GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Cancer can be a scary journey.
Few will argue that.
People who are diagnosed with the disease need all the motivation they can get as they begin, then continue, efforts toward trying to beat it.
Sometimes an unintended consequence can make all the difference for people suffering and losing hope.
A 10-year-old girl from Grand Rapids, Mich., has created something that is not only getting cancer patients up and moving, but several hospitals in the area have begun to implement her idea.
"I really wanted my grandpa to be home sooner," said Brynn Van Drie, who is a 5th grader at Evergreen Christian Elementary School in Grand Rapids. "So I decided to make him a gift that I hoped would help him get him home sooner."
Brynn's grandfather, Gerard Fondse, had to be hospitalized at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in the fall of 2019 to undergo a stem cell transplant. Earlier in the year, he was diagnosed with Angioimmunoblastic Lymphoma (AITL), which is a high-grade, aggressive cancer that affects the blood cells.
"[My oncologist] didn't think I'd live three months," said Gerard, 72. "This cancer was really having it's way with me."
Brynn says she got her idea after overhearing a conversation between her grandfather and his doctor before the transplant surgery.
"They said that, 'it's really helpful for you to walk; you get to go home sooner,'" said Brynn. "So, I really wanted my grandpa to be home sooner, so we should make something where he can be able to walk."
Brynn and her mother, Kara, decided to go to a local craft store and purchase some string and several colored beads.
"I chose the color green for the string because that's the color for lymphoma awareness," said Brynn.
When they got home, Brynn and her mother took the string and began looping the beads through it. The idea was that the strand of beads, which amounted to 18, would help Gerard track the number of laps he walked everyday around the hospital's cancer floor.
Each time he would complete a lap, he would pull one bead down on the string.
"I knew he had to walk to feel better," Brynn said.
After she gave grandpa the beads, Gerard started walking and using them.
"I hung the beads on my IV pole and started walking," said Gerard. "I found myself walking all the time because I could pull a bead down and keep track of my progress.
"Before the beads, it was easy to forget how many you did."
Brynn saw how using the beads was helping her grandfather regain his strength and get better, so she decided to make more bead strands to have available for all of the cancer patients on her grandfather's floor.
"It's really important for me to see my grandpa," Brynn said. "I want other people to be able to see their children and grandchildren, too."
So, Brynn needed to buy more beads.
"We could probably keep craft stores in business with her," added Kara, when asked about all the bead supplies they've bought.
Brynn made several more bead strands and brought them to the hospital when she visited her grandfather.
When Gerard and Brynn would walk around the floor, they'd take the extra bead strands with them. When they'd run into other patients walking, they'd say, 'Hey, if you want, we'll give you a set of beads you can use, too.'"
Many of the patients gladly took the beads, hung them on their IV poles, and went on their way.
"[The beads] became a hot topic of conversation on the cancer floor," said Kara. "I'm amazed at the excitement it's caused and how helpful it's been."
It didn't take long for the nurses and physical therapists to see many of the patients walking, stopping to pull a bead down, then continue walking.
"I was actually seeing another patient who was telling me about the beads," said Bonita Neil, who is a physical therapist at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. "She was like, 'Oh, I just walked fifteen laps and I got these beads to help me count.'"
Bonita still didn't know where the beads came from or why they became such a coveted piece of merchandise on the floor, until she was assigned to Gerard's room to see how he was doing.
"I looked and saw this huge bag of beads sitting on the counter," said Bonita. "Mr. Fondse told me that his granddaughter made them, then explained to me their purpose."
When Gerard told Bonita there were 18 beads on each strand, she was shocked because that number carried significance on the cancer floor.
"[Brynn] had no idea that it takes eighteen laps around the floor to make one mile, which is what we encourage," said Bonita. "It was just serendipititous."
Gerard gave Bonita several strands of Brynn's Walking Beads and suggested she help offer them to the patients, too.
"When I handed them out, they really became incentive for the people to get up and get moving," added Bonita. "These patients get very weak and their immune systems are so compromised so it's beneficial to move as much as they can.
"Every time they pull a bead down, what an encouragement. One lap, two laps, three laps - you just keep going until you pull all the beads down."
One of the patients who received a strand of Brynn's beads was Stephanie Dysland, who also had a stem cell transplant.
"When I started walking, they said, "We have something for you,'" said Dysland. "They gave me these beads, and when I started using them, they just motivated me to keep walking.
"After I completed one mile, I wanted to do another. Whoever thought of this should be congratulated!"
Brynn couldn't believe that her simple project for grandpa had spread to almost every patient on the floor. It also had become in major demand by the hospital and its staff.
"We're actually trying to get [Brynn's beads] implemented on every floor of the hospital," said Bonita. "We're trying to figure out how many laps it is for them to do [to make a mile] on each floor because all the floors of the hospital are different.
"These beads just spread in the best way, and it was all because of one 10-year-old girl."
Gerard was admitted to Spectrum Health Butterworth on Oct. 21, 2019. He had the transplant surgery a week later, then was discharged Nov. 12. He says he's certain that Brynn's beads made a difference for him during his recovery.
"I think I got out of there more quickly," said Gerard. "It just worked."
Even though grandpa has been home for a few months, Brynn continues to spend her spare time making hundreds of bead strands and dropping them off at the hospital for the staff to distribute to the patients. She's no longer just making them for the Stem Cell Transplant Unit at Spectrum Health Butterworth; other health facilities in Grand Rapids, like Helen DeVos Children's Hospital and Meijer Heart Center, have also reached out and asked her to supply some for them.
"I made a bead for my grandpa and thought that was going to be the end," said Brynn. "I didn't purposefully try to make a humongous impact.
Well, ya kinda did, kid!
In order to get all these beads made, Brynn realized she'd need an assembly line. So, she recruited her church friends to help her make them.
During her Wednesday night 'Gems Club' gatherings, Brynn, Kara, and close to 40 people sit at tables and make bead strands. There's signage on each table saying which hospital they're making the beads for and how many beads need to be on each strand.
In an hour's time, the church group is able to churn out over 300 bead strands which Brynn will then deliver to each facility in person.
"I think she's amazing, but I'm terribly biased," said Gerard, who still has a long recovery road ahead. "She wants to do something for lots of people that she'll never meet.
"It means a lot to her, and consequently, it means a lot to me."
Meantime, the Spectrum Health Butterworth staff are taught many ways to try and motivate cancer patients to walk. Little did they know that it would take a 10-year old to show them the best tactic.
"This is one of the greatest things I've ever seen," said Bonita. "I'm just grateful that I was working here to even be a part of it."
It's safe to say that Brynn's craft project will continue indefinitely as she pushes ahead to inspire hundreds, soon to be thousands of cancer patients, one bead at a time.
"It's really important that all of those people be able to go home," said Brynn.
If you know of a story that should be featured on "Our Michigan Life," please send a detailed email to 13 On Your Side's Brent Ashcroft: email@example.com. You can also follow Brent on Twitter and Instagram.
Read more stories Our Michigan Life stories:
- TRICK-SHOT TWOSOME: Unlikely Michigan pair world ranked in Artistic Pool
- PLAY IT AGAIN: Stolen guitar survives California wildfires, reunites with Michigan musician
- LOST AND FOUND: 1891 shipwreck 'amazingly intact' on Lake Michigan bottom
- ATOMIC VETERANS: Still haunted and awaiting honor after 50 years of forced silence
- UDDERLY AMAZING | Artificial leg saves life of Charlette the cow
Watch more Our Michigan Life stories:
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.