Doctors told Megan Burns' family to prepare for the worst when they discovered her brain tumor in October.
The fourth-grader has fought for her life since then, surviving eight surgeries, 30 radiation treatments, and chemotherapy.
Megan will celebrate her 10th birthday Sunday, but the party starts Saturday when she's released from MUSC Children's Hospital.
While her homecoming marks another step on her journey to recovery, the battle is far from finished. Megan must learn to walk, talk and feed herself again, and her mother, Irene, must find their family a new home.
Megan can't go back to the single-wide trailer where she's lived for more than two years.
It's not big enough for the medical equipment she needs, doesn't have safe or sufficient power, and its overall condition would put her at risk for infection, officials said. If that were the only option, Megan would go into foster care.
The family plans to stay temporarily in an apartment that's been fully furnished, courtesy of generous donors. That arrangement expires in May, and Irene doesn't know where they'll go next.
She's worried about the future, but she's grateful for the present and the daily signs that her daughter is healing.
"It's been a long time coming," Irene said.
On Thursday, it was raining and dreary outside, but Irene was all smiles in Megan's seventh-floor hospital room. She just helped remove a tube from Megan's neck that was helping her breathe; Megan no longer needed it.
"Are you as happy as Mommy is?" she asked, and Megan replied with a firm nod of her head.
She sat down and gave her daughter a kiss. She rubbed Megan's bald head and said, "I'm proud of you. Have I told you that today?"
Again, Megan shook her head "yes." Irene wore a shirt that read, "Love makes the ride worthwhile."
Megan can't speak yet, but she understood what's happening around her. The cancer was in the part of her brain that controls her balance and motor skills, and it paralyzed the left side of her body. She can move her left arm and leg, but when she smiles, it's still with only half of her face.
Irene hasn't slept outside the hospital since Megan was admitted, and she rarely leaves Megan's side. The hospital closet is filled with her belongings.
On Oct. 6, Megan woke up and told Irene her head hurt. She threw up twice then fell into such a deep sleep that Irene couldn't wake her. Irene already watched Megan's health closely because she has sickle cell anemia, so she rushed her daughter to the hospital. That's when they found the tumor, and Megan went directly into surgery.
It was the first of three brain surgeries Megan would undergo.
A community rallies
Irene, 43, and her three youngest children ended up in a trailer on her family's heirs property in Mount Pleasant after a foreclosure and separation from her husband. Irene makes a living crafting sweetgrass baskets that are sold downtown.
The trailer is a stark contrast to the affluent Belle Hall community surrounding it. It's accessible by dirt road and covered in rust and dents. A trash bin less than 25 yards away overflowed, and the stench of human urine hung heavy nearby.
One of the trailer's wall air-conditioning units is held up by a wooden post, and the family's bathtub fell through the floor shortly before Megan went into the hospital.
Christy Crawford is a longtime family friend who teaches at Belle Hall Elementary, where Megan goes to school. She got the PTA to replace the tub, and CrossBridge Ministries, a nonprofit that helps families with medical emergencies, repaired the leaky roof, faucet and sewage to make the trailer livable. That was before anyone realized the seriousness of Megan's condition.
The generosity of the school and community has overwhelmed Irene.
Families and teachers volunteered to make meals for Irene's children while Irene's sister watched them. They donated meal tickets so Irene could eat in the hospital cafeteria and gas cards so her family could visit.
One child and her soccer team sold their used clothes to a consignment shop to raise $500. Megan's classmates hosted neighborhood lemonade stands and gave the proceeds, in change, to their teacher. And just this week, one of Megan's friends made a "Happy Birthday" banner, and her class signed it at recess.
Crawford said Irene doesn't ask for anything, and she's always appreciative. At the hospital Thursday, Irene discreetly slipped doctors thank-you notes.
Before the tumor, Megan loved to play outdoors and jump on the trampoline. Megan smiled as her mother recounted the times Megan teased her older brother to go outside with her and exercise.
She loved to read, but she earned a family nickname -- "Gabby" -- because of her constant chatter. They're hopeful she lives up to the moniker again.
The next four weeks will be filled with speech, occupational and physical therapy, and Megan will return to the hospital during the next several months for chemotherapy treatments.
Before any of that happens, Megan will enjoy some time at their temporary apartment home surrounded by family. They've planned a "Princess/SpongeBob" party, a compromise between Irene, who wanted a princess-themed party, and Megan, who wanted one with the cartoon character.
Irene smiles at the prospect of the weekend, and Megan does, too.
The pair holds hands.
Megan Burns and her family need a new home. The Belle Hall Elementary School community has created an account to collect money for the estimated $30,000 needed for a mobile home.Donations can be made at any First Federal branch in the name of "Mission for Megan."Anyone with questions may call the Belle Hall office at 849-2841.