How a community unites in the midst of trying times
On Feb. 14, 2008, my life changed forever. Just the night before, I was playing mini hockey in the living room with my older brother Marcus, when he unintentionally shoved me into the couch. Upon impact, I immediately felt a shock of pain. Later that night, my mother was helping me get ready for bed when she noticed a very large knot poking out on the side of my stomach. Upon touching it, the area was oddly tender and hard. She instantly knew that something was wrong.
The next day after school, she drove me to my local doctor’s office. My pediatrician explained that something was very wrong with my liver and that I needed to go to a special hospital right away. Within minutes, I was then rushed into an ambulance and driven to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where the medical staff ran multiple tests on my body. At only five years old, I was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, an adult form of liver cancer.
Soon after this diagnosis, I was admitted to the hospital. I remember trying my best to remain strong and not let my emotions get the best of me; but, shortly after admission, I began to lose it and didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. If I was getting my own hospital room, it was clear that my situation wasn’t good. Yet, in this moment of tribulation, the power of community prevailed. That night in the hospital, my entire family visited with me and poured out words of support. Most of what was said was the explanation of the situation, the presence in the room, was the family’s expressing their sadness, shock, and fear for what lays ahead.
My first round of chemotherapy lasted for three months—from February to May 2008. The treatment was effective enough for the doctors to safely remove the softball-sized tumor; however, the doctor discovered that due to cancerous cells being interwoven with healthy cells, he therefore was not confident that he could remove the cancerous tumor successfully. Unfortunately, I had to go with our last resort: a liver transplant.
Because my cancer was so severe and had a pediatric end liver disease (PELD) score of -5, which was astonishing to hear that a negative PELD score was obtainable. My medical team appealed the score to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and they increased the score to -5 to 21, to compete for a liver. And begin the anxious wait to find another liver. During that time, I grew familiar with the hospital and the people who worked there. I became known as the kid who loved hockey, and I often annoyed my doctors daily by asking the question, “When can I go home? I have hockey practice tonight!”
Amidst my daily pleas to go home and play hockey, I began chemotherapy treatment. My love for the game of hockey continued during this time—it became everything I thought about. To this day, I say that the game of hockey saved my life, and for good reason. Every day I was in that hospital, I told my family, the nurses and myself that I will get out of there and play hockey again.
Five months after being diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, my family and I received the long awaited news that there was a liver available for transplant. I was immediately put under surgery. After a seventeen day recovery, I was very excited because I was one step closer to returning to the ice. I was then released to go home and slowly began to return to the normal lifestyle I was once accustomed to.
But in October, I began to show signs of an infection. The biliaries in my liver were too small and were becoming clogged. I was then unfortunately placed back onto the liver transplant list. IV antibiotics were prescribed to me, in which I had to continuously take at home for approximately one year because I had to requalify for another transplant.
During this wait period, I reflected on everything the community around me did for me and my family. I felt encouraged to grow in my Christian faith because of all of the prayers and financial support the church offered. This circumstance still impacts me today because the church community rallied together to help my family, provide food, and emotionally support me.
The hockey community was also involved. The teams that my brothers and I grew up playing on donated two meals a day to my family for six months straight. My youth hockey association held a fundraiser with Floyd’s Barber Shop where all the kids shaved their hair and put my number on their heads. At this time, my brother was a part of the Colorado Thunderbirds, where he played with Joe Sakic’s son, Chase. Prior to my transplant, I bonded with Sakic, who is a National Hockey League (NHL) hall-of-famer for the Colorado Avalanche and current general manager for the team.
We spent a lot of time together because of hockey, and I can officially say that I own him in bubble hockey, a hockey version of foosball. That’s a statement not a lot of people can say and I’m proud of that. Through our relationship, Sakic greatly impacted me. He generously donated on my behalf to the Children’s Hospital Colorado, and when I was unable to attend my brother’s hockey tournament because of my inability to use public transportation, he invited me and my family via a private jet. To this day the Avalanche are still involved with charity work there. Being able to form a connection with someone of his stature was truly an honor and inspired my love for hockey even more. Sakic also connected me with my favorite childhood NHL hockey player, Teemu Selanne, who is an Anaheim Duck legend and NHL hall-of-famer.
My cancer story came to an end around the week of my seventh birthday when I received my second transplant and had been deemed cancer free. Six weeks after my surgery, I returned to the beloved game of hockey, which I continue to play today.
In 2010, I had the opportunity to pay it forward on behalf of Children’s Hospital Colorado when I was named an ambassador. Through my experience with cancer, God has blessed me in so many ways, and made me appreciate the people around me more and cherish the times I get to spend with them. The importance of community is incredible. You never know who you might impact along the way or be impacted on the way.