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Jim Kenyon: Claremont mom, son make treats for treatment

  • Nick Coombs makes homemade dog biscuits at his home in Claremont, N.H. Nick and his mother, Jenny, use the proceeds from the biscuits to buy gas cards for people being treated for cancer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/1/2020 8:33:33 PM
Modified: 2/2/2020 10:08:07 PM

Jenny Coombs’ breast cancer has come back, but that’s not what she called to talk about. From our past conversations, I’ve learned she doesn’t want it to be about her.

Coombs’ center of attention is her disabled son, Nick, and his most recent project, which I’ll get to in a moment.

But first some background:

Nick was born 10 weeks premature. He weighed 2 pounds, 6 ounces and was 11½ inches long — smaller than a football.

But unlike many “preemies,” Nick never had anything close to a growth spurt. On his first birthday, he weighed 8 pounds.

Nick wasn’t expected to live more than a few years.

This year, he turns 27. At 4 feet, 4 inches tall and 63 pounds, however, he looks about 10.

Nick’s condition still doesn’t have a name. Specialists at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center treat him for everything from grand mal seizures to a faulty heart valve. He doesn’t have a big vocabulary, but his ear-to-ear smile lights up any room.

On Wednesday, when I arrived at the Coombs’ home in Claremont, Nick had just returned from a weekly horseback riding lesson to improve his flexibility and build core muscle strength. Not bad for someone who was never expected to walk and didn’t take his first steps until he was 8.

“He keeps surprising me every day,” Coombs said. “You can’t ever give up on your child.”

When I visited, Nick was wearing a white chef’s hat and a Superman apron over his riding pants. “He loves to cook,” his mother said.

Which brings me to the Coombs’ current mother-son venture.

Since her breast cancer diagnosis in February 2018, Coombs has spent a lot of time in the waiting room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon.

“When you’re sitting in there, you can’t help but hear other people’s stories,” she said.

Coombs was struck by the long distances that some people must drive — two or three hours one way — for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Many live on fixed incomes or have had to stop working when their illnesses worsened.

Around the same time, Coombs went online to find, of all things, a recipe for homemade natural dog biscuits. Nothing but the best for Max, the family’s young boxer.

It gave her an idea: She and Nick could make natural dog biscuits to sell. With the proceeds, they could buy gas cards to give to Norris Cotton patients in need.

Nick also would benefit. “My goal is to make his day as full as possible,” said Coombs, who includes her son in every step, starting with shopping for ingredients. (Organic peanut butter, raw honey and King Arthur whole wheat flour are key to the recipe.)

A batch makes about 50 biscuits. Along with the shopping and baking, Nick helps with bagging and delivery. They sell a bag of seven bones for $5.

No one would fault Coombs if she dipped into the proceeds to at least cover the cost of ingredients. While her husband, Alex, has a well-paying job with strong benefits at Hypertherm in Lebanon, she hasn’t worked since her cancer returned last year. The Coombses also have the bills that come standard with a child in college — their daughter, Kayleigh, is a senior biology major at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

But Coombs, 49, is adamant every dime from the biscuit operation goes into purchasing gas cards.

“I’m a terrible businesswoman,” she joked.

The joy her son gets from cracking eggs and running an electric mixer is her payment. “It’s a sense of accomplishment for him,” she said. “This has opened up his world.”

Coombs is constantly on the lookout for ways to increase her son’s independence. In 2013, she started a business called the Elf Shelf that made customized gift baskets that derived its name from the outfit Nick wore on delivery runs.

Later she started Team Nick to participate in the annual athletic fundraising event for Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, or CHaD. In four years, the group raised $67,000.

After hearing about the Coombses’ effort to turn dog biscuits into gas cards, several Claremont businesses hopped aboard. In December, Tremont House of Pizza sold hooded sweatshirts, promoting the “Nick Pizza” (spinach and grilled chicken are among the toppings) that paid for $550 worth of gas cards. The Eclipse Float Center, a health spa, contributed more than $850 from a breast cancer fundraiser.

It’s helped Coombs purchase nearly $3,000 in gas cards, which she gives to Norris Cotton’s social workers to hand out. Or if she’s familiar with a patient’s hard-luck story from sitting in the waiting room, Coombs approaches them herself.

They always thank her, and some ask why she does it. “We’re all fighting the same battle,” Coombs tells them.

Mother and son deliver the biscuits to Leo’s Market in Claremont and Meriden Deli Mart. (Warning: They sell out fast.) They’re also available through Facebook messaging by searching: “Janette Coombs The Elf Shelf.”

“I have people ordering biscuits that don’t even have dogs,” she said. “They’re fans of Nick.”

Coombs might not know it, but she has her own fans, too.

“She’s an amazing woman,” said Jocelyn Petersen, whose family owns Tremont House of Pizza. “She’s not one who wants to talk about her struggles. She’s much more comfortable helping others than taking help herself.”

Coombs spent most of Thursday at Norris Cotton undergoing a chemotherapy infusion. On Friday, Leo’s Market called to say it was out of biscuits.

Shortly thereafter, mother and son were back in the kitchen. They had dog biscuits to make and cancer patients to help.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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