Published May 04. 2013 4:00AM Updated May 04. 2013 12:01PM
Groton - Korey Page noticed one thing different about his 10-year-old classmate, Marik Tucker, but only one.
"He has a new leg," said Korey, 9, a fourth-grader at Charles Barnum Elementary School. Korey said he was "happy and cheerful" to see Marik back at school, even if just temporarily.
Marik has osteosarcoma, a cancer that attacks the bones and sometimes other tissue, and he's been out for months in treatment. In October, his parents made an agonizing choice to have doctors amputate their son's leg rather than put him through multiple surgeries and risk losing him.
He has a prosthetic leg and has lost his hair due to chemotherapy. He has difficulty hearing due to an unrelated issue, so he wears a hearing aid. Yet his classmates reacted to his arrival as they would to any other returning friend.
"They just all cheered and shouted out his name," said Shaun Farquhar, Marik's fourth-grade teacher.
Marik's mother, Kelli Tucker, said her son was so happy to go back to school that he had trouble getting to sleep Thursday night.
"I was just excited," Marik said. His favorite part of the day was "playing with my friends," he said.
He cannot return full-time to school because he is still in treatment, Tucker said. Marik started 40 weeks of chemotherapy in August and has two treatments left.
His white cell count will fall in the coming days, making him susceptible to infection. But Tucker said he's handled the treatment well. While other children require dozens of transfusions or repeated hospitalizations, Marik has needed three transfusions and has been admitted to the hospital twice.
She said she hopes Marik will be able to visit or attend school more when his chemotherapy is done and he's feeling better, perhaps in June.
His friends are already making plans.
"I might go to his house next weekend," said Gianni Galatioto, 10. "I need to ask his mom and my mom."
The students had some help understanding what was happening.
After the surgery, a child life specialist from Yale-New Haven Hospital - trained to help children through medical procedures - visited Marik's classroom with Marik and his mother and explained what kind of cancer Marik had, how doctors treated it and how prosthetic legs work.
In October, Paula Bell, the teacher of the deaf for Groton Public Schools and the American Sign Language teacher at Robert E. Fitch High School, began visiting Marik's class on Fridays and teaching the children sign language. She did so on her own time.
The students have learned simple phrases such as "Hello," "How are you?" "I'm happy" and "I'm sad."
Students from Bell's sign language class at Fitch also visited Charles Barnum on Friday. Marik's sister is an American Sign Language student at Fitch but did not attend.
Once chemotherapy is done, Marik will have scans every three weeks to see if the cancer has come back, Tucker said. After one year of clear scans, he'll be declared to have "no evidence of disease," she said.
She said his classmates made him feel welcome and just like them, and that has real value.
"He looks a lot different from the other kids now because he doesn't have hair, he's got (a) prosthetic leg, he wears a hearing aid," Tucker said. "It's awesome that they make him feel like just another kid. That's what he needs."