A.J. Rogers was on his feet, wearing a red knit hat, when he smiled while greeting a visitor to his Monroe home on Sunday morning. The 19-year-old Stevenson firefighter sat around the kitchen table with his father, Fran, and sister, Emily, a Masuk High School sophomore, to talk about his treatment for Leukemia and for his family to express their gratitude to everyone in the community, who has shown their support for him.
Rogers, a student at Naugatuck Community College, was diagnosed on Jan. 13 when his platelets and white and red blood cells were low.
"Everything is back to normal levels or he wouldn't get released," Fran said.
Fran said A.J.'s blood levels came up in a hurry through his first week of treatment and he was able to stay home the following weekend. He now visits home every weekend.
"One week I was in ICU and the next week I was lying on the couch," A.J. said with a smile.
Rogers was first treated at St. Vincent's Medical Center where his mother, Regina, has worked for 20 years, and he is now being treated at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, where he stays with relatives in the Ronald McDonald House during the week.
"I go there for a couple hours," A.J. said of Sloan-Kettering. "They pump meds into me through a meta-port in my chest."
When he's not being treated, Rogers is free to walk around the city.
"The food situation is good, because it's New York," he said.
But Fran added that there's nothing like sleeping in your own bed during the week.
Donations Pour In
Medical bills are adding up, but A.J.'s family has received assistance from relatives, friends and generous strangers through a series of fundraisers.
Orange Ale House hosted a benefit last Sunday. "That was huge," A.J. said.
Fran said, "Karen Brown and her family spearheaded the event at Orange Ale House and it was a tremendous success. We're thankful for their actions. They went to businesses and got them to donate gifts for the raffles."
Businesses from Monroe, Milford, Shelton and New Haven donated gift certificates and money for the cause, according to Fran, who said it is greatly appreciated.
Other fundraisers have been held by Charlene's Barber Shop & Salon in Monroe, Pink Cupcake Shack in Fairfield and Jenson Tire & Automotive in Trumbull (where A.J. used to work). And United Methodist Homes in Shelton hosted a Valentine's Day sale.
A.J.'s friends Drew and Chris McCauley got a group together to shave their heads at their home one recent weekend to show their solidarity for A.J., who lost hair during his chemotherapy treatments, and to raise money. A savings account has also been opened up for donations at the Newtown Savings Bank branch in the Big Y Shopping Center in Monroe.
"I don't know how to go about thanking all of the people in town," Fran said. "It starts with the kids. It started with Drew and Chris McCauley. They definitely came from a good family. They are very community oriented people."
Fran said the donations made at Newtown Savings Bank have been paying for the travel expenses to New York.
A.J. said, "It's pretty much what's getting me through this whole thing ... the people at home."
"It's not just here," Fran added.
Prayer chains have been organized for A.J. from places as distant as Michigan and Chile.
"I'm honestly surprised, " he said of the outpouring of support people have shown for him. "I'm in awe."
'Can't Kill Cooter'
A.J. has a passion for tinkering with vintage trucks and his GMC pickup truck is his baby. "I've been able to start up my truck, but I can't drive it yet," he said.
Friends have affectionately nicknamed him Cooter after the mechanic on the The Dukes of Hazzard TV show. Deena Sheldon of Oxford made rubber wristbands that say, "Can't kill Cooter."
A.J. looked at his sister, Emily, and said, "She has been a big help with all of the fundraisers going on — selling all those bracelets."
Emily said, "I'm just glad he's doing better. He took it really well."
Swim Across the Sound paid for A.J.'s truck insurance through July.
"That's a charity we have to help," Fran said.
"I'm not jumping into the Sound though," A.J. added with a chuckle.
'I'm Proud of Him'
A.J. had already supported a cancer fighting charity, the Relay for Life, with a team of fellow Stevenson firefighters.
When he was interviewed in January, Drew McCauley said he and his friends were rallying to help A.J. because he would do the same for them.
Fran said, "This kid, he's always been the type of kid if he saw someone broken down with a flat tire or a bad battery on the side of the road, he would help them. It's his character and I'm proud of him."
'The Best Birthday Present'
Sometimes Leukemia starts in the bone marrow, so A.J. has had to have tests done. He said this entails having a needle puncture his skin and his bone.
"When they say it feels like you got kicked by a horse, it feels like you were kicked by a horse, a goat or something," he said with a smile.
Fran, who is a technician for Clearwater Industries in Shelton, said customers have been coming up to him and sharing stories of relatives with Leukemia, some who have recovered from it.
"It's encouraging," he said. "It can be beaten."
A.J. said, "I want to hear encouraging stories right now. You never really think about it until it happens to you."
Firefighters have to be strong and physically fit, but A.J. said his bout with Leukemia has taken a toll. "I'm definitely not strong right now," he said.
"It's going to take a while to get back there," Fran added.
The staffs of both St. Vincent's and Sloan-Kettering have been outstanding, according to A.J., who said, if all goes well, his out treatment will end in June — a month before his birthday on July 31.
A.J. said, "That would be the best birthday present ever."