SAPULPA, Oklahoma — He was a good little athlete, so fun to watch. He was pure joy out there.
“He was a natural,” said Tom Walsh, Isaac’s dad. “When you see little kids play soccer when they’re in kindergarten or something, it’s like a swarm of kids and there’s a ball in the middle of it. He was always the kid who emerged from the swarm with the ball. He was that good.”
Basketball became his favorite sport, and his best. Inspired by his favorite team — the home-state Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the NBA’s elite at the time — he was the sixth-man and three-point ace for the Sapulpa Middle School Chieftains.
But when red-headed, skinny-legged Isaac took the court one evening in early 2011, something was wrong. Or rather, everything was. His head hurt, his legs hurt. He was short of breath. He had no energy. And then he did something totally out of character — signaled for the coach to take him out of the game.
A budding basketball career had ended, and a battle for life would soon begin. Isaac, 13, had a malignant brain tumor the size of a softball.
Tom tells Isaac’s story in a new book with a beautiful spoiler-alert of a title — When Hope Overcame the Impossible.
It’s a story about the cruelties of cancer and the spirit of a 13-year-old boy who endured 21 surgeries, eight of them major operations on his brain, one of them lasting 24 hours. And it’s a story about a place where the healing is more than just medical, where hope always has home-court advantage — St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Pain, and a sense of peace
Isaac, now 23, remembers another moment during that same basketball season. It was practice, and his head was hurting so badly he couldn’t run.
“So I told the coach my knee was hurting,” he said.
Why his knee? Because he didn’t want to “cause a fuss.” Because the truth, he thought, might have resulted in a trip to the emergency room, and he didn’t want that. He just wanted to go to the bleachers and cradle his aching head.
These were the weeks before diagnosis, before that day — March 8, 2011 — when Isaac’s pain was given a name: medulloblastoma.
Symptoms mounted, but symptoms of what? Isaac lost nearly a quarter of his body weight, his pallor was ghostly, his condition growing worse by the day. Other students began to stare, and one day at school he fainted, blacked out for a minute and a half.
Visits to a series of doctors only served to determine what wasn’t wrong. But what was?
“When they ran that scan and told us he had a tumor,” Tom said, “the doctor also said, had we not brought him in, he probably would have died of a stroke overnight. Because the tumor was so massive.
“By the time he was admitted to the hospital (in nearby Tulsa), he was having seizures, in and out consciousness from the pressure of the tumor.”
After three surgeries in Tulsa, Isaac came to St. Jude, where he received 31 treatments of radiation, four rounds of chemotherapy and four stem cell transplants. But the family was struck most profoundly by what else they found at St. Jude — “a sense of peace,” Tom called it.
“I tell people you get an invitation to join the St. Jude family — it’s an invitation nobody wants, but it’s one where you really feel the love and embrace of the nurses and doctors and everyone who works there,” he said. “You’re immediately welcomed into the family of St. Jude.”
Tom was awed by the deep knowledge of the doctors at St. Jude, but also appreciated their human side — like the tip from one doctor on the best local burger joint, which became a family staple during their stay in Memphis.
As for Isaac, he’d rather not revisit his treatment — too many scars, visible and not. But he sure remembers the day NBA star Pau Gasol visited St. Jude. “I actually got to play some hoops with him,” he said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”
From the impossible to the possible
Tom, a retired educator, wrote the book out of gratitude, and to give others hope. But for most of the writing process, the subject of the book preferred not to participate. For Isaac, the memories were too painful.
Then one day last year during the pandemic, Isaac, who was working in the IT department of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, called his dad in Sapulpa.
“He called me up and said, ‘Dad, I’ve got something to say,’” Tom said.
So Tom made the six-hour drive to Memphis to interview his son.
“We just sat out on the porch and talked about it,” Isaac said. “It wasn’t really tough or anything, because the stuff I talked about didn’t really involve what he wrote about.”
The book tells a harrowing, but hope-filled, story of one boy’s cancer journey.
But the cancer wasn’t the hardest part of it all, Isaac told his dad, as recounted in the book:
During treatment, I always knew someone would always be there for me. It might be you, mom or a nurse — I was never alone. However, when I came home it was much different. Going back into the real world was the hardest for me.
Tom said he almost cried, hearing this; he hadn’t “fully realized” what it was like for Isaac, leaving the comfort and safety of St. Jude. “He really did not want to go to school. He didn’t want to go in public,” Tom said. “I kept telling my wife, he can’t shun people the rest of his life. He’s got to learn how to interact with others.”
But the father-son conversation that day in Memphis was heartening, as well. Isaac was willing to talk about it now, and his words showed emotional strength, and another, even better, coping mechanism — a sense of humor. He called his scars “tattoos with better stories,” and if he’d gone through too much to consider himself “normal,” he’d come to see himself as something more:
I would be a limited edition!
A reason to smile
Dad wrote the book. The son is focused on his own next chapter — life now, as an adult survivor.
Isaac is back home in Sapulpa, a move prompted in part by the isolation of working from home during the pandemic. He has a job, but is thinking about a career. He also talks about the possibility someday of marriage and children.
“Just live life,” he said, and there’s a beautiful simplicity to those words, after all he’s been through.
Tom says Isaac’s old personality, his outgoing nature, is starting to come back. He’s more willing to share his story, and better able to cope with the lingering effects of his disease and treatment.
He has issues with his balance, and with fine motor skills. And while surgery to correct paralysis on the left side of his face was successful, two later related surgeries were not.
“In a resting position, or talking to someone, you really can’t tell,” Tom said of Isaac’s mouth. “Because the nerves that were moved (during surgery) actually gave symmetry to the face. But when he spontaneously smiles or laughs, you notice when one side goes up and the other side doesn’t.
But to smile, right? After everything. Just to smile.
And you can imagine he’s smiling now, as he talks by phone from Sapulpa about life today, about how he still loves sports, still loves the Oklahoma City Thunder even though they’re in rebuilding mode these days.
“I still play sports,” he said. “I’ve actually started playing golf. Occasionally I’ll shoot a basket. I won’t play five-on-five or anything like that.”
He’s asked if his shooting touch remains true, all these years removed from his middle-school days. That’s when you can imagine him smiling.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve still got it.”