Christopher “Cale” Wooten spent his 20th birthday Thursday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he is battling cancer. But hundreds of family members, friends, neighbors and complete strangers gathered at the Charles “Judy” Poag Senior Center in Chatsworth to help him celebrate the day and to honor his battle.
Kerry Cofield helped organize the event.
“I went to school with Cale’s mother and father. I’ve known him all his life. As a community, we decided to get together to have a birthday party and blood drive and bone marrow registration in his honor” she said.
Wooten, a Murray County native, joined the U.S. Army in October 2012. While on leave and visiting his mother in Virginia in December, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood cells. The cancerous cells accumulate in the bone marrow crowding out the production of healthy blood cells.
“He’d gotten a busted lip in basic, and when he got home they saw it was not getting better. It was getting worse. That’s when he went to the doctor and was diagnosed,” said his aunt Terri Burcik.
According to friends and relatives, Wooten received a bone marrow transplant from his mother in May but his body did not accept the transplant. He was scheduled to leave the hospital on Friday to return to his mother’s home to spend his final days.
Ann Bradley, Wooten’s great aunt, said the last several months have been heartbreaking, but she said the fact that so many people had turned out to support Wooten helped ease some of the heartache.
“We had a young lady come by earlier who had AML. She had a bone marrow transplant and she is doing well. We know that someone today will be helped by what we are doing, by the blood that is being donated and hopefully from one of the bone marrow donors,” she said.
Beverley Higgins, another of Wooten’s great aunts, said she knew many of the people only from talking to them on a Facebook page set up to keep Wooten’s friends updated on his condition (Cale’s AML Journey).
“It has been great to talk to them in person and to put a face to the name,” she said. “We are praying for Cale, but we are also praying that someone else who needs a bone marrow transplant will find a match here today. We know that people who need blood will receive it because of what’s happening today.”
Friends and relatives say that Wooten has been cheered by the turnout.
“Cale was always a very giving person,” Cofield said. “And even though he isn’t here today, he’s still helping people.”
This wasn’t the first blood drive held in Wooten’s honor in Murray County.
Friends and relatives held another one back in January.
“That was wonderful. I was the lab manager for Murray Medical Center at the time. We had 127 units of blood donated, and we had 105 people who registered as bone marrow donors. That set a record for us,” Cofield said.
By 2 p.m. Thursday, about 100 people had shown up for the latest blood drive.
Higgins said the support Wooten has received, not just in Murray County, has been tremendous. Wooten spent over five months in Walter Reed National Medical Military Medical Center in Bethesda before being moved to Johns Hopkins.
“Gary Sinise (the star of the TV show ‘CSI: NY’) came by and spent some time playing guitar with him. The Washington Nationals baseball team came by and they all came in there and talked to him,” she said.
Dalton resident Blake Dean, 18, doesn’t know Wooten, but he says when he heard about what he was going through he decided to come and donate blood.
“I read about him on Facebook and thought that could be me, so I wanted to do what I could to help,” he said.
Dean says he wasn’t surprised that so many other people came out to honor Wooten.
“This community always steps up to help out when people are in need, and when you have something like this people are really going to try to do what they can,” he said.