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It started with what seemed like a few random symptoms: a sore pitching arm, upset stomach, a fever.
Rebecca Olson made an appointment for her son Ronan to see his pediatrician. A COVID-19 test was ordered. It came back negative.
By Sunday night, Rebecca was really worried. Her son—normally outgoing, athletic, adventurous—was complaining about how sick he felt. The fever persisted. Ronan’s mom noticed that he was breathing faster than normal as he slept.
Early Monday morning, Rebecca took Ronan to an urgent care clinic, where a chest X-ray was performed. She was advised to take Ronan to the emergency room.
When she and Ronan arrived at the Stanford Emergency Department, hospital staff had already prepared a room, where Ronan had the first of many medical tests, including an ultrasound and a CT scan.
“It wasn’t long before I heard the dreaded words,” says Rebecca. “ ‘Your son has masses on his abdomen.’ ”
From the beginning of Ronan’s battle with what turned out to be a rare and aggressive cancer known as Burkitt lymphoma, he and his mom say they felt supported by the doctors, nurses, and staff who provided his care at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.
As soon as his tumors were discovered—one in his chest, one near his liver, and one near his kidneys—Ronan was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). There, Rebecca says, they met “the incredible resident ‘Dr. Dan,’ who would quarterback what would be a 10-day stay in the PICU, coordinating his care with a dozen other teams.”
According to everyone involved, the staff’s good nature was matched by Ronan’s incredibly positive attitude. On his second day at the hospital, he underwent a two-and-a-half-hour procedure to biopsy his lymph nodes and pelvic bones and to place a tube into his right lung to drain the malignant fluid that was accumulating. The team who worked on Ronan called him a “rock star” and laughed at stories he told about his 4-H pig, Keefe, while he was under anesthesia.
After Ronan started chemo to break down the large masses in his abdomen, the resultant detritus in his body nearly overwhelmed his kidneys, causing nausea and lethargy and threatening him with acute renal failure. At the same time, his breathing was impaired because of fluid in the tissues of his lungs; his oxygen-carrying red blood cells were decimated; and his feet were swollen, making it difficult to walk. Despite feeling miserable, Ronan responded to queries from doctors or nurses about how he was doing by saying, “Good enough,” with as much of a smile as he could muster.
When he talked to his classmates from the hospital via a Zoom call, he told them, “Cancer is annoying. But the one I have isn’t that bad.” He also suggested they eat their broccoli.
During the “induction” phase of Ronan’s chemo, all his hair fell out, and he was so nauseated that he couldn’t eat, dropping 20 pounds from his 10-year-old slender frame. He also developed severe mouth sores. He was placed on a lidocaine drip to ease his pain so that he could continue eating and drinking.
In addition to all the other specialists he had seen—including hematologist-oncologist Michael Link, MD, the Child Life care team, interventional radiologists, nephrologists, cardiologists, and anesthesiologists—he was now visited by dermatologists when he developed a rash, ophthalmologists when his vision was affected, and infectious disease specialists when his rash spread.
When Ronan had to be put in isolation and couldn’t even leave his room for several days, Rebecca told Ronan’s caregivers that she was concerned about his mental health. Ronan’s next visit was from a psychiatrist who taught him how to use self-hypnosis for anxiety and helped Rebecca make Ronan a motivational chart where he would earn rewards for aiding in his own treatment by taking the many required pills, for instance.
Ronan’s mom and his extended team carried him through these difficult days as Ronan slowly regained his zest for life. His sense of humor returned, and he boasted to his care team, “I deserve a milkshake for that,” after taking some exceptionally large pills.
Nearly two months after Ronan first came to Packard Children’s Hospital, his scans came back clear. Ronan was in remission.
Over the next four months, Ronan went through five more rounds of chemotherapy. He had to be admitted to the emergency department four times and endured weeks of high fevers. Infectious disease specialists were called in many more times during his hospital stays.
Despite all that, he continued friendships he had made with Packard Children’s Hospital nurses and staff, and he walked in the gardens outside of the cafeteria to enjoy the outdoors. His mother speaks of only one moment throughout his nearly 100 days in the hospital when he asked, “Why me? Why did I have to get cancer?” Rebecca says Ronan was in the PICU and was curled in a ball because of bad stomach pain. His mother suggested the cancer was preparing him “for something big he was meant to do in the future, something to help others.”
“I knew that Ronan would defeat this terrible cancer and emerge on the other side strong, with a different perspective that would be the source of future greatness and happiness,” Rebecca says.
Even before Ronan had had his last treatment, even before he walked the length of the hematology and oncology department where he’d spent so much time, and got a huge round of applause, he was already looking back on his experience with characteristic enthusiasm.
“Honestly, this was kind of worth it,” he said at the time. “I got to miss two months of school. I get a Make-A-Wish, I’m meeting new people, and I’m going to stop taking things for granted. I’ve learned a lot from the hospital—to appreciate everything. When I get home, I’m going to take a bike ride every day just because I can.”
And as far as the experience preparing him to do something important to help others? Those who know Ronan would have to say that absolutely seems to be the case.
“When I grow up,” Ronan says, “I’m going to be a pediatric oncologist so I can help kids fight cancer.”
This holiday season, will you join Ronan in helping other kids? Donate now at supportLPCH.org/warmwishes