WARWICK — Not every kid gets to have cake with Bishop Thomas J. Tobin. But 4-year-old Davis McLarnon was treated to just that on Wednesday, June 13.
“He was excited,” said Davis’ mother Amanda McLarnon. “Now that he’s feeling a bit better he can get excited about more things. He actually does not do well with new people or larger groups, and I was pleasantly surprised at how he dealt with the attention.”
There was good reason to celebrate. Last June, when he was only three, Davis was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
The little boy had been complaining of headaches and suffering bouts of constipation, which resulted in “back and forth with the pediatrician” for constipation treatments, Amanda said. But it wasn’t until Davis began vomiting that his parents took him to the Hasbro Children’s Hospital emergency room.
Every parent’s worst nightmare followed.
“I don’t have words to describe it,” Amanda said. While they waited in a hospital room for Davis to be sent for an MRI, “all of a sudden Davis started screaming like I’ve never heard him or anybody scream in my life.”
“I pulled him into my lap and he was extremely stiff,” Amanda continued. “Before I knew it he stopped screaming and he was limp and his eyes were closed.”
Doctor Margaret Scheffler ordered an emergency CT scan.
“It’s probably the scariest moment of your life,” said Amanda. “Your child almost dies and you don’t know what’s wrong.”
The scan didn’t bring good news. There was a tumor at the base of Davis’ brain, blocking vital spinal fluid from flowing down his spinal cord.
The next day, June 28, Doctor Petra Klinge successfully removed the entire tumor in a nine and a half hour operation. However, that was just the beginning of young Davis’ journey. Further testing showed the tumor to be medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer. A year of intensive chemotherapy followed to prevent cancer cells from growing back. Treatments were performed every three months at Hasbro while protocols were overseen by Dana Farber of Boston.
After the first round of chemotherapy, Davis’ own stem cells were harvested for future treatments. They were used at the end of the five rounds of chemo to replenish his devastated immune system. Though the Catholic Church condemns the use of stem cells harvested from human embryos, it accepts the use of a person’s own stem cells as a laudable healing technology, according to the “Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells,” published by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2000.
Adding to the emotional turmoil, the practical realities of medical bills and living expenses were an issue, especially since Amanda took a year off from work to care for Davis. Family friends organized the “Monsterdash” 5K road race to raise funds for Davis in October, 2017, four months after his diagnosis.
“Once the Warwick Beacon article for the 5K came out, Father Andrew said we have to do something,” said Joan Smith, a neighbor of the McLarnons’ and fellow parishioner at the family’s church, St. Timothy’s Church in Warwick. That “something” turned out to be quite a few things, including a dress down day at St. Peter Tri-Parish School in Warwick, the sixth annual Mayor’s Charity Cup hockey game between Warwick police and fire departments choosing Davis as the game’s beneficiary for 2018, and a February 22 fundraising event organized by St. Timothy’s volunteers.
“We know how expensive (medical issues) can be,” said St. Timothy’s pastor, Father Andrew Messina. “We reached out to the Warwick community, and the Knights of Columbus (Warwick Council 2295) were gracious enough to let us use their hall.”
“Bishop Tobin was incredibly good about his support for Davis and his family,” said Father Messina. “He was all over the fundraiser.”
Smith agreed that Bishop Tobin “was very generous in getting the word out about the fundraiser.”
In addition to stand-up comedy provided by the fundraising organization Funny4Funds, donations poured in from individuals and businesses, including city councilmen Jeremy Rix and TIm Howe, the Rhode Island Trucking Association, Paul Bailey Chrysler, Bishop Hendricken High School and Alumni Association and John F. White & Company of Providence. Baxter’s Jewelers, Mystic Aquarium, Theatre by the Sea and the Radisson Hotel donated items for an auction. A St. Timothy’s parishioner even donated the use of a timeshare.
Smith described the community support as “unbelievable,” and Amanda McLarnon agreed.
“I was not prepared for what I walked into,” Amanda said. “The amount of people there, the amazing and generous donations, the amount of time that went into that event was extremely overwhelming.”
Smith said that about 118 people attended the fundraiser, which raised $25,233. But parishioners were supportive in other ways too, sending cards, checking in and providing all the trimmings for Davis’ fourth birthday on November 24.
“You hear the bad part of society, and it made me feel good that so many people were helping out instead of all the negative stuff happening in the world,” said Smith. “Even if someone donated $5 or sent a card, it’s paying it forward and doing what God wanted you to do.”
Now, one year after the McLarnon family’s ordeal began, Davis’ chemotherapy is complete and the family is “honestly in our best case scenario,” Amanda said. Davis will continue to have an MRI every three months over the next two years to monitor his progress.
At the informal gathering on June 13, where Davis was finally able to meet Bishop Tobin, the boy was feeling well enough to run about, hide behind the bishop’s chair and play with a new gift, a remote control toy construction truck.
“They just had a marvelous time,” said Father Messina. “The bishop is always so gracious and he was marvelous with Davis and his brother Tristan.”
About 15 parishioners attended the small party, which featured cake and other refreshments and gifts for both Davis and Tristan.
“My kids were all sugared up at 2:30 p.m.,” said Amanda with a laugh.
“For all the seriousness the church goes through it’s nice to have these little breaks,” said Father Messina. “It was beautiful to have a nice gathering.”
In the midst of trials such as the McLarnons have faced over the past year, faith can be tested. But Amanda said that her family’s faith has been strengthened.
“We talked to God a lot this past year,” she said. “It’s easy to get angry, but there’s nobody responsible, it just happens. Friends of mine who aren’t religious asked, ‘How can you believe in a God who can let this happen?’ And I said, ‘Who am I going to go to with things we can’t control when we need help?’”
“God was always there,” she said.