By Suzanne Ovel, Public Affairs Office, Madigan Army Medical CenterDecember 28, 2016
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- As he walks into the hospital, he sees a Winter Wonderland of a Christmas tree ahead, decked in gold and white decorations, with birds, deer and other wildlife dotting a snow-like scene.
Garen Moore, 6, knows what his job is going to be. "I get to light the Christmas tree," he says.
Every year, Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., picks one young patient to help leadership light the Christmas tree and menorah in the Medical Mall to kick off the holiday season. While Garen wouldn't have been able to walk to the tree months ago when he was first diagnosed with leukemia, thanks to his braces he strolled to the center of attention with his dad, Nick, and his mom, Vanessa.
The symptoms of his illness started last April, right after he and another little boy spent a day purposely tumbling off of monkey bars. The first remedy was rest and ice, since the falls might have caused the hip pain.
"That didn't work, so we went back," said Vanessa. "He got to the point where he would not even walk."
He'd had Lyme's disease when they lived in Georgia, with a side-effect of joint pain, so Vanessa insisted that Garen get tested for it again. They were on their way to the emergency room when they got the call with the diagnosis.
"We were halfway to the hospital when our (primary care manager) called and said don't go to the ER, the phlebotomist had called and when they were running the bloodwork they noticed something was off with the white blood cells and it sent up red flags," said Vanessa.
They detoured straight to Madigan's Pediatric Hematology/Oncology clinic where doctors explained Garen's diagnosis and treatment plan, and the then-five-year-old boy got started on morphine for his bone pain. That night, he became an inpatient on the 4 North pediatrics ward.
"The (hematology staff) have been wonderful … and the 4 North staff have been just excellent nurses. They have such big hearts," said Nick, a staff sergeant and information technology specialist with the 2nd Ranger Battalion.
While Garen got morphine and a chemo port (what his family calls "his heart string"), he also celebrated his sixth birthday in the hospital. Vanessa said his nurses brought in balloons and gifts, and scrubbed down the floor's toy room so they could throw him a birthday party.
Although he's now an outpatient who goes to physical therapy a few times a week to strengthen legs which weakened when he couldn't walk, Garen is still on antibiotics and on chemo. He gets a break for the holidays before starting back into treatment; in February, he'll get to step down his chemo even more as he goes into the maintenance phase. Altogether Garen will undergo three and a half years of treatment.
"He's a champion. He has handled every single treatment amazingly well," said Vanessa.
And he has people all over the world cheering him on. Garen pipes up to share that he has over 100 patches now from firefighters, police and other emergency services fields. He also has a patch from the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, a coin from Interpol, packages from the Broncos and a White House counter-sniper team, and helmets from a fireman and the Seahawks.
"It lifts his spirits a lot. Even to get get-well cards in the mail, they make him so excited," said Vanessa.
Garen lets his brothers Gideon, 8, and Logan, 10, help him open and share the packages.
"They're having to deal with it as well; having a sick brother kind of changes the family dynamics," she said.
Garen's suppressed immune system means the boys can't bring friends over for fear of getting him sick, and that the family has to stay within 60 minutes of the hospital in case of an emergency.
"They're troopers just like Garen, (just) in different ways," said Nick of his other sons.
He's thankful for his unit's leadership "for supporting us through Garen's treatment, regardless of what that means."
The Moores are now in the Exceptional Family Member Program, and it looks like they'll be able to stay at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a while.
"We don't want to change doctors at this point; they're taking really good care of him," said Vanessa. "I love the doctors and the nurses; it's a wonderful, wonderful team."
It was his hematology team who nominated Garen to light the tree. "I thought that would be just so awesome for him," said Vanessa.
At game time, Garen straightens his shirt and vest, and puts his mask on again as he gets ready to face the crowd. With chemo suppressing his immune system, he can't take any chances.
As he waits to light the tree with Col. John Kent, Madigan's deputy commanding officer, the crowd starts chanting a countdown. Garen's face brightens as he presses the button to light the tree and ignite the holiday spirit in the hospital.
Afterwards, he meets a man with a white beard and a red suit, and for a few minutes, before he heads off to his next treatment, he's just a little boy again sitting on the lap of Santa Claus.