Christmas isn’t just a time. It’s a place — a place like no other.
That’s where 2-year-old Gideon will spend the holidays for the first time in his young life. Home for the holidays, after two Christmases at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment of stage 4, high-risk neuroblastoma, a rare type of cancerous tumor. Home, after 15-months of treatment that included surgery, antibody therapy, a bone marrow transplant and radiation therapy.
Home, with lights and presents, Santa Claus and maybe snow. Home, with his parents Katie and Gary, and grandparents Steve and Julie, who also picked up their lives and moved to Memphis, where St. Jude is located, for Gideon’s treatment.
“My husband is the light king,” Katie says. “So we’ve got our lights up on our railing outside. And we got a giant Christmas tree this year. We went to a tree farm and picked it out, cut it ourselves.
“And Gideon helped — ‘helped,’ I say with a grin on my face — put the lights and the ornaments on the tree.”
There are two St. Jude ornaments on the tree, one given to Gideon by the hospital in 2015, another in 2016. They’re small reminders of a family’s pain, and the hospital’s attempts to ease it, in ways physical and emotional.
“It’s going to be awesome finally being home (for Christmas),” says Gary. “Just being here and seeing family, and not being at St. Jude. But that’s also going to be really bittersweet, just because St. Jude has such a special part in our lives now.”
Family members knew they’d spend Christmas 2015 at St. Jude. A month earlier, Gideon had been rushed to the hospital and into treatment at just 7-months old. He had tumors in his arms, legs, belly and face. Blindness was a threat. Ninety percent of his bone marrow was full of cancer cells.
“We could see ahead on our chemo schedule and we knew we were going to be in-patient on Christmas Day,” Katie says. “So we were able to plan for that. We had a tiny little Christmas tree at our Target House apartment. Our church sent him a bunch of gifts and we were opening one gift a day for all of December."
“So that first Christmas, while it was hard not having a normal holiday, we did get to celebrate before we went in-patient. And then, I mean, St. Jude just does it up at Christmas. If you’re in-patient for Christmas, it’s just phenomenal.”
Their first Christmas at St. Jude was fraught but festive, right down to Santa delivering presents that Katie and Gary picked out at the St. Jude Christmas store.
A year later, as Christmas 2016 approached, the end of treatment was in sight. Home, and the holidays, seemed possible.
Then, mid-December, Gideon developed a complication that required surgery. Instead of being able to return home between the final few treatments — to be home for Christmas — Gideon again spent Dec. 25 in-patient at St. Jude.
But the family coped, as it had all along. They made do. Julie, Gideon’s grandmother, made a tree and stockings out of construction paper and taped them to the hospital room walls.
It wasn’t home, but they were in a good place — St. Jude, more than just a hospital.
Again, Katie and Gary were able to pick out presents from the St. Jude Christmas store. And come Christmas morning 2016?
“Santa came. Gideon slept until 9 o’clock,” Katie says, “And all the nurses were like, ‘When is your kid going to wake up and open his presents?’ So we have this very adorable picture of him asleep in his crib with Santa leaning over the crib.”
Gideon finished his treatment in late January 2017. Post-treatment scans came back clear in February, and the family was back home. The 15-month, two-Christmas battle was behind them.
“He’s doing great, he’s loving life,” Gary says. “Really, the only way that anybody would know what happened to him is he’s still getting all of his feeds through his G (gastrostomy) tube. So he walks around with this little, like, two-year-old-size backpack that has his formula and his pump in it. And he just goes.”
So now comes Gideon’s first Christmas at home, complete with the gift of health and family all around, with presents piled high under that giant tree and maybe even snow.
Gary can’t promise a white Christmas to patients and families at St. Jude for treatment over this Christmas holiday. But he promises something even better:
“You have no idea the awesome, joyous event that you’re about to witness. And obviously, it’s not Christmas at home. But this is by far the best possible Christmas you could hope for, while dealing with such a terrible thing.”