Playing in the heat of school-free summer days, one of four kids in his family, Ethen Richardson's headaches first blended in with the chaos.
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Besides, they could be dismissed to a million causes. Sinuses, allergies, heat, whatever.
But by mid-July of last year, the 8-year-old felt nauseous. He vomited. When his mother, Brandy, made his favorite steak, he struggled to swallow it.
Yet he still played with his big brother Elijah. He helped with Emi-Sue, 2, and newly adopted 9-month-old Evan.
Sinus X-rays showed nothing abnormal.
His pediatrician referred him to a neurologist. Just in case.
As the appointment dangled two weeks out, the words "brain tumor" seeped into Brandy's mind, tugging at the fraying seams of her confidence that Ethen was fine.
The headaches continued.
By late July, Brandy was fed up. She loaded up all four kids and drove from their Mount Pleasant home to MUSC, where a doctor tried to send Ethen home with a diagnosis of migraines.
When Brandy refused to leave, the doctor ordered a CT scan.
Ethen's father, Todd, was in Connecticut for training related to his job at Boeing.
He had settled in his hotel room when Brandy called.
The CT scan looked "abnormal." Ethen would be admitted due to intra-cranial swelling.
Todd booked a flight home the next morning.
Overnight, a friend picked up the kids, except for Ethen, who underwent an MRI. As the sun rose that morning, a doctor stepped into Ethen's seventh-floor room.
"I need to talk to your mom," she told Ethen.
It was July 26, a Friday.
Dr. Amy-Lee Bredlau, director of MUSC's Pediatric Brain Tumor Program, led Brandy to a conference room. She shut the door behind them.
Brandy sat at the table, alone, listening to the words that couldn't possibly be true.
Ethen had an aggressive tumor in his brainstem. It was inoperable. Incurable. Bredlau mentioned hospice.
"We'll keep him comfortable."
When Todd walked into Ethen's seventh-floor room at MUSC later that day, Brandy lay in bed clutching their son, crying.
At 5 p.m., Bredlau led them both to the conference room, where she gave their new nightmare a name. Ethen had a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a rare brainstem cancer.
The median survival is nine months after diagnosis.
As Todd listened, he grasped for ideas, for hope. Surely there was some kind of medication or surgery or ...
The doctor shook her head.
"We'll make everyone as comfortable as possible," she repeated.
Todd had long learned Scripture. He grew up in a family of deep faith, attending church multiple times a week and learning about all that God promises his faithful.
It never felt like much more than words to him.
But sitting in that dark hospital room with his son, fear spewing the darkest of thoughts, he felt a presence he had never known before.
His grandma and mom used to say, "There is nothing so bad you can't call on God's name. And he will deliver."
It was like all those years growing up in church were training for this moment. In the darkness, Todd called God's name.
Ethen heads home to start outpatient radiation.
Brandy, a mother of deep faith who stays home with their kids, who remains close with their long-time foster daughter, cannot even utter the tumor's acronym: DIPG.
Todd starts researching.
He finds a clinical trial at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis that involves experimental chemotherapy drugs and radiation. An email back from St. Jude's brain tumor coordinator says, "I'll be praying for you."
It's a sign, a sense, a realization that hope - and faith - exist in this nightmare. Faith in God and modern medicine, that is how Ethen will be cured.
Brandy packs their van for an eight-week trip to St. Jude.
Eli and Evan will stay home with Todd's mother. Brandy and Todd will travel to Memphis with Ethen and Emi-Sue.
The trip will mean missing Eli's first day of fourth grade. It will mean missing his football games with the Mount Pleasant Recreation's Cowboys. It will mean missing baby Evan's daily growth and development.
But it also means having hope.
When they reach St. Jude, Ethen digs into his pocket to pull out change. He holds it up to the receptionist.
"I'd like to donate this money to the hospital," he says.
In mid-August, he undergoes his first daily radiation treatment and begins taking daily chemo pills. Taking steroids, he blooms from 47 pounds to 62 pounds.
He scarfs down milkshakes, plays Legos and goes to baseball games. When the new school year starts, he heads to class at St. Jude wearing a new Plants vs. Zombies backpack.
But on Aug. 20, Ethen vomits after chemo.
Back in Mount Pleasant, the Cowboys dedicate their season to Ethen. He was supposed to play with them too.
Eli and Ethen have long fit together like sibling puzzles do. Ethen is a nurturer, a rule follower, the angel whispering over his adventurous brother's shoulder.
"Ethen was put on Earth to help his brother get through life. Eli is the one who helps them get into trouble," Brandy explains, grinning.
The Cowboys win their season opener.
Ethen vomits at night. In the morning, he huddles in a blanket on the couch of their apartment holding a bowl.
His parents surprise him with a trip home to see his brothers, to sleep in his own bed. They've been away for a month.
Ethen vomits during the drive, yet they make it. Brandy kisses her boys until her lips hurt. Eli and Ethen play Plants vs. Zombies late into the nights.
And Todd's grandmother describes a dream she's had.
In it, she always sees a river but cannot find a way to cross.
But this time, God led her by hand to the crossing.
Now she feels so at peace, certain that God hears their prayers, certain that Ethen will be healed and grow into a man of God himself.
Ethen vomits constantly, day and night. He cries, but not due to his own suffering. He hates making his mom upset.
Getting chemo pills into him becomes an ordeal that stretches through the nights, often with Ethen in a bath, his parents pleading with him to take another.
He takes a pill, vomits it up.
In early September, he throws up for two straight days. He has been on chemo for five weeks, and his body cannot take more. His doctors remove him from the drugs.
"A lot of our hope was bottled up into that," Brandy says.
"Now it's just radiation. And faith in God," Todd says.
Ethen, however, leaves the hospital singing about a "no chemo holiday."
Brandy and Todd see God's hand in the chemo ending. What was Ethen's quality of life?
A few weeks later, with radiation treatments about to end, Ethen's doctor says he looks "perfect." These tumors often wrap around the optic nerve, pulling on children's eyes. But Ethen's baby blues looked beautifully normal.
On Sept. 24, he leaves St. Jude.
At this point, mainstream medicine doesn't have much more to offer his family.
Only their faith does.
A homecoming party welcomes Ethen. He starts third grade and cheers at Eli's games.
The brothers share a room again, go to school, go to football, go fishing.
Yet, an uneasy feeling settles over Todd and Brandy.
They pour over homeopathic, experimental and non-conventional treatments.
Brandy has never looked at Ethen's scans. She doesn't want that image lodged into her faith and hopes for her son.
She doesn't want Ethen to see them either. But when Ethen's next MRI results come in, the clinical staff is so elated that he stays in the room with Todd for the announcement.
His tumor shrank 40 percent.
A celebration ensues.
Ethen wants his mom to look at his before-and-after scans, so she does.
It is clear that the tumor has shrunk. But it's still there in her little boy's brain. And it is not a peanut-sized thing.
The image clings to her hope, reminding her how sick Ethen really is.
For weeks, he continues vomiting. Just before Thanksgiving he tells Brandy what he wants for Christmas.
"I want to wake up Christmas morning and feel good again."
His wish comes true. On Christmas, he opens presents and joins Eli to play with neighborhood friends.
It's a gift to everyone.
His parents also have big news. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is making Ethen's dream come true. Just before New Year's Eve, they fly to New York City.
He's always wanted to see that place of pizza and skyscrapers and Central Park and Rockefeller Center. He tours them all, followed by a Fox News crew because the Richardsons are about to appear live on its New Year's Eve coverage.
Brandy prays that Ethen will feel well for the interview. She prays for no live TV meltdowns.
That night, late, they head into the cold for their moment.
"Hey, New York," Ethen calls shyly to the Times Square crowd. Just out of the live shot, Emi-Sue and Evan cry from their stroller.
Host Elisabeth Hasselbeck asks his favorite part of the trip.
"Everything's pretty much amazing. I can't really decide!" Ethen says, his nose Rudolph red from the cold.
Back in a warm hotel room, they watch the ball drop. Confetti rains over their window.
It has been a great trip. But now the high temperature is 17, snow threatens and they just want to get home. Their flight is canceled.
The next day, they endure airport lines with four little kids.
And Ethen has a headache.
He started having them in New York but didn't want to upset his mom.
They landed in Charleston on Jan. 4, but their luggage - with Ethen's essential oils and other natural remedies - is lost. Their car has a flat tire.
Todd remembers the last time so many irritations nearly made him lose his cool. It was right before Ethen's last scan, which brought great news.
His next scan is in a little more than a week.
The tire has a little air left, so they'll drive to a nearby service station. If the compressor is out of order, Todd says, it's a sign.
Sure enough, the machine is wrapped in tape, broken.
"Great news is coming because Satan is trying to stop us," he tells Brandy.
Ethen's headaches continue. He turns emotional. Brandy struggles to eat and sleep.
They leave for St. Jude today. Ethen's next MRI is Tuesday.
Brandy won't look this time, because regardless of what it shows, they will continue to fight for Ethen's life.
And they will continue to pray - for Ethen's healing, for their own strength, for God's constant presence in the darkness.
That is how Ethen will be cured.
The story of Ethen
Ethen Richardson watches a video with his older brother, fourth-grader Eli, at their home in Mount Pleasant.×
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