Ryder grabs the inflatable toy microphone and says hello to the kids who’ve gathered for a video conference call. Their faces pop up, then shift on the screen as others join in. The 9-year-old is proud as he sees the number of attendees climb.
The kids have convened to learn three simple steps for signing up for the virtual St. Jude Walk/Run, which takes place Sept. 26, but Ryder, the video call co-host, also knows they’re here for him. To learn more about his story and who he is, to feel connected to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital simply by knowing him better.
It’s the first week of September, and he’s far from his home in Kansas. He’s at St. Jude for check-up appointments and a follow-up scan to see if his brain tumor has grown or stayed stable. It’s a stressful time, these six-month follow-up visits, his mom, Laura, admits, but it was his choice to do the call because “Ryder is kind of a ham,” she said.
And there’s more to it than that. Ryder believes it’s his mission to support St. Jude.
Two other things you should know about Ryder, mentioned during the video call:
When Ryder was getting treatment at St. Jude, he stood out by wearing suits to his proton therapy appointments. He even has a set of St. Jude ties. Laura said the suits were part of a “look good, feel good” approach – and a way to have control of a situation that sometimes felt out of control. It made him feel “normal,” Ryder said, and gave people a topic of conversation other than his treatment.
He loves spending time with his dog. Ryder carried a Pomeranian plush toy to every one of his proton therapy treatments in 2018, in part because it reminded him of his dog back home. Soon after Ryder completed treatment, however, his dog passed away. Once he’d coped with the loss, he begged for a puppy. Finally, on the Fourth of July this year, his parents brought home Quigley, a yellow lab.
These things that make Ryder special also make him seem like he could be your kid – or if you are a kid, like he could be you.
The kids notice that and respond to it.
You see, something happened when precautions for COVID-19 began. Large in-person fundraising events for St. Jude were replaced by video calls and virtual events. Many grownups were home with their kids during the calls, and kids have ears. Soon, it became clear that all along, there had been a silent audience for what St. Jude is and does: the children.
So Ryder has taken his message directly to them and he shares his story of how, on Halloween night in 2017, life abruptly changed.
Ryder went trick-or-treating and had difficulty navigating steps and finding doorbells. When his parents took him to the doctor, he couldn’t read the letters on the eye chart. Soon after, scans revealed a brain tumor called a craniopharyngioma. Surgery at St. Jude the day before Thanksgiving removed the tumor and restored his vision, but in March 2018, his scans revealed new tumor growth. He returned to St. Jude for 30 proton therapy treatments. The success of these treatments have helped restore his childhood.
Ryder’s dad, Chris, said his diagnosis changed their life – and priorities – in an instant. And in Ryder’s case, it helped reveal a sterling character.
Ryder went home from St. Jude last week, hopeful that, through the video call, he’d helped some kids understand the importance of St. Jude. Maybe some of them would even sign up for the St. Jude Walk/Run.
He also went home with great news: The proton therapy he received in 2018 continues to protect him. His tumor isn’t growing anymore. He started fourth grade on a high note.