By Stevie Lowery/The Lebanon Enterprise
When four-year-old Joseph LaGrande of Williams, California, was undergoing treatments for leukemia and was too weak to walk, let alone play in the hospital’s playroom, he would lie in his bed and watch “Call of The Wildman – Turtleman.”
“When you’re in the hospital you can’t play in the mud, go swimming or run barefoot,” Joseph’s mother, Rachel, said. “There’s a whole list of can’ts.”
But, in Turtleman’s world, there is no fear.
No fear of sickness. No fear of infection. No fear of death.
“These children watch TV and see Turtleman living life the way you should,” Rachel said. “He has no fear. He has no fear of getting sick. That’s the way they want to live.”
Before Joseph’s diagnosis, he was like any four-year-old child. He was attending preschool, enjoying being active and playing with his friends. When he began to complain of leg pain, Rachel didn’t think much of it because she thought it was just growing pains, which she remembers experiencing when she was a child. But, then she noticed that his naps began to get longer. There were some days he would take four-hour naps, but his father, C.J., considered that another side effect of their son’s growth. However, one day Joseph came home from preschool with a rash on his stomach.
“I had never seen anything like that before,” Rachel said.
Leukemia cells may spread to the skin, which can cause small, dark spots that look like common rashes.
Rachel immediately took Joseph to the emergency room. Joseph’s lymph nodes in his neck were the size of golf balls, Rachel said, and he began to become unresponsive. The doctors in the ER advised Rachel to immediately take Joseph to a hospital in Sacramento, California, which was about an hour and a half drive.
“It was the longest drive of my life,” Rachel said, her voice trembling. “I just had this horrible feeling that he was going to die.”
As soon as they arrived in Sacramento and were admitted to the hospital, doctors hooked Joseph up for blood transfusions. Within two days, doctors officially diagnosed Joseph with leukemia and they would spend the next two months at the hospital with Joseph while he received treatment.
“Our daughter was only 15 months old at the time and we were so worried that it was genetic,” Rachel said. “But, it’s not. It’s totally random. They aren’t sure what causes it.”
Rachel and C.J., who are farmers, also worried that maybe the chemicals they use on their crops had caused their son’s cancer.
Was it in their water? Was it in their well?
Their minds raced with questions and concerns.
Rachel said the first 28 days after Joseph’s diagnosis were the hardest.
“It’s a full attack. You get the whole gamut of chemotherapy right away,” she said. “We didn’t sleep the first two nights. We were afraid he wasn’t going to live.”
Joseph’s parents explained to him that his blood was sick, but he didn’t understand. He just wanted to go home.
“It’s a nightmare,” Rachel said. “You wake up and you want your life to go back to the way it was.”
Joseph, who is eight years old now, finished his treatment in November of 2014. He won’t be considered officially “cancer free” until five years after treatment, but he’s finished with all medications. Once a month, he goes to the hospital to get blood drawn, but life is more “normal” for him now. But the worry for his mother never ceases.
“I think we’re always going to be afraid,” Rachel said. “You’re just living in this constant stress. You’re always worried about illness.”
When Joseph was first diagnosed, Make-A-Wish representatives visited him in the hospital and gave him the opportunity to make a wish. Initially, his only wish was to go home. But, last year toward the end of his treatment, he was reminded of his opportunity to make a wish.
“You can’t ask for a million dollars and you can’t go to outer space but everything else is fair game,” Rachel said, laughing.
Joseph’s parents hesitated to give him suggestions, but they did help remind him that he needed to make a decision.
“We wanted it to be his wish, not our wish,” Rachel said. “And he decided he wanted to meet the Turtleman.”
Initially, the Make-A-Wish representatives were confused when Joseph made his wish.
“They were like, ‘The who? The Ninja Turtles?’” Rachel said, laughing.
Once Joseph and his parents helped explain who the Turtleman was, they arranged for the two to meet. The big day was last week, Wednesday, June 3, when Joseph and his family traveled from their home in California to Lebanon and met Turtleman, along with Lolly Dog, Turtle Mama, Squirrel and Neal.
While Joseph was rather shy, and a bit star struck, he, along with his parents, little brother and little sister, enjoyed their visit. The Turtleman gave Joseph and his family a personal tour of the
Turtleman Museum at the Marion County Heritage Center, and provided gifts. He also took them to his favorite Lebanon restaurant, Cedarwood, and treated everybody to lunch.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical condition, covered the family’s travel expenses.
The family flew back home Friday, and Joseph’s mother said he’s still a bit star struck.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Rachel said Saturday after she and her family returned home to California. “He’s still in a little bit of shock. It was bigger than life for him.”
Joseph is the second Make-A-Wish child who has requested to meet Turtleman. In August of last year, Austin Myers, 8, from Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, traveled to Lebanon to meet the Turtleman.
Joseph told the Enterprise that the Turtleman was “silly and funny” and that he loved the wooden knife the Turtleman gave him.
“It was exciting,” Joseph said.
This story was reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of the The Lebanon Enterprise