By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 9, 2012 1:46 PM
Ayden Egan jokes with his dad, Richard, about getting back a cell phone so that he can play games. The 8-year-old is one of the youth chairmen for this year's Relay for Life.
Ayden, Holly and Richard Egan share a laugh Wednesday at their home.
Ayden, right, plays a game with his brother, Dylan.
His left hand holding his T-shirt toward the sky, an 8-year-old uses the other to unwrap, in more simple terms, the story it has taken his parents nearly an hour to tell.
"Well, this is where they put in the chest tube," he said, pointing to a months-old puncture mark under his sternum that will likely never fully fade. "Right here."
The boy pauses -- looking up at his mother before running his finger along the long, dark line in the middle of his chest.
"And this, this is where they did the open heart surgery."
He calls them his battle scars -- the blemishes that will forever remind a Wayne County family of the medical nightmare they have been faced with since a Labor Day weekend camping trip.
But the wound that hasn't yet healed -- the one a Band-Aid located several inches below Ayden Egan's collarbone covers -- serves as a constant reminder that his fight has just begun.
"Oh that?" the boy said. "That's where they access my port."
A little boy swims away from his father and brother to explore one of the stream banks nestled inside Mount Mitchell State Park.
"I went on land ... and stepped on something," he said.
Ayden tells people it was a shark tooth.
He is, after all, still an 8-year-old.
"Let's just say it was a rock," his father, Richard says. "A jagged rock."
But the boy's parents had no idea that such a simple injury would mark the beginning of a journey that continues more than a half a year later.
"The next morning we woke up and he showed me his foot. It was just awful," Ayden's mother, Holly, said. "So we washed it out as good as we could."
But as their vacation continued, Ayden grew lethargic -- at times, irritable -- as the family hiked down a trail toward a waterfall.
"He just wasn't acting like himself," Holly said.
So when the family returned to Wayne County, the couple called the doctor, convinced that their son was battling an infection.
Ayden said it hurt when doctors "had to dig" inside the cut on his foot to sterilize it -- but laughed when he talked about how his classmates thought it was cool that he got to use crutches.
His teachers, though, were growing concerned.
"He slowly just kept on getting worse," Richard said.
Holly nodded her head.
"Teachers were saying, 'Boy, he looks pale,'" she said. "They said, Something's not right.'"
So Holly called her husband at work -- Richard is a technical sergeant stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base -- and asked him to make an appointment for Ayden at the installation clinic.
Later that day, the family found themselves in the Wayne Memorial Hospital Emergency Room.
"They said he was severely anemic -- that he only had about a third of his blood left in his body," Holly said.
And since the helicopter used to airlift patients from Goldsboro to Pitt Memorial Hospital was grounded due to inclement weather, the boy was loaded into an ambulance bound for Greenville.
A mother goes into shock when a doctor says cancer.
"When she's telling me this, I'm just staring off at a blank wall," Holly said.
Richard looks down at the kitchen table.
"I mean, we never even fathomed it could be leukemia," he said. "I mean, he just got cut on the foot."
They couldn't believe what their little boy was up against -- that within days he would be forced to undergo his first round of chemotherapy.
But they vowed to be honest with Ayden.
"We didn't hide anything from him," Richard said. "We were very straight forward. So we told him, 'This is what you've got, and this is what we're going to do to help you get better.'"
And by the end of October, Ayden was back home -- traveling back to Greenville only to receive his weekly treatment.
Holly places a picture frame on the table and Ayden starts to laugh.
It's hard to recognize the boy in the photograph.
"They call it bubble face," she said. "It's from the steroids."
Ayden smiles and talks about all the food he ate -- how he would wake up well after midnight and ask his parents to make him eggs and bacon.
"I ate so much," he said. "I was always hungry."
The boy's reaction doesn't surprise his parents.
Despite all he's been through, he has never lost his infectious laugh.
And on several occasions, his strength rivaled that of his mother and father.
Like the day in January when doctors discovered a blood clot "the size of a chicken nugget" in his right atrium.
"They said it took up three quarters of the inside of his heart," Richard said.
Or when, no more than a day after he underwent open heart surgery at a hospital in Ohio, Ayden sported the smile he is known for throughout the community that was praying for him all the while.
"We've always taught him to be strong," Richard said. "And somehow, he just rolls with the punches."
His face has aged over the past few months.
He has more life experience under his belt than most will ever possess.
But when you talk to Ayden, you remember that he is still just a third-grader.
He enjoys the fact that being sick means he gets to miss school.
"I like staying home and playing video games," he said.
He's not crazy about having to keep up with his assignments -- like learning how to write in cursive.
"Yeah, I pretty much like plain writing better."
And when his father makes a fairly standard comment about his scars, he puts his face in his hands to shield himself from the horror.
"The girls will like them, right?" Richard said.
"Dude, seriously," Ayden replies, laughing. "Stop saying that. It's so weird."
In his mind, he's just another 8-year-old -- even if those who have heard his story see the boy as something more.
A check arrives in the Egans' mailbox.
"There's no return address. They don't want to be known," Holly said.
"They just want to give. And we're just so humbled by it. The community has just come together for Ayden."
Richard looks over at his wife.
"We're overwhelmed. Just overwhelmed," he says. "Hopefully, at some point, we'll be able to give back."
Ayden already has.
He was in a convenience store when a jar on the counter caught his eye.
"There was a little girl who had cancer ... and he reached in and pulled out his wallet -- took every bit of money out -- and put it in that jar," Holly said.
"Then he walked out," he added. "Didn't say anything to anybody."
Ayden shrugs his shoulders when asked just why he sacrificed his allowance for someone he didn't know -- what prompted him to make a gesture well beyond his years.
And then, he flashes that smile.
"I don't know," he said softly. "I just wanted to help another fellow like me, I guess."