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‘I’m proud of you’ – A father and son story with Tim and Cameron Ward

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Tim and Cam Ward last Christmas on a walk at the Bangor Mall. Tim and Cam Ward last Christmas on a walk at the Bangor Mall. (Photo courtesy of Tim Ward)

BANGOR - Tim and Cameron Ward are two of the most visible people in the Bangor area community.

A single dad to a son with special needs, Tim can regularly be seen strolling along the Bangor Waterfront with Cam. You may find the pair taking in live music at a local establishment, showing support for the Black Bears hockey team at Alfond Arena in Orono, sharing a meal in a local restaurant or attending church at the Newman Center at the University of Maine.

Anyone who knows Tim and Cam has a story to share, and it usually revolves around Tim’s tireless devotion to his son. Spend time with them and you will hear the words ‘I’m proud of you’ directed from father to son. It’s probably Tim’s most frequently used sentence – and he means it.

Today, time spent with his son is even more precious to Tim. Just a few short months ago, he nearly lost his life.

Tim met his wife Karen in 1979 when the two were enrolled in nursing school. Looking back today, Tim laughs as he remembers that he and Karen did not get along at the beginning.

“It’s funny to think about now but our personalities were so different,” Tim said. “One of our senior instructors put us on a project together. As we started working on it, we became fast friends. She and I and one other student became roommates and started working together at Eastern Maine Medical Center.”

Tim and Karen began dating in 1982 and were married the following year.

“Karen was delightful,” said Tim. “She was wise beyond her years. She could figure people out and knew how to fix things or make them better. If anything went wrong, Karen knew how to take care of it. We really complimented each other.”

From the beginning, Tim and Karen knew they wanted to be parents.

“We talked about it a lot but we were told that we couldn’t have a baby because of infertility problems,” Tim remembered. “For five years, we accepted what they said. Then we bought a house in Glenburn as it was being built.”

As they moved into their new home, Tim and Karen unpacked a room at a time with the exception of one room that remained full of boxes. For the time being, they referred to it as “the pantry.”

Karen was not feeling well during the move and went to see her doctor. Before any medication was prescribed, a pregnancy test was administered for safety reasons.

“We hadn’t even hooked up a phone yet so Karen called the doctor’s office from a payphone in the pouring rain,” Tim recalled. “I could see her say the word ‘What?’ incredulously, like she didn’t believe what she was hearing. She came out and said ‘I’m frigging pregnant!’”

Tim and Karen were overcome with joy and nervousness as they shifted gears and began preparing their new home for a baby.

Cameron was born in September of 1988. “The pantry” became Cameron’s bedroom.

Shortly after Cameron was born, Karen knew something wasn’t quite right.

“It had gone right over my head but mothers always know,” said Tim. “Cameron could speak but it was limited. He could say ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ – things like that. Karen got Cameron into some programs so he could be checked. It wasn’t until we went to get a neurology consult that we had some idea of what was going on.”

After much testing, Cameron was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called ring chromosome 22, caused by the ends of the chromosome breaking off and joining together to form a ring.

At the time of Cameron’s diagnosis, there were only 105 known cases of the disorder recorded in world literature. “Now there are millions of them,” Tim says.

On top of the chromosome abnormality, Cameron was diagnosed with autism.

“Then he lost his verbal ability. Nobody knows what causes autism. It comes down to what’s missing and what sorts of behaviors they’re exhibiting. To give it some form of diagnosis, they’ll call it autism,” Tim said.

At the beginning, Tim had a very hard time accepting Cameron’s diagnosis.

“I was often crying and asking ‘why is this happening to me?’ Most people who know me know that isn’t me,” he said.

Karen accepted the family’s new reality and turned her husband around with three words - ‘Why not us?’

“She was right,” said Tim. “Why not us? Things happen for a reason. Karen oversaw everything that she could and she knew that I would eventually come around. She and I were on the same page and we just kept moving forward.”

According to Tim, there was a lot of trial and error when it came to trying to get a grasp on exactly what he, Karen and Cameron were dealing with.

“Different medications would be prescribed,” he recalled. “Some good and some that would just make him cry. Before he was even five years old, I remember him getting upset and pushing a sofa across a carpeted floor. It took three of us to put it back.”

After a brief stint in a public school at age five, Cameron was accepted into a six-month program offered by Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, focusing on specialized behavior and learning techniques.

Karen stayed with Cameron in Rhode Island while Tim worked at EMMC during the week. Every Friday night, he drove four-plus hours to spend the weekend with his family.

In 1994, the specialized program being offered at Brown University was transferred to Stillwater Academy in Brewer to continue assisting Cameron at home. To this day, that program continues to help children with autism and other special needs throughout the greater Bangor area.

“Teachers from Maine traveled to Providence to learn about the program and then it moved up here,” Tim said. “The original people that we’ve worked with for all of these years are still there.”

Today, Cameron attends the Edward J. Bouchea Center for Learning on 13th Street in Bangor in a program affiliated with Amicus and the United Way of Eastern Maine.

For the past 22 years, Cameron has also received one-on-one support from Mike Stellar, a Direct Support Professional with Care & Comfort of Bangor.

“Back when Cam was in that program in Rhode Island, Mike actually travelled to Providence for training,” Tim said. “He has been a big part of Cam’s life ever since.”

As Cameron received specialized care and learning, Tim and Karen continued working at EMMC in various capacities.

Karen worked in obstetrics before shifting her job focus to pre-admission testing. Tim worked at the cardiac critical care unit until his area of specialty changed to pediatrics and EMMC’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“EMMC has an amazing NICU facility and we’re very blessed that it’s here,” he said. “I came to know a lot of those parents of babies who were struggling to survive.”

Tim was also an administrative nurse through Northeast Cardiology Associates through EMMC.

Karen retired from her job at EMMC in the late ‘90s to spend more time with Cameron.

“I had a good job and we both wanted her to be able to be with Cameron as much as possible,” Tim said. “He meant the world to her.”

On December 27, 2007, Karen Ward died suddenly in her sleep at age 46.

“We believe that she had a heart attack in her sleep but we don’t know for sure,” said Tim. “Her mother also had a heart attack at age 46, but she survived. Karen didn’t.”

Tim suddenly became a single father to a child with special needs and had to learn to take on many of the things that Karen had been handling for Cameron.

“It was a very difficult time,” he said of the months following Karen’s death. “Nobody expects that they are going to lose their wife and the mother of their child at such a young age. You can’t prepare for something like that.”

Another thing that Tim didn’t expect was that funding for the Cameron’s specialized program suddenly ceased when Karen passed away.

“It just stopped,” he said. “There were a lot of things we needed to untangle to get that funding started again. Cameron is my top priority and I needed to make sure that he stayed in this program that has helped him so much. He learns about things relating to community service and various projects in this area on a daily basis.”

Tim retired from his job at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in 2017 to spend more time with his son.

The free time has also allowed Tim the opportunity to become more involved with Friends of Maine Hockey and fundraising for the Alfond Foundation through the University of Maine. He helps coordinate events and recruit teams for the upcoming Alfond Classic Golf Tournament scheduled for later this summer at Belgrade Lakes Golf Course.

“At the University of Maine, it’s about family,” said Red Gendron, head coach of the UMaine Black Bears hockey team. “There are many people outside of the team who are extremely passionate about Maine hockey. Tim and Cam Ward epitomize that passion. It was tough on Tim when his wife passed away. With Cam being an individual with special needs, we saw Tim take on two roles. His dedication as a father sets an example for all of us who are dads.”

A longtime fan of the Sea Dog Brewing Company in Bangor, Tim began working there on a part-time basis shortly after retiring from EMHS. As merchandise manager, he oversees and ships assorted Sea Dog merchandise, ranging from T-shirts and hoodies to glassware.

In early January 2018, Tim admitted to himself that he hadn’t been feeling well for some time.

“Being a former nurse, I should have done something about those warning signs but I ignored them,” Tim admitted.

He says he had no appetite and was feeling generally sluggish.

“I didn’t feel like eating, so I didn’t. I lost 50 pounds in three weeks. I don’t usually weigh myself so I didn’t know but other people could see that something was wrong.”

During the weekend of January 19 and 20, friends at Alfond Arena wondered why Tim and Cam hadn’t attended the Black Bears home games with visiting University of New Hampshire. They never missed a home game.

“I don’t remember everything from that weekend but I felt like I was being encouraged not to drive so I didn’t,” Tim said. “I believe it was divine intervention.”

At some point in the morning on Sunday, January 21, Tim collapsed on his living room floor. Cameron was down the hall in his bedroom, waiting for his father to get him out of bed. He remained there for the next 24 hours.

On Monday, Cameron’s school contacted Mike Stellar, Cam’s afternoon careworker, to let him know that Cam had not arrived at school. Stellar immediately drove to the Ward home and discovered Tim on the floor, barely conscious.

Stellar called 911, cleaned and fed Cameron and called Tim’s sister-in law in Veazie to tell her that an ambulance was on its way.

“Mike brought Cam in to see me before the ambulance arrived,” Tim recalled. “Cam looked at me on the floor and smiled. Some people probably think that was a weird reaction but I think it was his way of saying he knew I would be OK. He knows and understands much more than people assume.”

“Tim is an amazing person and he is very dedicated to Cam,” said Stellar. “It has been a blessing for me to be Cameron’s friend for 22 years. The two of them have a wonderful father and son relationship and it is a joy to see every day.”

Soon after being admitted, Tim says that his doctors discovered he had dangerously low hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. A normal reading for an adult male is between 14 and 18 grams per deciliter. Tim had a reading of 3.5. Over the next 24 hours, doctors administered 12 units of blood. Tim had lost a significant portion of his blood through a previously undetected upper GI bleed.

“That’s why I was feeling so weak. As soon as they started treating that, I felt much better,” he said.

While in the emergency room, Tim’s doctors ordered a scan to give them a more complete picture of what he was dealing with. They discovered a tumor the size of a golf ball growing on the left side of Tim’s head, between his skull and brain.

If not removed, tumors of this type put pressure on the brain as they grow, causing seizures and affecting motion.

Doctors believe the benign tumor had been growing inside Tim’s head for up to 15 years. An operation to remove it was performed in late March.

Unable to drive for the better part of four months, Tim recuperated at the Veazie home of his sister-in law, Kristine Moody.

“I’ve felt great ever since,” Tim said as I shared a meal with him and Cameron at China Garden restaurant in Orono. Cameron looks at his father with adoration as Tim feeds him.

“Tim is a very loving father,” says Christine Chou, owner of China Garden and a friend of Tim’s since their college days. “He sacrifices a lot of his personal life for his son. To see him show such great care to his son is very moving to me. Tim is a very good man.”

Now back at work at the Sea Dog on a part-time basis, Tim is also back supporting and helping plan events connected to his beloved UMaine Black Bears hockey team.

The fact that Tim’s time on this planet came so dangerously close to running out is not lost on him.

“Cameron means everything to me. Going through what just happened – realizing how close I came to dying – it is very clear to me now why I am on this planet. He is my best friend and he means everything.”

“I’m proud of you,” Tim said to Cameron, as he reached over to clean his son’s face with a napkin. “You are my number one.”

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