Fundraiser planned to help Orange County resident and police officer with incurable cancer

Published 12:20 am Saturday, July 8, 2023

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BRIDGE CITY — Year after year, small moments have put Bridge City resident Marty Riley and his family where they needed to be.

It started with a move to Southeast Texas from his home state of Ohio.

A year after his hiring with the Port Neches Police Department, he met the woman he would eventually marry.

In January, he was promoted to sergeant.

And even a choice in 2021 not to move with his wife and daughters back to Ohio played a part.

Moving wasn’t something they intended to do. But with the death of Elizabeth’s mother, they had very little family here outside of their three children.

“We contemplated if we belong here,” Elizabeth said. “All his family is in Ohio. We weighed it back and forth, back and forth, and then made the decision that we’re going to sit tight for a little bit and think it through.

“If we were up there, we wouldn’t be this close to MD Anderson. Looking back we didn’t understand why we didn’t make the choice to be near family. But if we would have, we wouldn’t be an hour and 45 minutes away from the best hospital in the world for leukemia. It all happens for a reason.”

The phone call

Prior to being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in January, Marty, 36, experienced symptoms for six months.

“I explained them away,” he said. “My back would hurt. I couldn’t get comfortable when I laid on my side; it felt like my ribs were hitting something. The night sweats were terrible. I explained the night pain away by the duty belt. I explained the night sweats away because we had a new comforter on the bed.”

He didn’t explain away the unintended loss of 40 pounds in six months or the small bruises that began to appear. But at the beginning of the year, a large, undeniable bruise prompted him to schedule blood work on a Friday morning.

“If something had caused that, I would have known,” he said.

He had test on Monday, Jan. 24.

And the following morning, his doctor had the results.

“I was working security at the high school when she called me at 8 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘get to an ER,’” he said. “My white blood cell count was, by the end of the day, 311,000. Normal is 10,000”

Riley left work and went to a freestanding emergency room, from where he was taken by ambulance to MD Anderson in Houston. Within two hours of arriving, he was told he had leukemia and began chemotherapy.

“We knew,” Elizabeth, 39, said of the diagnosis. “It was a gut feeling. We knew.”

Marty had looked up his symptoms, but waived worse case scenarios away. Still, it weighed on his mind until he knew for sure.

“The first thing that came to mind was, what’s next? It was the realization that I have to get everything in order now while I have the chance to,” he said. “I have a wife and I have kids I need to make sure are taken care of regardless of what happens to me. That was the foremost worry that I had — how do I line everything up because now I’m on a shorter time frame.”

Elizabeth said the only cure is a stem cell transplant, and that’s only available to those who are critically ill.

Since January, he remained on chemotherapy, currently taking two forms by pill each day. One is the same that he received at MD Anderson; the other is a trial drug to see if the medication combination moves him into molecular remission at an earlier date. Both come with hardships. The chemotherapy brought on fatigue and brain fog.

“The trial drug has created its own set of problems — joint pain so bad that some nights I can’t sleep, some swelling in my joints, the nausea was pretty bad the first month,” he said. “And with the combination of the two, it’s made it more difficult to regulate my numbers.”

Weekly numbers from blood work are now a huge part of the couple’s life.

“On the trial drug, the blood work was at least twice a week,” Elizabeth said. “Now, because of the joint pain, he’s having to see another doctor because they can’t figure out if it’s the leukemia or something else going on.”

Soon Marty will have more tests to eliminate other possible causes.

Living with leukemia

Marty returned to work, although he does face limitations. He can no longer work inside the schools, and the time he once used taking extra jobs has been eliminated due to doctor’s appointments.

The January promotion brought on less strenuous work, not knowing then how beneficial that would become.

“Work has been very understanding,” he said. “I was out of work for three weeks. A lot of people had to pick up the slack in my shifts.”

But those same people, Elizabeth said, were with them through it all.

“We were at MD Anderson every Monday,” she said. “We had other days throughout the week, but Mondays were crazy and they were guaranteed. Each Monday somebody would bring something else to eat.”

It would be a different coworker every week.

“Even people at work bringing meals on Monday night to take something off her plate because that’s usually something she handles, and Mondays being all day a hospital plus four or more hours on the road because of traffic, for me, that was a lot,” he said. “I’m not used to reaching out for help. I’m there to help other people, but I’m not used to being on the other end of that.”

As a public servant, Marty is used to being someone that helps others.

“Now that the situation has reversed, it’s a very humbling feeling,” he said.

Community assistance

About one year ago, a group of Port Neches police officers created the Port Neches Police Officers Nonprofit Association with the hope of creating a gym for those in the department. But in addition, they wanted to begin working more in the community. And it, too, became one of those moments.

The nonprofit led to the inaugural Blue Santa program in 2022. And it was also the recipient of funds raised by the SETX Craft BBQ Festival in October, organized by Juss Rabalais and Heather Burton.

As part of the event, they sold shirts and gave the proceeds to the Rileys.

“That took me by surprise,” Marty said. “Everybody always has something going on in their life, and I’m sure there are other people going through just as difficult if not more difficult things. And people like Aaron Tabor, Heather Burton and Lance Bradley — to see them put as much effort as they have into this is incredible.”

Burton, owner of My Tribe Nutrition and board member for the nonprofit, said people are her passion.

“I love what the police officers do every day and what they stand for,” she said. “When I found out about this — I know him from coming into my business as a customer — my heart just went out to his family. He gets up and goes to work every day. He stays upbeat and positive. I want to do anything I can for his family and his brothers and sisters at the department.”

The nonprofit along with Neches River Wheelhouse in Port Neches is hosting “Rally for Riley” Aug. 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event includes plate lunches, silent and live auctions, a washer tournament, a bake sale and live music, among other things.

Proceeds go to help the Rileys with travel and medical expenses, as one of his medications now costs more than $1,000 per month.

“We’re very thankful for the timing,” Marty said. “Everything has fallen into place exactly where it needed to for the best possible scenario.”

— Written by Monique Batson