GREAT FALLS — If there’s one thing 3-year-old Troy Ross loves, it’s football.
“What are you going to be?” asked his mother, Callie, earlier this week at their home.
Troy answered enthusiastically.
On this particular day, he’s itching to toss the pigskin with whoever will play with him. His dad, his sister, even the guy with the camera asking his parents questions.
“When can we play football?”
It’s an incredible sight for his parents, who are happy indulge his requests to hold onto a ball. Five weeks ago, they saw something much different: their beautiful child in a hospital bed in Seattle, fighting for life.
“It just knocked the breath out of you,” said his father, Wes, an assistant football coach at Great Falls High. “You heard things that no parent should ever have to hear. The unknown was the worst. It was beyond our control as parents. That was probably the scariest thing you can imagine.”
Troy had experienced severe cold-like symptoms in early September, and a trip to Benefis in Great Falls revealed something far more serious.
“They thought it was pneumonia when they looked at him,” Callie said. “And when we got to Seattle they found out with his blood numbers what they were, he had to be losing blood somewhere. And he was losing blood into his lungs.”
He was life-flighted to Seattle and admitted to the ICU, where the staff worked to stabilize him. Troy required several blood transfusions, which saved his life.
Eventually, after several days of tests and surgeries, he was diagnosed with a rare and dangerous autoimmune disorder called pulmonary capillaritis, a condition where the body attacks the capillaries in the lungs. Troy’s diagnosis is one of just eight known cases in the country.
“I think it really hit home when ICU said they don’t have a lot of success stories that ever leave ICU,” Callie said, tearing up. “To know that they work with kids, and that most of them don’t make it out of ICU alive, I can’t imagine what that staff goes through every week and how they maintain that level of compassion.”
The Ross family looked down on their son feeling powerless. Friends and family kept calling and they didn’t know what to tell them.
“People had asked us how they can help, and at the time I was sitting in the Seattle hospital room not knowing if my son was going to survive,” said Wes.
He paused, misty-eyed. His oldest daughter, Kennedy, hugged him tight.
“And something came over me and I said, ‘There’s three ways you can help.’ And the first was prayers,” Wes said. “And I understand that not everyone is religious or believes in that, but I do.”
Prayers came rolling in, along with the two other ways people could help: blood donations and fundraising efforts to help offset medical costs.
The support poured in from all corners of the state and the country. It was humbling for the Ross family. Weeks later, they’re still trying to track down everyone who offered a helping hand – and the list seems endless.
“I guess this all started with (GFH) coach Mark Samson,” said Wes. “It was the first call I made and the outpouring that he started was phenomenal. Kyle Samson and the Flathead Braves, coach (Jason) Petrino and the Rocky Mountain Bears. Coach (Chuck) Morell, Levi Dawes at Montana Tech. Jay Fredrickson of Cascade, Kyle Mihelish at Capital High, Grady Bennett of Glacier, it just goes on and on.”
Coach Bob Stitt and several members of the Montana football team visited Troy in the hospital while in Seattle to face Washington. Several sports teams posted videos with a “Troy Strong” cheer. A neighbor made #TroyStrong T-shirts to raise funds. There are countless more examples of support and compassion.
The Ross family appreciates them all from the bottom of their hearts.
“The biggest thing is, thank you for the prayers and support,” said Wes. “And I guess what is humbling for us is, what makes Troy special? There’s plenty of kids out there that need help.”
Every bit of support helped Callie and Wes cope. And each day in Seattle, Troy made progress.
“They called him the PICU heart throb,” laughed Callie. “And also the ‘Beast from the East’.”
The staff was taken with his blond hair and blue eyes, and quickly formed a bond with the little spitfire from Great Falls.
“They’ve all talked about how they can flag his file, so they can keep track of him,” Callie said. “And we’ve become Facebook friends with some of the staff. He definitely won their hearts like he has so many other people.”
That led to Troy being given a priority placement to meet Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, pop star Ciara.
“Fans for life now,” said Callie.
After a four-week stay in the hospital to come up with a treatment plan, Troy was finally discharged last week.
“This is a total miracle,” Wes said. “There’s no explanation why Troy’s here. He shouldn’t be. But he is.”
Troy will live with this condition his whole life, which means there’s always a risk the symptoms will return. He will make frequent visits to a pulmonologist in Missoula for transfusions and will continue to return to Seattle for checkups.
“He’ll have really intense treatment the next six months to a year until we get the symptoms into remission,” Callie said. “And it will be something we have to monitor and treat his whole life. It’s sad to know that when you have a 3-year-old.”
“But it’s better than the alternative that he wouldn’t be here. We’ll get through it,” she said.
So Troy will keep fighting. And his strength will continue to inspire his family and others.
“There’s nothing that I can’t handle now. Nothing,” said Wes. “If he can overcome this — no matter how many hours I got to work, bills I got to pay, miles to drive, doctors to visit — there’s nothing that can’t be overcome.”
Forever Troy Strong.
(Editor’s Note: Troy will be in attendance when the Bison host Butte on Friday. Several of the other teams that reached out during his stay in Seattle have invited Troy to games, as well. He will be the honorary captain in Missoula when the Grizzlies host Northern Arizona on Nov. 4. He will accompany the Rocky Mountain College football team on the field when the Battlin’ Bears host Carroll on Oct. 21. And he will be the guest of honor at the MMA fights in Great Falls next week. The Ross family encourages people to continue donating blood and praying for Troy and others who need help.)