MJ Holloway smiled nervously, slightly intimidated by the admissions committee of the elite magnet school. The faculty members probed and prodded, asking thought-provoking questions. But one query elicited an immediate answer: “What kind of doctor do you want to be?” they asked the 11-year-old.
“I want to be a pediatric neurosurgeon,” MJ confidently responded.
“I want to prevent brain tumors, and I want to cure them. I want to be able to experience finding a cure for an incurable disease.”
Ironically, four days later, the academically gifted fifth grader would experience his first headache. Two weeks later, a pediatric neurosurgeon would remove a tumor from MJ’s brain.
Give me a sign
When MJ’s headaches began in February of 2012, his parents, Lisa and Maurice Sr., immediately realized something was awry. The intensity of his headaches worsened as the frequency increased. Lisa, a university faculty member with a doctoral-level nursing degree, recognized that her son’s headaches did not fit the typical pattern for migraines. After two weeks, a CT scan indicated a malignant tumor called pineoblastoma lodged deep within MJ’s brain.
After removing the mass, surgeons in South Carolina asked the couple where they wanted to take their son for further treatment.
“I’ve been donating to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since I became a nurse, so I knew about it, but I didn’t really know about it,” Lisa says. “So even as a nurse practitioner, I was lost. I used to be a pediatric ICU nurse, and I once worked with a federal government task force studying cancer in adults. But never in a million years would I ever have guessed that I’d be one of the parents.”
Lisa prayed for guidance. “Give me an obvious sign,” she said.
“In one day, five total strangers called me and said, ‘You need to go to St. Jude,’” Lisa says. All of the individuals had heard about MJ’s plight through mutual acquaintances or word of mouth. One couple who were both physicians contacted me. Their son had been treated at St. Jude, and they said, ‘Go.’”
Later that day, the Holloways received a referral and began making plans to travel from South Carolina to Memphis.
Lessons in courage
At St. Jude, MJ received six weeks of radiation therapy, followed by a break during which he returned home to deliver the commencement address at his elementary school. The diminutive class president climbed upon a stool and peeked over the podium. With a maturity that belied his years, MJ proceeded to dispense pearls of wisdom to his peers.
“Character is a choice,” he told them. “You build on your character in positive and negative ways every time you make a choice.
“Guys, be committed,” he continued, “because commitment is the characteristic that takes you from a dreamer to a doer.”
Then he drew upon his own experiences.
“Have courage in everything you do,” he told his fellow graduates. “Just because you have courage doesn’t mean you can’t be afraid. Sometimes it’s OK to be afraid. As I’m going through my cancer treatment, I definitely have some fears, but courage is a quality that says, ‘I’m afraid, but I know I can do this and everything will turn out OK.’”
There was not a dry eye in the house.
A bright future
Returning to St. Jude, MJ began the chemotherapy phase of his protocol. Each of the four cycles of high-dose chemotherapy was followed by an autologous stem cell transplant.
“That means he received his own stem cells,” explains Giles Robinson, MD of St. Jude Oncology. “This process helps patients recover relatively more quickly from chemotherapy. Before MJ began treatment, we gave him a medicine to boost his stem cell count; then we took some of his blood and removed the stem cells, storing them for future use. Two days after he finished each chemotherapy cycle, he received the stem cell replacement.”
Robinson and his colleagues say they look forward to their interactions with the aspiring physician.
“We’re thrilled every single time MJ comes through the clinic,” Robinson says. “He has got a bright smile and has tolerated chemotherapy incredibly well. MJ’s extremely smart, and he should have a very, very bright future.”
Kaci Richardson, a teacher in the hospital’s School Program, has helped MJ sustain his academic progress throughout treatment. Richardson works with teachers at MJ’s home school to ensure that he completes his rigorous, accelerated curriculum.
“He’s in all honors classes,” Richardson says. “MJ is extremely intelligent, but he’s also mature for his age. When he comes to school, he doesn’t want to play around. He’s here to work as soon as he arrives.
“He talks about his desire to be a doctor,” she continues, “and he’s quite smart enough to do that.”
Faith, focus and fundraising
During his treatment at St. Jude, MJ has kept a journal. His mom, not to be outdone, has written a fictional children’s novel based on their experiences at St. Jude. In Lisa’s book, magical characters fight a terrible disease, which can only be vanquished with the help of family, love, loyalty and faith.
“There’s so much magic going on around St. Jude,” she says. “This place is amazing. St. Jude does much more for us than they really know. We couldn’t have left our home for treatment if it were not for the way this place is set up. It’s not just the housing and the food and covering the medical bills—it’s so much deeper than that. At St. Jude, I can totally focus my care on MJ, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
As a university professor, Lisa says her future students will benefit from MJ’s journey.
“I’ve already started rewriting my teaching curriculum to include some of the things I’ve learned about compassion here,” she says. “I teach medical surgical nursing to 250 nursing students a year. St. Jude has taught me much about that topic, and I want to pass that on to my students.”
She is also an advocate for the hospital itself.
“Even being in health care, I never really thought about what this children’s research hospital was all about and what it was doing,” Lisa admits. “You get these things in the mail that ask you to donate $25. You sign it, and you donate the $25, but you don’t know exactly where that money’s going. I’ve talked to everyone who donates back at home and said, ‘Up your ante, because what they’re doing with this money is so wonderful. What they do for the families and for the children is amazing.’”
A doctor in the house
MJ says that his experience has only reinforced his medical school aspirations.
“I want to do it even more than I did before,” he says.
Armed with determination and drive, MJ is poised to take another piece of advice he offered to his classmates during his commencement address: “Nothing in life is impossible to overcome or achieve if you just put your mind to it,” he told them. “You should always set your goals very high and dream impossible dreams.”
Reprinted from Promise Winter 2013