Certainly no one is ever prepared to hear the words, “You have cancer.”
Or “your child has cancer.”
When Jeff and Stacie Richard first learned of their son, Nate’s, diagnosis with leukemia, it was the shock that Stacie remembers the most.
Their son was healthy, showing no signs of illness at all. In fact, the leukemia was only diagnosed after a standard finger prick during an even more standard five-year-old wellness check with his pediatrician.
“We were just suddenly plucked out of regular life and, within a couple of days, at the children’s hospital and trying to sort through what it meant to have leukemia,” Stacie recalls.
At the time, not only were they trying to still come to grips with the diagnosis themselves and tackle next-steps in treatment plans, Jeff and Stacie were also trying to help Nate understand his illness and struggling to explain to their other children how the diagnosis would affect them.
“That was the beginnings of us trying to understand what was happening to us.”
Because he was only five, Jeff and Stacie tried to find books about cancer written for children, and they came up short.
“There just were not a lot of things that were explicitly written in a child’s level that shared what Nate had going on,” she says.
“One day he asked, “Well, can I have my own story?’”
Jeff and Stacie said, “sure,” and set about to make that happen for their son.
For the Richard family, it was normal for Jeff and Stacie to take lots of pictures of their kids, so they started photo documenting Nate’s treatments, procedures and time in the hospital. They took photos of their family at the Ronald McDonald House where they stayed while Nate was receiving care at nearby Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
And, little by little as Nate’s treatments became less cumbersome and as life returned to somewhat normal, Stacie and Jeff wrote down their son’s story—their family’s story.
Just as quickly as Nate went from being a healthy five-year-old to one with leukemia, and just as Stacie says they felt like they’d reached a “safer place” for their son’s condition, he developed an infection that his compromised immune system couldn’t fight.
“Suddenly, we were in a situation where things couldn’t be turned back for Nate,” Stacie remembers.
Within a week, Nate passed away, leaving his family in shock once more.
“You just ask yourself a million questions and question why it is happening, and we concluded that Nate must had fulfilled the things that he needed to here in this life,” she says.
“As hard as cancer was, having Nate to go through those hard things, his loss was a whole other level of hardship that really seemed like an impossible situation.”
Stacie and Jeff turned to the Lord and His Word to give them the strength to carry on.
And it was another nudge from God that Stacie and Jeff believe led them to see, through their grief, a reason to finish Nate’s story.
“We felt like, okay, what is Nate’s story going to be, and can that still help people?”
“It was a confusing feeling.”
“We felt like the Lord had given Nate the desire to do it, because it was something so unusual seeming to us that a child his age would ask for his own book.”
It took about two years for Jeff and Stacie to completely finish Nate’s Story, a children’s book illustrating Nate’s fight against cancer. When it was complete, they worked to package their book with other items that had helped their son during his battle and, three years after he passed away, children diagnosed with cancer at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital started receiving backpacks from Nate’s Wish, the organization Jeff and Stacie founded in honor of their son.
Stacie calls the backpack and its contents “very purposeful.”
“There are blankets and teddy bears for comfort. There are books and education tools for helping to deal with the diagnosis and there are items simply for distraction because appointments can be long or children can spend entire days or weeks in the hospital during treatments,” she says.
The backpack includes electronics such as an iPad Mini or iPad Touch, a tool that Stacie said was helpful to her son.
“It was just hard and we were constantly looking for something to uplift him and the games did that.”
Stacie knows that in addition to the entertainment those provide, they can also be used as a communication tool for children in the hospital to stay in contact with family and friends when visits may compromise their health.
Since 2012, with, according to Stacie “the help of a whole lot of people,” Nate’s Wish has given more than 800 backpacks to children diagnosed with cancer at hospitals in Nashville and now in Louisville.
“To us, that’s kind of staggering to think that’s 800 children and 800 families,” Stacie says.
“That’s a whole lot people that have been affected.”
Making those 800 backpacks in Nate’s name possible have been too many volunteers to count, contacts who have connected the organization to other hospitals and people who keep backpacks and supplies in their storage so that they can be at the hospital immediately when a child needs them.
All of these people work together to help families who are faced with the terror of a cancer diagnosis for their child. For Stacie and Jeff, their mission is simple.
“We want it to be that when there is a diagnosis that is shocking and so hard that a gift of love can come through and offer help and hope.”
Nate’s Wish benefits from many fundraisers, including an annual middle-school basketball tournament sponsored by McCracken County Schools, school penny wars and private donations.
The average cost for a gift-filled backpack is $300.
To learn more about how you can donate or volunteer for Nate’s Wish, please visit their website at www.nateswish.com.
If you know of a child who has recently been diagnosed with cancer and would like to receive a Nate’s Wish backpack, please contact the organization through their website. Test