Catonsville student, a precocious little drummer boy, is trying to beat back leukemia

Ever since Melanie Kabia was pregnant with her now 7-year-old son, Noah, she knew he'd have a musical life ahead of him.

"He was drumming in my stomach," she said. "[He was] never letting me sleep."


When he was little, Noah would arrange toys in his room like a drum set, she said.

A video on her phone has Noah, at 3, playing on a drum set at a music school. When she was asked how long he was taking lessons, she said he hadn't.


Noah says drumming is just his thing — he wants to be a drummer when he grows up — along with running and playing with Legos in his Lego-themed bedroom. In a room across the hall is his five-piece drum set, surrounded by a set of five cymbals.

His drum teacher, Chris McCabe, has given him lessons since Noah was 3.

"It's really cool to see his little mind wrap around these pretty intense concepts," McCabe said. "He wasn't even in kindergarten yet and he was doing what I call middle school math."

Earlier this year, however, there was a time when Melanie and Ray Kabia's little drummer boy went silent for a while.

The symptoms started in October, when he began to complain about leg pain while running. Later in the month, he complained about abdominal pain. More symptoms arrived in the coming months, and the Kabias were told, at the time, by doctors that it was growing pains.

Noah started to practice drumming less often.

In January, his pediatrician asked to do some bloodwork. He called Melanie Kabia the next day to deliver the results.

Noah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia Jan. 6. Also known as acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.


The most common type of cancer among children, according to the Mayo Clinic, the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 6,590 new cases of it in 2016.

The doctor told her to pack a bag and take Noah to the hospital.

His parents didn't tell him right away. They were devastated.

"I kept saying, 'Don't bury my child,'" she said. "We just had to take it one day at a time and figure it out."

Sitting on the couch in their Baltimore home with Noah by her side, Melanie Kabia explained how in some ways, the past few months have felt like one long day.

"One long, long, long, long day," Noah said, as his voice faded away.


The inexplicable

How does one explain to a 6-year-old that he has leukemia?

The Kabias told their son with drawings.

As they told him, his body, like everyone's bodies, has red blood cells that give him energy and oxygen, platelets which zip up cuts and white blood cells that kill germs.

They explained to him that some of his white blood cells were being lazy and not doing their job.

The medicine would help achieve the goal of getting rid of the lazy white blood cells, which sapped him of his energy and made him feel bad.


Noah is in the fourth of six phases of treatment; he typically goes to the hospital every seven to 10 days.

It's tough to watch her son go through chemotherapy, Melanie Kabia said. Both she and Ray take time from their work schedules to make sure they're at the hospital.

At each treatment, they receive a gut-wrenching list of the drugs Noah will receive. But he handles the treatment well, his mother said. At times he can get grumpy, but he bounces back easily, she said.

"It's pretty hard," she said. "Nothing can prepare you to watch your child writhe in pain."

In terms of cancer, Noah had a few things on his side. His youth and the advancements in treatment over the years for the disease have given him a greater chance for a full recovery. Their proximity to Johns Hopkins gives Noah the ability to have treatment as an outpatient procedure and come home afterward.

This gives his family some optimism in a time of devastation.


"If you're going to hit get cancer, we hit the jackpot," she said.

Noah's school, Watson Hall Montessori School in Catonsville, has been a source of strength and encouragement for the Kabia family in recent months.

He has attended the school since he was 3.

The first thing the school community did was consider how to help the Kabia family, according to Kenda Watson, the school's co-owner and director of instruction. They began to raise money to help with parking at the hospital. Others donated meals.

In February, students and staff began wearing special T-shirts on Fridays to support Noah.

"We were just very scared for him," Watson said. "I was truly scared."


The red T-shirts — Noah's favorite color — were designed by his father. At the top of the shirt is the word "beat." At the bottom, the word "cancer." In the middle, a drawing of a boy playing drums.

"The drummer is me on the shirt," Noah said. "But that's not how many drums I have. I have many more."

The school is holding a 5K walk and run Saturday, May 21, for the Kabia family to help pay Noah's medical costs. The goal is to raise $2,500.

Originally, the 5K was to support the Montessori Kids on the Go running club, which Noah had joined. But the school decided to combine his loves for running and music together and hold a party.

"We're in Catonsville and we all work together," Watson said. "We have great teachers and people who want to help. We would never want this to happen to another child so we showed the kids how to support them."

An upbeat note


The beat begins to go on again for Noah.

As he resumes playing drums again, he's eager to learn more. He wants to be able to twirl drumsticks between his fingers and learn how to play a paradiddle, a basic drum pattern. He hopes to read sheet music.

On April 17, with his father singing, Noah played drums with the Greater Baltimore Church of Christ band at its sister church in Newark, Del., for his first public appearance since his diagnosis.

He hopes to perform at the 5K, as well.

On May 12, Noah had his first drum lesson with McCabe since November. McCabe said Noah doesn't use his illness as an excuse.

"People would have no clue this kid is struggling that much," he said. "It's a testament to his resiliency and his passion for life."


Noah is on a three-year treatment plan. Doctors won't say he's totally cancer-free until that ends, Melanie Kabia said.

The first year is the most intense treatment, followed by two years of maintenance.

Melanie Kabia is hesitant to use the word "remission." At the moment, the lymphoblasts are not being detected in the blood.

"But leukemia can be tricky like that," she said. "It can be hidden. So while they can't visibly see them with the eye, they're fighting any hidden ones there."

This fall, Noah and his family hope to be able to say "remission" with regularity and return Noah to school. For the time being, a tutor comes to Noah's home to help get him through the first grade.

If he can go back to school, it will mean his body will be able to handle the "petri dish" of germs that schoolchildren may have, she said.


Noah's mother has learned a lot from her 7-year-old son in recent months. Despite a life-changing disease, she's watched him grow and become more outgoing.

"Before, it was like music was his voice," she said. "Now, he's got music and he's really found a voice of his own."

If you go

Watson Hall Montessori 5K run/walk for Noah K. Kabia's Beat Cancer Fund

When: 8 a.m. Saturday, May 21. Registration starts at 7:15 a.m.

Where: Watson Hall Montessori School, 5820 Edmondson Ave., Catonsville, 21228



Call: 443-708-2926

Cost: $20 for the race, $10 for only the after-party

Online sales end May 19, but registration is available in person on the day of the event.