’ll touch more on that later in the book.
The last part of who I am is what led me to write this book – my battle with leukemia.
As I mentioned before, I was diagnosed about a month into my spring semester at NIU in 2009. I had been experiencing a strange sensation in the back of my head, basically at the base of my skull. Whenever I ran up stairs, I could feel my pulse pounding at the base of my skull for a minute or two afterwards. This had been going on since November or December of 2008, but it was progressively getting worse. I went to see a doctor in January, and had a CT scan done of my head.
Nothing abnormal showed up, so they put my on an antibiotic and sent me home. Things only got worse, and I started to feel fatigued after riding my bike to and from class. It got to the point where I had to take a nap after class every day. I thought that maybe I just wasn’t in shape anymore, so I started swimming at the YMCA. After swimming a mile per workout, three times a week, I was still feeling tired after class – so I went back to the doctor. When I mentioned the fatigue, the doctor ordered a Complete Blood Count (also known as a CBC), which I had drawn before I left for home. The clinic is about a five minute drive from my house, but by the time I pulled into my driveway the doctor was already on the phone with my mom. Two of my counts were dangerously low – my hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the muscles and brain, was at 6.6 instead of the normal range of 12-18, and the platelets, which are what help the blood clot, were at 6,000 when they should normally be between 150,000 and 450,000. In other words, the doctors had no clue how I was riding my bike to class, functioning normally, swimming a mile, and not bleeding internally.
I was admitted to Kishwaukee Community Hospital, which at that point was only a year or so old at most. I have to say, in terms of amenities it remains the nicest hospital I’ve ever stayed in. However, it’s not a high-powered cancer research center, so I had to go somewhere else to get treated. The next evening we left for the University of Wisconsin Madison Hospital, where I spent almost a month going through my first experience with chemo. Before I went into the hospital, I had medium length curly hair. About ten days after starting the chemo, the hair began to fall out. I had never completely shaved my head up ’til that point, even during my years as a swimmer. A few days later, my life changed. Shaving your head is one sort of life change, but that grows back eventually. In the beginning we had been told that I probably had a type of leukemia that was easy to cure.
Let me give a little background info about leukemia. There are four types, and two different categories. There are chronic and acute leukemias, with chronic leukemias being slow growing and much more easily treatable. Acute leukemias, like mine, come on fast and are harder to treat. Within those categories, there are two types – lymphocytic and myeloid. Put it all together, and the four types are CLL, CML, ALL and AML. I have AML. But then within AML (Acute Myeloid Leukemia) there are many different types of genetic malformations, which are referred to as having different cytogenetics.
Originally, we were told that I had good cytogenetics, meaning that most likely I’d have to go through a few more rounds of “consolidation chemo”, but after that I’d be pretty much good to go. My odds of relapsing would be pretty low. Then the truth came out. I was not only NOT in the good category, I was well into the poor cytogenetics category. I had a genetic malformation called t(6,11), which is a subset of 11q23, meaning that the 6th and 11th gene had gotten switched on the 23rd chromosome of some of the stem cells in my bone marrow. This resulted in the stem cells producing immature cells that, instead of maturing into healthy red cells, white cells, or platelets, stayed in the immature phase. The worst part is that because they never mature, they don’t die – instead they keep multiplying and taking up space in the bone marrow, forcing out all the normal cells. This is what caused my counts to drop.
Back to my story – when the doctors told me exactly how bad my cytogenetics were, the doctor was quite blunt. He said I had a fifty percent chance of being alive in either two years or five, I can’t remember anymore (I blame the chemo).
Being told something like that really wakes you up. It makes you examine what you really want to do with your life, not just long term goals but also short term things. It also opens your eyes to what is truly important. Illegal immigrants sneaking over the border so they can work for less than minimum wage, picking tomatoes in the hot sun with no benefits for twelve hours a day? That’s not worth getting upset over, not while kids are starving in Africa, or better yet – kids are starving in America.
As I sit here writing this, I have been through ten rounds of chemo, and am in the middle of my eleventh at the moment. I don’t have any promising treatments lined up, and the current chemo won’t work forever (if it’s even working at all). I don’t know how much time I have left, but I believe that I should share what I believe with others. If even a few people take the words in this book to heart, if just a handful try to live as I have, then maybe the world will be a better place.
Any time I think about dying soon, any time I think about succumbing to the leukemia because there is nothing left to do, I have one fear. I feel like I have the potential to make a difference in the world, if only I’m given enough time. My fear is that I won’t have nearly enough time to make that difference. I hope that this book will allow me to live on in some way, continuing to make a difference in the world, however small that difference may be.