Thursday was a good day for 3-year-old Carter McPherson. Not all days are, but Thursday was.
He felt well enough to rummage through the refrigerator for a snack, well enough to carry his foam sofa into the family room to watch television, well enough to play a game with his mother and well enough to show off his jumping skills on the mini trampoline outside.
Carter was diagnosed with leukemia in February. The toddler, who has already endured six months of chemotherapy treatments, still has another two-and-one-half years to go.
John Paul and Tiffany McPherson have been riding an emotional and financial roller coaster for six months.
Last fall, the family moved from Destin to a rental home in the Summerport neighborhood, paying first and last months’ rent. When the owner decided to sell the house a few months later, the family was forced to move a second time, this time just a few miles north in Winter Garden.
Again, first and last months’ rent had to be paid, putting a squeeze on the family finances.
FINALLY, A DIAGNOSIS
It was around the holidays that Carter’s symptoms started showing up. The usually active toddler was complaining of leg and back pain and didn’t want to do anything but lie on the sofa, Tiffany McPherson said.
He didn’t feel like playing with his sisters, Rhyle, 13, and Kensey, 9, either.
To ease her son’s pain, she gave him Motrin; this seemed to temporarily help, but she needed answers.
Three different pediatricians attributed Carter’s symptoms to growing pains; X-rays didn’t find anything abnormal.
“I would give him Motrin, and it would subdue the symptoms of what he had so he could function,” McPherson said. “When we'd go into the pediatrician’s office, they'd give him a test — jump, stand on one leg — and he would do it (because of the Motrin). So they dismissed it.”
The mother accepted the diagnosis at first, but after several weeks, she felt it had to be something more serious.
“He's (normally) full boy, running, jumping, riding scooters, riding bikes,” she said. “He went from that to lying on the couch not wanting to do anything.”
The McPhersons finally got the correct answer after visiting Dr. Pamela Ponce at All About Kids Pediatrics.
“I told her, ‘I need you to act like a mom right now, not a doctor,’” McPherson said.
Ponce performed an X-ray, which was normal — but she also ordered blood work. The results came back as Pre-B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
John Paul and Tiffany McPherson took their son straight to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, and Carter’s treatment began.
“I think God knew what He was doing when He moved us down here,” McPherson said. “I’ve been wanting to move down here for six years. … It was all in God's timing that we came down here when we did. This hospital is phenomenal with children.”
Carter has been on and off steroids, causing the toddler to gain 25 pounds and develop mood swings that have been tough on everyone, including him.
He has a port near his left ribs for administering his medicines.
“He feels the needle every time,” McPherson said. “He is the best kid when it comes to that. … I tell him every time we go, ‘Mommy is taking you to make you better.’ He's 3 years old and is nervous. He's allowed to cry. But every time we leave he looks at me and tells me, Thank you, Mommy, for bringing me here and making me better.’ … I say, ‘Yes, buddy, this is to make you strong like Hulk so you can go out and play.’”
In addition to medical support, Arnold Palmer Hospital has provided resources, too, that have helped the McPherson family financially. Organizations have assisted with rent and utilities and offered food and gas cards. Another took several children to the Apple Store and bought them iPads to pass the time during hospital stays and doctor visits.
Every little bit helps, McPherson said. The bill for Carter’s first nine days in the hospital was $173,000; his second nine-day stay was close to that.
“Insurance is paying most of that, but we’ll be in debt forever,” she said.
There are so many little expenses that add up quickly, she said, including road tolls and meals out. Because Carter is only 3, someone must be with him at all times when he’s in the hospital; he can’t even be alone if McPherson wants to run to the cafeteria for a bite to eat. She packs snacks and sandwiches in an effort to save money.
Last week, McPherson shared her family’s story on social media and asked for fundraising ideas. What she didn’t expect was the outpouring of donations to her GoFundMe Support for Carter account. As of Monday afternoon, it had reached $3,800.
“It’s unbelievable to me that strangers are willing to reach out,” she said.
The family is still looking for ideas to help them raise money. A friend held a LuLaRoe party, and someone who heard about the toddler’s plight organized a Jean’s Day at work, with employees paying $5 apiece to wear denim.
Anyone with fundraising ideas can contact McPherson at (850) 200-6385 or [email protected].
The McPhersons are selling orange vehicle magnets with "Faith-Hope-Love" and "Team Carter," as well as orange "Team Carter" wrist bands.
She is also collecting toy and snack donations for Carter’s clinic. A large cabinet holds candy and chips for the children undergoing treatment, but it is stocked solely by the parents.
McPherson said she is getting through this traumatic period with the support of two mothers, one whose child just reached the three-year mark but has relapsed and another whose child is a week behind Carter in the treatment phase.
“All the concerns, all the questions, all the stupid questions — they're there, and they answer them or help me understand,” she said. “It's nice to have that support system where there are other moms.”
McPherson said she fell to her knees and cried when she heard the words cancer back in February, but she has since learned that this type has a 98% curability rate.
“If you’re going to get leukemia, this is the one to get,” she said.
Carter just completed a five-day chemotherapy treatment with a home-visit nurse, and he’s doing phenomenal, his mother said.
“He just lost his hair, which I prayed to God he wouldn't,” she said. “I can honestly say he's the cutest boy with his bald head.”