One chilly morning last month, Jay Barnett, 14, and his mother, Virginia Barnett, set out for what would be one exciting day.
Bundled up in their winter gear, the Barnetts, of Glen Burnie, walked the six Manhattan blocks from the Ronald McDonald House -- a residence for young cancer patients -- to the famed Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
There, they waited to learn whether Jay would have to remain at the center for a blood transfusion or more chemotherapy. Tests showed Jay's blood was fine.
Perhaps more so than the other days, Virginia Barnett let out a sigh of relief.
That day was to be a special one for her son. A hockey fan, he was about to be named honorary team captain of the New York Rangers.
Barnett had worried that her son would be too sick or too tired to make it through the day. But on this day, Jay, who suffers from a relatively rare form of cancer called neuroblastoma, said he was feeling okay.
So that evening, as a gentle snow started to fall, Jay mustered all the strength he could and skated onto the ice rink at Rockefeller Center with several members of the Rangers. He skated as part of the ninth annual Skate With the Greats, a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House of New York City that brought in about $250,000.
"These children [from the Ronald McDonald House] are the biggest inspiration, the way they stay strong despite everything they're going through," said New York Ranger Brian Leetch, who was co-host of the event with Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert. "We get out on the ice, and even if they aren't feeling well, they push right through."
The staff at Ronald McDonald House selected Jay from among the children as honorary captain because of his outgoing personality and quick sense of humor.
"Every year there's always one kid who really shines," said Rich Block, the program director. "And he was the one."
"Jay's a talkative kid," Leetch said. "He had a couple of one-liners ready for me when I met him."
Jay gave a sample of his quick wit. "I went to see the fight," he said, poking fun at the sport's reputation for brutality, "and the hockey game broke out."
The teenager's sense of humor has been a nice diversion from the difficult times he has faced since cancer invaded his body and life about 13 months ago.
Barnett recalled that her son was in gym class at Lindale Middle School in Linthicum when he hurt his back. After class, he began to complain of flulike aches, which continued for several weeks until one night he developed a fever and was in so much pain that he could not move his legs.
Thinking her son had suffered a slipped disk or other type of injury that day in gym class, she took him to the doctor. The family received the unexpected diagnosis.
The news went from bad to worse. As in 70 percent of neuroblastoma cases, doctors told the Barnetts that Jay's cancer had spread throughout his young body. Tumors had rooted in his stomach and consumed his adrenal gland, and cancer had infected most of his bones.
"One day he's fine, and the next day I find out he has a very difficult type of cancer," Barnett said. "It was devastating."
Neuroblastoma, which attacks the nervous system, is usually detected in children younger than 5. Jay was diagnosed at 13.
Barnett said when she first heard Jay's diagnosis she started to think the worst.
"But instead of dwelling on those thoughts, I try to be more positive and focus on what we need to do to get him better," she said.
Fighting her shock and grief, Barnett left her job at Global Payments in Owings Mills. She moved with Jay to Manhattan, where he could undergo treatment with a group of doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which specializes in neuroblastoma.
Barnett explained that because neuroblastoma is an aggressive cancer, Jay's treatment has been intense. Since January 2002, he has undergone two surgeries and had 10 rounds of chemotherapy and six rounds of a treatment called immunotherapy. Soon, Jay will start radiation, and he may eventually need a stem cell transplant.
"He's been through a lot," Barnett said. "And he still has a ways to go."
Throughout Jay's treatment, the Ronald McDonald House has been a great source of financial and emotional support, Barnett said. Established in 1978, the 84-room, red-brick building on Manhattan's 73rd street is the largest Ronald McDonald House in the country. It is one of two houses to take in only children with cancer, said Vivian Harris, house president.
With private rooms priced at what families can afford and most cancer treatments taking about six months, competition to get into the house can be tight. Prospective tenants must be referred by a social worker.
"We are turning people away all day, every day," Harris said.
Aside from the financial break, Ronald McDonald House residents say they benefit from the emotional support they get from other families coping with their children's cancer. Special events such as Skate With the Greats and the occasional celebrity visit help to boost the youngsters' spirits. Since he's been at the house, Jay has met actor Michael J. Fox, "Saturday Night Live" cast members and pop singer Britney Spears.
Still, mother and son said they miss home, the trees and the grass, and their family and friends. They also miss the small daily routines -- such as going to work and school -- that they once took for granted.
If all goes well, Barnett said, Jay will return to Glen Burnie in six months and resume his classes.
Jay, for one, said he's eager to rejoin his Boy Scout troop and sing again in the Maryland State Boychoir.
"We plan to spend a lot of time with the people we love," Barnett said, "and just enjoy being with them."