LUMBERTON — Four years ago, in the spring of 2013, Rivers Malcolm was practicing his putting in the hallways of UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
His father, Joshua, had constructed a makeshift green during Rivers’ month-long stay at the stem cell transplant unit of the hospital, where Rivers was undergoing treatment for kidney cancer.
“He was not allowed to go out,” Joshua said. “We stayed in that room for four to six weeks.
“We would sneak out in the hall and I would spread a sheet out in the hallway, and the nurses would sort of turn a blind eye. People that know us well, know that the Malcolms are night owls. I would take towels and line them up, almost like a bumper around (the sheet), and cut out a little circle. Those were the first clubs that he hit a ball with. We would go out and do that at night maybe a few times a week.”
On Thursday at Pinecrest Country Club in Lumberton, Rivers was in a different, brighter world. There were no walls, halls, masks or towels. It was just an 8-year-old boy from Pembroke, wearing his floppy hat to protect him from the sun, with his putter in hand on the practice green.
“I’m an outdoor person,” Rivers said as he watched one of his three practice golf balls roll toward the hole. “I just like to be in the sun. When I play golf, it teaches me math and patience. I’m the best at putting.”
He tries to “come every day” during the summer, mostly in the morning around 8 with his golfing buddies.
With his cancer in full remission, Rivers is practicing for the Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Greensboro’s Grandover Resort in July. He qualified for the event after finishing second out of 17 kids in his age group at Pinewild Country Club in May.
“I want to be a world champion when I’m older,” Rivers said, grinning from ear to ear. “I want to do my best.”
For Joshua, Rivers has been a champion throughout his young life.
Initially, Joshua and his wife Meloria were hesitant to share their son’s story. They didn’t want his disease to define him.
But with the community in mind, the parents agreed to shine a light on Rivers’ journey.
“If talking about Rivers’ inconveniences us just a little bit, but gives other people in our community who are going through similar circumstances — whether it’s not being back in your home that you lost in October during Hurricane Matthew or your wife being diagnosed with ovarian cancer — hope, if that gives them a little hope, this whole conversation is worth it. I know when we were going through this with Rivers, we were looking around near and far for hope.”
Sept. 14, 2010. It was a day just like any other Joshua had experienced as an attorney with The University of North Carolina at Pembroke — until he got “an unusual call” from his wife. Meloria had taken Rivers to the doctor’s office for an unscheduled appointment.
“The pediatrician thought there was something going on with Rivers,” Joshua said. “That morning, (Meloria) had just felt his tummy and she said something didn’t feel right.”
By 9:30 p.m., the Malcolms were on the fifth floor at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Dr. Stuart Gold, chief in the department of pediatrics and division of pediatric hematology-oncology, met them as they walked through the doors of the hospital.
“That sort of started what was then, and continues to be,” Joshua said, fighting back tears, “a pretty good journey.”
Just an infant, Rivers was set to begin his battle with cancer. He was diagnosed with a Wilm’s tumor, a type of cancer that starts in the kidneys. It is the most common type of kidney cancer in children, according to the American Cancer Society.
Things got worse as the cancer spread to his lungs, beginning the protocol for Wilm’s, which includes chemotherapy. Doctors removed the tumor and Rivers went through additional chemotherapy and radiation.
“We were feeling pretty good at the end of that six-to-seven month process,” Joshua said, “until he relapsed. He relapsed twice. At that point, we came off the protocol. What we did next, after a lot of prayer and consultation with (Dr.) Gold, we decided to do a stem cell transplant.”
Rivers received an autologous stem cell transplant, a process in which the patient’s own blood-forming stem cells are collected. The patient is then treated with high doses of chemotherapy, or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. The high-dose treatment kills cancer cells, but also eliminates the blood-producing cells that are left in the bone marrow.
“Since that stem cell transplant, it’s only because of the grace of God that we’ve been able to go through all of that,” Joshua recalled, his eyes welling up. “Obviously, there were a lot of times during that process where we questioned ourselves and questioned our faith.”
But during the family’s darkest hour, a game entered Rivers’ life.
Taking up golf
Joshua will tell you that he’s not a golfer.
But in 2013, Neil Hawk, the former vice chancellor of business affairs at UNCP, brought a miniature golf bag to Joshua’s office with “chopped down clubs” in it for Rivers.
“That’s when golf had come up,” Joshua said. “Rivers had never played golf. Those were his first clubs.”
And Rivers’ passion for the game grew once Jamie Locklear, Joshua’s longtime friend, entered the picture.
“After the stem cell transplant, Jamie kind of broke his own rule and let Rivers come out (to practice) as a 5 year old,” Joshua said. “He’s been with Jamie since.”
During the school year, Rivers practices at least twice a week with Locklear, a former UNCP golfer who created the Locklear Golf Academy, at Pinecrest Country Club.
“He’s the youngest player I’ve ever had,” Locklear said. “I’ll never forget the day he started. He had a mask on because he had just finished up some treatments at Chapel Hill. We just had that connection from the start. You never know what someone is going through. I saw the excitement in his eyes and he took that passion and it grew. For me to see that, it’s priceless.”
Earlier this year, Joshua heard “all of my golf-fanatic friends” talking about “that big golf thing” in Augusta, Ga., — The Masters.
“That’s when I found out about the drive, chip and putt competition,” he said. “Jamie and I talked about entering Rivers in a local event and and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The Drive, Chip and Putt competition was a joint effort by Augusta National, the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association. The competition, which is for girls and boys ages 7 to 15, has local qualifying, sub-regional and regional competitions before the final 80 children get to spend Sunday at Augusta National in the finals.
In May, Rivers took the first step toward getting to Augusta with a runner-up finish in the Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Pinewild Country Club in Pinehurst.
“I was happy to finish second. I was a little nervous,” Rivers said. “My parents told me good job and I better get my clothes out for the next tournament.”
Locklear wasn’t there for the event, but he received a text message from Joshua about Rivers’ finish.
“When they told me he finished second out of 17 kids, I just got emotional,” Locklear said.
Rivers’ next tournament will be at Grandover Resort in Greensboro in July.
“I want to finish second or first,” he said.
But for Joshua, the game of golf is bigger than the competition.
“As a dad, it’s all about the experience. It’s not about him winning,” he said. “For him, competition would not be the first word I would use when we talk about investing time in golf. It would be the other values that he’s learning, including patience, friendship and following the rules.”
A lesson for all
As he continues his journey, Rivers “has no evidence of disease right now” but travels to Chapel Hill every three months for extensive tests to ensure his cancer remains in remission.
When asked about the sickness, Rivers had a simple answer.
“Well, God helped me get through it,” he said.
Now, with his siblings Alaina, who is set to play golf at UNCP this fall, Forrest and Slade by his side, Rivers is just trying to live as normal a life as possible.
He sings in choir at Berea Baptist Church in Pembroke. He does karate throughout the year. And the way Rivers has handled his situation has proved to be a lesson for Joshua.
“He didn’t know that he was sick. He didn’t know that he was supposed to be sad. He didn’t know that he was supposed to complain because when he got sick, the way he felt, he thought it was normal,” Joshua said.
“That was the thing that struck me as an adult. That taught me a lesson and it required me and my wife to analyze where we were in regards to patience.”
Joshua has become an advocate for childhood cancer research.
“One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is the science and research, and resources put to pediatric cancer in the United States of America is nil compared to what you hear most people talk about, which is breast cancer and other kinds of cancer.”
In the U.S., more children die of childhood cancer than any other disease and all types of childhood cancers combined receive only 4 percent of the U.S. federal cancer research funding, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization.
Those statistics prompted Joshua to support the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit with the aim of raising funds to help find cures for children with cancer. For information on the organization, visit www.stbaldricks.org.
“If there’s anything I would want for Rivers, it’s just to be an ordinary kid doing what ordinary kids do,” Joshua said.
“Obviously, we perceive things a little different. … Some parents would say, ‘Hey, that’s our special kid.’ I would say Rivers is our community’s special kid because he’s touched so many people.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.