FRUITHURST, Ala. (WIAT) — The small town of Fruithurst, Alabama, is home to about 200 people. That’s within the city limits. The broader area of the town encompasses a couple of hundred more. That means there are a little less than 200 children at the only school in town, Fruithurst Elementary. It’s a school that’s become uniquely used to dealing with tragedy. In the last year, four boys have been diagnosed with cancer.
They are all between the ages of three and 16 years old. They all live within six miles of each other. Three of the four have the exact same kind of leukemia. It’s the slow-moving tragedy that binds this tiny town together.
Christy Hiett is the principal of Fruithurst Elementary School. From the beginning, she’s been assisting the four families. One of the boys’ mothers works at the school. She says as time went on, she became more and more certain there was something strange going on.
“Well, it’s frustrating, simply because we want answers for these children, but also for the other children in the community because if it’s a commonality, or something that is here that’s causing this and we can prevent other children from going through these things, we definitely want to do that,” Hiett said.
In the five year time leading up to the four boys’ diagnoses, there were fewer than three cases of cancer diagnosed in all of Cleburne County. No one I spoke to can remember a case in Fruithurst like the one facing these children.
Erica Willingham is the mother of three-year-old Maddox. Her son wasn’t the first to get the disease, and his January diagnosis was a devastating blow.
“Cancer is that taboo topic, no one wants to talk about it. You don’t think it’s gonna be you,” she said.
She says she’s been getting strength from her young son, who is continuing with chemotherapy treatments and fighting the disease.
“It’s sad. So sad. It’s been amazing, though, like how strong he’s been. He’s been doing well and I’m the one who feels like I’m crumbling inside,” said Willingham.
It’s that sense of devastation that spurred Hiett to action. After the fourth diagnosis, she began writing her local and state health departments, environmental organizations, universities, and health advocates–anyone she thought could help. So far, she’s gotten few responses, and the ones she has gotten, haven’t answered the questions.
“Waiting on responses, or the lack thereof, which was drug out through several months–it was just road block after road block, or they would call me and tell me to contact someone else who would tell me to contact someone else,” Hiett said.
Maddox Willingham, Michael Ray, Taylor Hulsey, and Will Alred have been supported by their community, their parents tell me. Still, it’s been devastating for them to watch four active boys who love the outdoors struggle with the chemotherapy, daily medication, and hospitalization—all effects of the life-threatening illness. It’s also put a fear in the hearts of other parents in town, as one by one, they saw another boy diagnosed with cancer.
“I’ve heard other parents say-okay, my son hurt his knee, so they’ve taken him to the doctor, just to make sure it’s not the same thing. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. They’re more precautious and worried that their child has cancer,” said Taylor’s mother, Stacy Hulsey. It’s Stacy who works at Fruithurst Elementary, who sees countless parents voicing those concerns, those questions.
Her son is doing better now. He finished chemotherapy in August, and he’s back at school for half days. He says being back has felt “amazing,” but he worries about the other boys who have more treatments to go, and their families, who are going through the same pain his family has felt.
“I just wish there wasn’t a cancer,” said Taylor Hulsey.
Medical science does not know what causes the kind of leukemia Maddox, Michael, and Will are fighting. There have been ties made to certain carcinogens, but often, doctors say, it’s a random occurrence.
“Some families do have hereditary traits that would be a predisposition toward cancer, but those are extremely rare,” said Dr. Matthew Kutni, a doctor at Children’s Hospital.
Still, with so much suffering in a small town, parents want to do more. They want to find answers.
“Within six miles now, there’s four of us. Four of our kids. To me, that’s not normal,” said Will’s mother, Megan Alred.
That’s why CBS 42 News is investigating. We are in the process of arranging air and water testing, to rule out any environmental link to these cases.
“You don’t know who’s next. You don’t want it to be anybody that–you don’t want it to be anybody,” Alred said.
Stay with CBS 42 News for more on this developing investigation into what’s happening in Fruithurst.