Will Mishler lived the life of a normal eighth-grader until a football practice back in August put him on a slightly different path.
During that practice, another player’s helmet went under Will’s face mask and threw his neck back. It was an injury that would prove to be a blessing in disguise.
“I didn’t learn about it until later that evening after Will had already gone to bed,” said Will’s mother, Amy, who was away that night at a fire officer class. “Jim (her husband) said he just had neck pain, but he was mobile and had equal pupils.”
If that doesn’t sound like the language of most moms, it’s because Amy is talking from 20 years experience as a nurse and several years experience as an EMT and firefighter.
Even with Jim’s assurance that the injury was probably not serious, Amy couldn’t rid herself of a nagging feeling.
“It just didn’t sit comfortably with me,” Amy said. “He had a football game the next day and I didn’t want him to wear a heavy helmet on his head if he still had neck pain.”
Off to the doctor
So the day after his injury, on Aug. 28, Amy and Will headed to Bristol Street Pediatrics to see Dr. Mary Alice Reid.
“She was very proactive. She sent us right over to Elkhart General Hospital for an x-ray,” Amy said. “That night she called and told me that they had found a large chest mass in his right upper lobe. And when I asked her how large, she said, ‘Amy, it’s large.’”
After working in the nursing profession for two decades, Amy told Dr. Reid she didn’t want to mess around.
“No, we’re not,” Dr. Reid told Amy. “That’s why I called you right away.”
A CT scan the next day at Elkhart General confirmed the presence of the large mass. And even though the radiologist told Amy it was most likely fluid-filled and Will could probably go back to playing football, Amy was not convinced.
“It actually took up the whole right upper lobe of his lung,” Amy said. “A child does not have a large mass like that in their thoracic cavity.”
A pulmonologist and several oncologists from Memorial Hospital of South Bend looked over the x-rays and CT scan and recommended Will see a pediatric surgeon at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
The wait to see that doctor was filled with anxiety and stress for Will and his family.
“I noticed that after being a nurse for so many years and of being in the fire and medic service, that it is so different having to wait for referral appointments,” Amy said. “It was long and tedious type of anxiety.”
After meeting with the surgeon on Sept. 11, surgery to remove the mass was scheduled for Sept. 20.
“They were going to do a scope through his rib cage, but they ended up doing an open thoracotomy,” Amy said. “That’s where the doctor makes a large incision between his ribs and they retract the rib cage backwards to remove the mass.”
The tumor and the diagnosis where equally frightening for Amy and Jim, as well as for their two other children, 22-year-old Kristyn and 12-year-old Max.
“Imagine getting a bag of baked potatoes,” Amy said. “And there’s that one that’s always bigger than the rest — that was the size of the tumor Will had removed.”
The results showed positive for ganglioneuroblastoma, a rare form of intermediate nerve cancer that affects fewer than five of every 1 million children.
“This type of cancer is usually seen in children under 10 years old,” Amy said. “Will is the only documented 14-year-old in the United States with this cancer. The only one other child Will’s age who was diagnosed with this was in India.”
Recovering from major surgery hasn’t been easy for Will, but neither will the next few months.
“It’s a waiting game now. We don’t know if the cancer has spread,” Amy said. “Right now it’s about going back and forth to hospitals and lots of testing.”
For Will, the days are filled with lots of rest and lots of appointments. He’s had bone scans, nueroblastoma injections, physical therapy for his shoulder and visits to an opthamologist to deal with Horner’s Syndrome.
“It’s a nerve cell cancer,” Amy said. “A nerve that was once connected to the tumor has caused one pupil to be smaller than the other and one eye to open wider than the other.”
Although the whole experience has been difficult for Will, he said he finds “it just kind of annoying.”
“He doesn’t like it when I look at the whole picture and then say, this could happen or that could happen,” Amy said. “He says he doesn’t want to hear that.”
In fact, Will is positive about his experience. On his way to his first CT scan he told his mom something she will never forget.
“I said I trusted God so there’s no need to worry,” Will said.
Amy is proud of that attitude.
“We go to River Oaks Church and Will is a part of the youth group and has been on numerous mission trips,” Amy said. “He’s a very strong believer in God and he has total faith that everything will be OK.”
Will’s younger brother, Max does not yet have as strong a faith.
“He’s been acting out in school a bit,” Amy said. “And at first he kept asking me, ‘Do I have cancer, too?’ He’s been very scared.”
During a recent visit to Memorial Hospital of South Bend, Will crossed paths with a familar face — his teammate and schoolmate Sam Grewe, who also has cancer.
Sam was getting a blood transfusion and was in a room just a couple doors down from Will, Amy said.
“I asked the nurse for permission for Will to go over there and sit and talk with him.”
Not only are the boys part of the same community, Amy helped take care of Sam’s grandmother when she was recovering from a car accident seven years ago.
“When Sam was diagnosed with cancer, I had a friend make a childhood cancer blanket for the family and we delivered it,” Amy said.
While Sam is finishing up treatments for his bone cancer and is learning to function with a prosthetic leg, Will is just beginning what family and friends hope is the road to recovery.
Will, who hasn’t been in school since Sept. 19, returned to classes on Monday. Amy’s nurse case management work and home nurse visits have mostly been put on hold since that same day.
The family relies on Jim’s insurance with a start up RV company in Bristol.
“The deductible is very high and all the bills are just starting to come in,” Amy said. “I can’t tell you how overwhelming it is.”
Friends and family are helping by beginning to organize fundraisers and the Northridge High School basketball team is planning a fundraising dinner before the game on Nov. 30.
Will and Amy took part of a day to drive to Lake City Bank in Middlebury and set up a Will Mishler Cancer Fund. Donations can be made at any Lake City Bank or by visiting gofundme.com.
“It is solely used for medical expenses,” Amy said. “We are so grateful for everything that’s been done so far — the meals, the cards and visits. We can just take this one day at a time.”