When you meet Cole Eicher, what stands out first are his eyes – bright, blue and filled with life – and the broad smile that lights up his face at any given moment.
He is a portrait of strength, even amid suffering. He is a source of inspiration to family, friends and two local pro sports franchises in the way he has faced fear and uncertainty.
And he is an uncommon 12-year-old patient at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine who has weathered the storm of cancer with courage and grace, proudly displaying his bald head after his locks of blond hair were lost to chemotherapy.
Most of all, he is “Cole Strong.”
That rallying cry appears on countless rubber wrist bands, created and sold by friends and staff at Grace Lutheran School in St. Petersburg. They raised some $5,400 for Cole after he underwent surgery in February to remove a malignant brain tumor. He was overwhelmed by the gesture, but insisted on donating it to the place that has provided his care.
Less than a year ago, Cole never would have imagined the role All Children’s and its world-class hematology-oncology and bone marrow clinical teams would play in his life. His days were packed with fun and fulfillment – as a standout midfielder on his school and club soccer teams, competing with the latter last October in Germany; in his fifth year of a rewarding modeling career, doing shoots for national companies; getting cast as an extra in the upcoming movie Dolphin Tale 2; and excelling in studies at Grace Lutheran Church and School in St. Petersburg.
But then came a bout of severe headaches and vomiting during Thanksgiving weekend of 2013. Cole and his mom, Laura, had just come straight from a morning shoot in Miami, joining his dad, Scott. Food poisoning didn’t seem likely, since nobody else became ill. “We thought that it was the flu, and it went away,” Cole recalls.
Laura and Scott immediately took Cole to the pediatrician. When blood work came back normal, the doctor suspected adolescent migraines as the cause. Soon after, though, Cole began to experience episodes of double vision. A visit to the ophthalmologist revealed a weak muscle in one of Cole’s eyes, potentially triggering the migraines.
Not wanting to take any chances, the Eichers brought their son to All Children’s for an evaluation by a specialist, who immediately ordered an MRI of the brain. “It took about two hours, and when it was over, they separated us and I was like, ‘Okay, this isn’t good,’ ” Laura recollects. “We knew right then, and your heart kind of stops. But we all just handled it.”
The diagnosis was delivered by pediatric neurosurgeon Carolyn Carey, M.D. It was a medulloblastoma, a brain tumor located at the base of the cerebellum, the area of the brain tied to motor function. It’s the second most frequent cancer in children behind leukemia. Laura called her husband, then raced home to pack and bring back clothing and necessities for an extended stay. Brain surgery was scheduled for two days later, barely time for Cole to process what was going on. “I was more shocked than scared, because I hardly ever get sick,” he says. “I never expected this.”
The surgery, performed by Dr. Carey and pediatric neurosurgeon Luis Rodriguez, M.D., lasted five hours and was a success. Almost the entire tumor was removed and Cole had minimal post-surgical complications. Fortunately, Cole’s prospects are excellent. He has been cared for at one of the select few hospitals in the country that treats medulloblastoma, utilizing a complex procedure involving high dose chemotherapy and autologous stem-cell rescue and transplant.
“These patients have their own stem cells harvested before they have any treatment at all,” explained Stacie Stapleton, M.D., director of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine. “After harvesting the stem cells from the blood or bone marrow, the patients receive radiation to their whole brain and spine, and then they receive four cycles of high dose chemotherapy, each cycle followed by infusing the patient’s own stem cells back to them that were collected at the beginning. The four cycles are delivered to the patient over about four months.
“At All Children’s, we have all the specialists available for the neurosurgery, the specialized neuro-oncology protocols, all the supportive care that may be required with these complicated procedures and protocols – and world-class doctors and support staff who can handle everything.”
As for Cole, Dr. Stapleton adds: “I think he’s doing great. He’s persevered through a lot and is getting back to doing what he loves.”
Still, it has been a rough ride the past seven months. For a time after the operation, his left hand was not fully responsive. When he walked, he felt unsteady – a strange sensation for a youngster accustomed to sprinting up and down soccer fields. He endured the stem cell harvesting, 30 rounds of radiation (performed at a hospital within ACH’s affiliate network), and chemotherapy that made him feel nauseous and weak. And Cole still has double vision that may correct itself naturally or may require surgery in the future.
“My faith has really helped me,” he says. His mom concurs. “When he was going through some really tough times initially, he would think, ‘Okay, I’m not alone,’ ” she explains. “If he didn’t have a strong faith, it would have been very hard on him. He’d have been, ‘Why me?’ ‘Why was this so random?’ “
Cole admits to having some of those thoughts early on, but he didn’t dwell on it. “The other thing that’s helped,” says Laura, “is that he just thinks about what’s happening in the present. He’s like, ‘What are we doing today? Oh, a shot’ or ‘oh, I’m having a blood test.’ Every night, he just asks, ‘What’s the plan for tomorrow?’ He just stays in the moment.”
Some of those moments have been made especially nice, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League and the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League.
With the help of friends and neighbors, Cole’s story reached the Rowdies front office. And in April, club general manager Perry Van Der Beck showed up with players Shane Hill and Georgi Hristov at Cole’s club soccer field. The Rowdies had offered to come to the Eicher’s house, but Cole wanted his many teammates to be part of the visit. And what a visit it was: Van Der Beck surprised the youngster by pulling out a contract and signing him on as an honorary member of the Rowdies, and presenting him with official team gear. (Watch the video). Sitting at a picnic table, Cole grinned ear to ear.
The Storm also stepped up big when word of Cole’s ordeal was brought to their attention. They invited him to a practice, gave him his own locker and presented him with team gear and his own jersey. Unable to practice due to his unsteadiness, Cole still got V.I.P. treatment, especially from star wide receiver Amarri Jackson. When Cole showed up on the field a few minutes late, Jackson greeted him playfully, “You’re gonna get fined $2!” Later, the two stood together on the field prior to Tampa Bay’s 35-34 victory over the rival Orlando Predators.
Jackson was by his side once again in the hospital when Cole went for his first round of chemo. And during the World Cup this past July, Rowdies star Keith Savage came to the Eicher’s house and watched a game with Cole. Last month, a huge sign was held high at a Rowdies game with the message, “Cole Makes Us Stronger.”
Meanwhile, Dolphin Tale 2 co-stars Nathan Gamble and Austin Highsmith were seen wearing the special wrist bands at the Los Angeles premiere, and plan to give ones to other members of the star-studded cast at the local premiere of the movie Wednesday, Sept. 10 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
His final round of chemo begins the day after the premiere, followed two weeks later by his 13th birthday. Easing back into a regular school schedule could happen in October, with soccer not far off. His family and friends marvel at the way he has handled so much, so well. Two words explain it.
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Explore our cancer program and our world