Our family is one full of love, faith, and fun. Jim and I have been blessed with four wonderful children. In mid-October, 2016 we put everyone to bed in our typical fashion and in the early morning hours Joey (5 ½ years old at the time) came into our bedroom to snuggle. Around 7 that morning, all of the sudden our bed started to shake. I thought Joey was being silly and I was preparing to tease him about making such a commotion. However, when Jim and I looked up, we quickly realized Joey was having a seizure. It was terrifying. As a professional in the world of special education, I have unfortunately seen children suffer seizures before – however, NOTHING prepares you to see your own child in this condition. We had put a seemingly perfectly healthy child to bed on Friday night and were waking up to a nightmare. We called 911 and were immediately transported to the hospital. The next few hours were a total blur, with Joey remaining in a post-seizure state for about 90 minutes, through blood draws and other various tests. When he eventually “woke up,” hearing his sweet little voice was an absolutely precious gift. All of the immediate test results came back “normal”, and we were told children sometimes have seizures for no known cause. We left hopeful this was the case for Joey.
Our hope that Joey’s seizure was a one-time occurrence disappeared, as the next four weeks brought about frequent seizures, ambulance rides, ER trips, EEGs, and a four-day hospitalization at Blank Children’s Hospital. On 11/10/2016, our deepest fears were confirmed: an MRI revealed Joey had a brain tumor. There really isn’t anything to prepare you to see such images or hear these words from a doctor talking about your child. Every piece of our world was thrown into immediate chaos – and yet everything seemed slow and surreal – all at the same time. Thoughts streamed in our minds: This can’t really be happening – What kind of tumor is this? Will Joey survive? What will it take to make sure Joey survives this? How did this happen? Is this really happening? What will we tell our other kids? How will we all survive this?
We left the hospital on November 11 and headed home to try to figure out what we were supposed to do next. Joey’s neurologist had referred us to University of Iowa and Mayo. Appointments were made. Hotels were reserved. And, we slowly started sharing the news with our extended family and closest friends. We proceeded to have appointments in Iowa City and in Rochester. More tests, more bloodwork, more images, more of everything – including growing fear, became part of our everyday reality.
In addition to the amazing medical teams at University of Iowa and Mayo, we are blessed to have a pretty incredible school nurse in our support squad. Our school nurse, Keri, shared she had previously been a brain tumor nurse at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and made a request to reach out to her former colleagues to see if they would review Joey’s case and give us input. We readily agreed and felt blessed to have medical teams across the country reviewing Joey’s case.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving we received a call from the brain tumor roundtable of doctors at St. Jude’s indicating they were accepting Joey’s case. What a mix of emotions this call brought. We were thrilled to know Joey would be taken care of by such a world-renowned team and hospital, and yet, this is a place nobody really wants to have to bring their children (other than to visit)! We scheduled flights and prepared to visit Memphis. Joey was subjected to many tests, further MRIs and diagnostic imaging, and we were transferred to LaBonheur hospital for surgery. Joey underwent a biopsy to help the medical team determine the type of tumor that had invaded our little guy’s brain. Due to the tumor’s location being so close to the midline of Joey’s brain and near so many converging blood vessels, the surgery needed to be an invasive procedure with the inherent risk involved. Nothing prepares you to kiss your baby, whisper “I love you”, and watch a piece of your heart be wheeled off for brain surgery. The biopsy surgery, thankfully, went very smoothly. Joey, an avid Star Wars fan, woke up in the ICU saying, “The force has awakened!” Joy leaped into our hearts at this!
After surgery and Joey’s recovery, we flew back to Iowa to celebrate Christmas with family while we waited for the biopsy results. Finally, the call came. The type of tumor Joey has is incredibly rare (less than 100 cases are currently reported), but thankfully it is slow-growing. Surgery was scheduled for right after Christmas and we tried to have a faith-filled and memory making holiday season together. I found myself taking pictures and videos of EVERYTHING. All four children are by the Christmas tree – click. Joey is looking at an ornament – click. The kids have on cute pajamas – click. Photo after photo – because we honestly didn’t know if we would have another Christmas with all four kids again. Would Joey survive this surgery? Would surgery be successful in removing the tumor? Would Joey wake up and know who we were? Would he be able to walk? Even if his body survives – will complications from surgery take the Joey we know from us? Unimaginable questions kept spinning through our heads.
Right after Christmas Jim, Joey, and I once again boarded planes headed to Memphis. Another series of tests and surgery preparations ensued. We once again were in the hospital praying, begging, and hoping with all of our beings that surgery would be successful. On 12/29/2016, Joey underwent a six-hour surgery to remove his tumor. Surgery was successful in removing the majority of his tumor. Joey recovered from surgery over the next few days in the ICU – and we know the talent of his medical team, partnered with the prayers of many, helped Joey during surgery and into his recovery.
While we don’t know what the future holds, Joey brings joy to our world each and every day. We pray for strength to handle whatever comes our way, and to try to not let the worries and fears of the possibilities overtake our lives. Concerns about tumor growth and future medical needs are daily fears that are impossible to ignore. Fear of uncontrolled seizures is ongoing. Due to the remaining tumor location – the fear of Joey losing his ability to walk and run, and just be a “regular” kid – is never far away in our minds. Joey’s tumor is on his motor strip, which means it impacts his right leg strength and functioning. Each time he trips or falls, as little boys tend to do, we wonder…..are those tumor cells causing problems, or is that just Joey being a six year old?
Joey takes daily medications and Jim, Joey, and I travel back to St. Jude’s every three months for a series of tests, MRI diagnostic imaging, and blood work. While were are blessed to have a medical “dream team” for Joey, each trip adds to the emotional, physical, and financial burden of this unwelcome journey. Each time we prepare for the trips, our emotions spike to high alert. For the weeks leading up to medical trips, we prepare luggage, we pack medications, we plan distractions to help Joey get through the medical procedures, and we brace ourselves. Preparing Joey for the trips is difficult, as he is fully aware of the procedures that are coming. He hates the needles, fights, and cries during IVs, and doesn’t like “going to sleep” (being sedated) for his MRIs. We prepare our other three children to have mom, dad, and Joey be away from home for a week. I leave work, Joey leaves school, and we take a deep breath. And, we pray, and we hope.
Being the parent of a child with a brain tumor opens the door to a club of families – a club that you wish you never belonged to. (Don’t get me wrong, the people in this club are amazing and incredibly supportive, but you still wish you weren’t a member of this particular club.) The other night, I read a message from another “brain tumor mom” in this club, which sums up our trips back to St. Jude’s pretty well:
“A mom I know posted today that her phone has rung 11 times since her child finished his MRI this morning. Each time, her heart stops, then starts when she sees it is not the call with results. Brain tumor families live through this every three months – praying they get a report of “stable”.
We pray and HOPE for the best for Joey’s future and nothing but reports of stable. We feel truly feel humbled and blessed, to have the support and prayers of so many people during this journey.