Fifth-grader survives brain tumor, being homeless; family soon to move into new home

Photographs by Grace Beahm/staff As her teacher places a new image on the Smartboard, Megan Burns picks up her head, interested to see what the new topic is. Megan, who must work hard to keep her head from hanging down as she gets tired during her half school day, has returned to school after having a brain tumor. Buy this photo

MOUNT PLEASANT — Fifth-grader Megan Burns wobbled back and forth in her wheelchair while she silently figured out the sum of “7+1+1.”

To help

Megan Burns and her family have a new mobile home, but they can’t move in until it has new flooring and a ramp for Megan’s wheelchair. They also would like a carport and fence.

Donations can be made at any First Federal branch in the name of “Mission for Megan,” and Belle Hall Elementary will accept giftcards to any home-improvement store.

Anyone with questions may call the Belle Hall Elementary School office at 849-2841.

Seconds later, Megan lifted her head and softly rasped, “9.”

“You rock, sister,” said her teacher and family friend, Christy Crawford, as she wrote Megan’s answer on the worksheet.

It may have been a small moment for Megan, but it was a big sign of the progress she has made. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor about a year ago, and the surgeries, radiation treatments and chemotherapy left her immobile and unable to talk.

She has endured dozens of speech, physical and occupational therapy sessions since then, and she’s back at Belle Hall Elementary School. On Thursday, that meant practicing multiple-digit addition and decorating a sign for the school’s upcoming Red Ribbon Week celebration.

“Isn’t it amazing what she can do after everything she’s been through?” Crawford said.

Temporarily homeless
Megan’s fragile medical condition ended up causing her family to essentially become homeless, because Megan no longer could live in their single-wide mobile home. Her mother, Irene, found out while Megan was hospitalized that the deteriorating structure posed too many health risks and wasn’t equipped to serve her health needs.

With foster care threatening, Crawford rallied Belle Hall families and others to temporarily furnish and pay for an apartment. The Burns family didn’t know where they would go after that expired in May.

The Post and Courier featured a story on Megan in February, and the broader community responded with generosity. Churches took up collections, and children set up lemonade stands to benefit the newly created Mission for Megan fund.

When the bulk of the fundraising finished, the community had given the Burns family about $100,000.

Crawford took on the role of managing the financial contributions, so Irene hasn’t kept up with how much has been donated. Irene didn’t need to know the dollar figure to be aware of the community’s support, and she said she’s felt overwhelmed by it.

She hasn’t been able to return to work making sweetgrass baskets because Megan’s health needs are so serious.

“You can’t even find words to explain what it means to my family,” Irene said.

Crawford also took on the time-intensive task of finding the Burns family a new home. It took months to track down a good deal on an adequately sized mobile home, clear the land and obtain the necessary permission to place it on the family’s property.

The mobile home cleared inspection this past week, and the family hopes to move in soon.

The combination of a lack of space in the apartment and Megan’s poor health has meant that Irene’s two other school-age children have been living with relatives. Irene can’t wait to have her family back together.

“This whole ordeal just ripped my family apart,” she said. “It’s hard on the whole family when we’re not together. Hopefully, it will bring unity back to the family and a sense of peace.”

Megan’s new reality
Before her brain tumor, Megan was a pretty typical 10 year old. In many ways, she still is. She loves arts and crafts (she whispered “art” and “p.e.” when asked about her favorite part of the school day), and her affection for SpongeBob is perhaps unparalleled.

Her sense of humor is still evident too. When her speech therapist, Marion Kelly, helped her take a sip of water Thursday, Crawford asked whether Kelly did a better job of not spilling any than Crawford does. Megan nodded her head up and down, then broke into a smile.

Everyone in the room laughed as Megan slowly raised both hands and said haltingly, “She asked me!”

Megan missed almost all of fourth grade because of the brain tumor. School officials agreed to put her into fifth grade this fall because that’s where she wanted to be — with her friends — and it fit with her educational and social goals.

Doctors have said they think they removed all the tumor, but it’s the kind that often recurs, so Megan must continue chemotherapy. She has missed several Fridays of school because of that, and it has caused her immune system to become so weak that she couldn’t go to school for as long as three weeks.

Even when she has finished chemotherapy, doctors will continue monitoring her weekly and scanning her every three months to ensure that the cancer hasn’t returned. The hope is one day that she will be able to walk and talk like she once did.

Megan is in school only for half-days, because she is exhausted by lunchtime, but she’s busy every minute she’s there. She has either speech, physical or occupational therapy every day, and she does twice weekly sessions of each outside of school too.

Therapy aside, Megan receives one-on-one instruction from Crawford in English and math, and she takes science, social studies and special area lessons with her fifth-grade classmates.

On Thursday at school, the hallways were filled with students waving and saying “Hi, Megan!” as her aunt rolled Megan in her wheelchair to class. Megan wore pink tights and a white shirt with pink words such as “inspire,” “courage,” “strength” and “beauty.”

“It’s so good to have her back in here,” said Ryan Harding, who sits next to Megan. “You just want to do something to help her.”

The school’s counselor, Melinda Rosado, visited Megan’s class to do activities related to the school’s upcoming Red Ribbon Week celebration, which she said is all about making good choices.

Rosado told students to pick an area in which they wanted to make good choices, and they had to write sentences on why that was important.

Megan hunched forward, grasped a pencil and lowered her head as she painstakingly wrote each letter of her choice: “learning.” Her peers had finished writing their sentences and were moving on to the next activity before Megan could finish writing that one word.

Megan’s lessons often are adapted so she does less work than her peers, but still is learning the required information, Crawford said.

“We are trying to address the state standards, but we’re doing t in a way that works for Megan,” she said.

Going forward
Despite the community’s generosity, only about $10,000 is left in the Mission for Megan account, and that soon will be spent.

The cost of the mobile unit, clearing the land, transporting it to the property and setting it up alone cost about $75,000. It cost another $8,200 to install water and sewer lines, and insurance will cost $1,500. Most of the rest of the money has gone toward rent for Megan’s apartment.

The family can’t move into the mobile home until its carpet is replaced with new floors; the home was used as a showcase model, and Megan needs as clean a living space as possible because of her immune system. Megan also needs a ramp to be built for her wheelchair.

Crawford is working to address both issues, and she hopes to be able to buy the family a washer and dryer as well as build a carport so Megan will stay dry getting into and out of the car on rainy days.

“There are so many things we have to do,” she said.

Megan might not yet be able to explain with words what the new home means to her, or how happy she is.

But ask her whether she’s excited, and she’ll nod her small, bald head up and down.

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