St. Jude mother watches son go from crawling in pain because of cancer to running a half marathon
'All I could think of is that they had just saved my niece’s life... They’re gonna save his.'
January 20, 2022 • 5 min
Tyler fell asleep in his first-grade class, out of character for the kid who loved karate, soccer and was such a climber his family called him "spider monkey."
Tyler said he didn't want to play anymore.
Toward the end of 2012, his teacher, a nun at a small Catholic school where his mom Michelle also taught, told her: Something isn’t right.
Tyler’s arms and legs started hurting. He woke up in the middle of the night, crying with pain, his bed sheets soaked in sweat. Just after the turn of the new year, Tyler’s face didn’t look right either. He was pale all the time.
Michelle took him to the doctor.
“I kept taking him back and telling them something wasn’t right,” Michelle said. “Something is absolutely not right with this child. And we kept leaving with the same thing: He’s fine. He’s 6 years old. He’s seeking attention because of his cousin. That’s all it is. It’s just growing pains.”
Tyler’s 9-year-old cousin, who had been diagnosed with pediatric melanoma, had been a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She was doing well. But Tyler’s symptoms did not abate. And on the night of January 31, 2013, everything changed.
Tyler screamed in pain. He couldn’t stop crying. His fingers and toes were swollen into a curled position. His legs and arms started to swell. He could no longer put weight on them. He had to crawl. He laid in the hallway floor.
Michelle picked him up and rocked him. She would call the doctor’s office again in the morning. She didn’t know what else to do.
When morning came, Michelle called the doctor’s office. But they said he might have potassium deficiency, to give him a banana. They told her to give it a few more days, that he was ok. But Michelle couldn’t wait any longer. She drove Tyler to the emergency room.
By this point, he was lethargic and hadn’t walked in 24 hours.
Doctors admitted Tyler and ran every blood test imaginable — from potassium levels to strains of the flu.
The next morning, doctors said someone from St. Jude would come to talk to them. Michelle’s heart dropped. She called her husband and sister and told them to get to the hospital as fast as they could.
“By the time this sweet little resident came over, we were all in the room together,” Michelle remembered. “And she said, ‘We think he has cancer. We think it’s a form of leukemia. ALL, which is acute lymphoblastic leukemia.’ And she said, ‘We don’t know the extent of anything else, but we’re going to transfer you over to St. Jude right now.’”
Tyler took the five-minute ride in an ambulance.
“As terrified as I was — as uncertain going into this unknown — all I could think of is that they had just saved my niece’s life,” Michelle said. “They just saved her life. They’re gonna save his.”
When Michelle walked through the doors, she was flooded with calm.
“Because I was like, you know, this is the best place in the world,” she said. “This is the place where everybody wants to be if their child has any form of a catastrophic illness. This is where they choose to be — at St. Jude.”
The official diagnosis came the morning of February 4, 2013. Tyler had ALL.
He was whisked to surgery, and the family was surrounded by nurses, doctors — and constant reassurance that they would do whatever it took to save this boy no matter the cost. The protocol would last three years.
There were so many ups and downs. Some 1,200 rounds of chemotherapy, his mom said. Bone breaks from brittle bones. Occupational therapy. Physical therapy. Going to school right there at St. Jude. And child life specialists from St. Jude going to his small Catholic school to explain to kids that what Tyler had was not contagious.
“So, we fast forward a little bit to two years and seven months later,” Michelle said. “It’s August of 2015. And Tyler — two years, 7 months in. We’re going through chemotherapy. We were knocking through it. And it just seems like it’s taking forever to get to the end line.”
Tyler had developed an infection on exactly one half of his body. Specialists were puzzled. Then his doctor decided it was the chemotherapy itself that was feeding the infection. Michelle was shocked. They had 16 to 20 weeks of protocol to go. But the doctor said it was time to stop.
“This chemotherapy — even though it is something toxic going into his body — it is his lifeline,” Michelle remembered thinking. “It’s keeping the cancer gone. It’s keeping him alive. It’s helping him survive. And now they’re taking that out of the mix. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what if we go in to do the bone marrow and the brain scans and the spinal fluid taps and all this and there’s still cancer there? Then what do we do?”
The answer came late at night in a phone call from a nurse practitioner on Michelle’s birthday. The minimal residual disease test was negative. No cancer was detected.
Tyler’s scans have been clear ever since.
Michelle reflects daily on the promises the doctor made that first night: That he would do everything in his power to save her son no matter the cost because St. Jude would cover the bills.
“He never said, ‘Well, I’m not going to get this chemotherapy because your insurance won’t pay for it,” Michelle said. “Or I’m not going to order this test or this many rounds of therapy for monetary reasons.’ He said, 'I’m going to do what it takes to make sure that he thrives.’
“And Tyler is thriving.”
In December 2021, Tyler ran the St. Jude half marathon through the streets of Memphis and through the campus of St. Jude — his second time running the race.
“I want to show the other patients of St. Jude that they can do it,” he said. “It doesn’t limit you just because you have cancer. Even after treatment you can work hard, and you’ll be able to do the things that I do one day.”
Michelle always had hope that Tyler would be healthy, but she was never sure what that would look like.
Standing at the finish line that Saturday, she saw him turn the corner and sprint down the last stretch. She flashed back to all the times she held him when he had chemotherapy. The days he threw up. The ones he cried.
“And then I look up, and here’s this healthy, you know, strong, healthy child — young man now — running to me,” she said. “And thriving because of St. Jude.”
When Tyler crossed the finish line, Michelle was the one to put the medal around his neck.
After hugs and celebration, he turned to her and said:
“I’m running the full next year.”