WHEN the chips are down and times are tough, it’s always good to know you are not alone.
And the family of 17-year-old Aaron McMahon will be eternally grateful that their local community in Shanagarry, East Cork, and helpers further afield rallied around them in their hour of need.
The teenager learned he needed a major operation on a life-threatening brain tumour that would cost €100,000, but within days of an appeal for donations, supporters had raised the sum.
Aaron has been battling a one in a million type of cancer, chordoma, and was told the surgery in the US was vital.
“It is his only hope,” says his dad, Paul. “Without this surgery, Aaron will die in a few months.
“The cancer is now terminal. The surgery is the only option for Aaron’s survival. We just need to get him there.”
The €100,000 raised now means that Aaron can undergo the operation in June or July.
“We are flabbergasted,” says Paul. “The amount of support from people and from families is phenomenal.”
Aaron’s mum, Gail, adds: “It is just outstanding what the community can do.”
The family were told they needed €80,000 of the €100,000 to be deposited to confirm the surgery. That has now been paid and the family have booked flights to Pittsburgh.
The people who rallied and toiled night and day to help raise the necessary funds have now given Aaron a fighting chance.
“Nothing further can be done for Aaron in Ireland,” says Paul.
The family were told only one man, Dr Paul A. Gardner, based in Pittsburgh, could carry out the surgery required.
“I just need to get there,” says Aaron.
Paul adds: “I was told at one stage in the fund-raising that 3,000 people had donated to Aaron’s fund. That is 3,000 families who have supported my son. That is incredible. I promised Aaron I would find something to help him.
“We know, A, it is terminal. B, There is an option and there is a solution. That’s all it is.”
What does Aaron think of it all?
“I am overwhelmed by the support of everyone,” says the teenager, who has undergone marathon surgery in Beaumont Hospital and also travelled to Essen in Germany for specialised proton treatment to irradiate non-pre-irradiated static tumours in the head and spine.
“I never expected it, being honest. Everyone got behind us.
“I’ll only have my mum and dad travelling with me this time. Nobody can come to see me. I’d like if my brothers, Andrew and Adam, could come over to the USA for a few days.”
“I like flying,” he adds. “But I often get pain in my joints and in my head.”
Does he dread the journey and all it entails?
“I haven’t really thought about it,” says Aaron. “Just be ready and just do it. I’ve read about the operation. It’s cool.”
It’s cool, too, that all his friends are rooting for him.
“Yes,” he says. “I just want to be one of the lads. I’m tired of being treated as ‘special’. I want the operation over and done with so I can get on with things.”
He plans on making up for lost time.
“I lost two summers of my teenage years. I want to make up for lost time. I’m a Man City fan and I’m a Kodaline fan — they are playing the Marquee in June.”
Aaron wants to go back to school — he is a fifth year student in CBS, Midleton.
“I was too sick to go,” he says. “It would be good just to have the freedom to do stuff. I’d like to be well enough to go down-town with my pals to get something to eat at lunch-time.”
Paul and Gail just want their youngest son to get back a quality of life.
The Evening Echo first highlighted the plight of Aaron in January last year as he battled the rare cancer. However, his health has continued to deteriorate and Gail said: “Aaron had problems in February and he had an MRI on March 8. I thought perhaps that the change of medications was causing his problems. I had myself convinced of that.
“Weeks before, an MRI had shown that the tumour was stable.”
Now it was much worse.
“The tumour had wrapped itself around a vital artery. There was no oncology,” says Gail.
“We had done the full dose of proton therapy, so there was no option there either.”
The family were told they needed the US operation as soon as possible and had to put their lives on hold.
“We had planned to take the boys to London on a family trip, just for the buzz. And Euro-Disney was on the cards too,” says Gail.
Now the US surgery became paramount.
“I was in a daze, no, in a trance,” she says. “Being honest, I got a tuck in my heart and I couldn’t breathe. There was no consoling me.”
Aaron wanted to be in the loop.
“He asked to see the report. He wanted to read it himself,” says Gail. “When the nurse passed the door; he asked her for it.”
Gail and Paul had to gather themselves and come up with a plan.
“We went downstairs, got a coffee and went outside. How do we do this? There was no way, no words to tell Aaron his cancer was terminal”
Paul sat on his son’s bed like he always did. The report was folded on the locker. Aaron had read it, understood the measurements and knew the magnitude of his condition.
“He wrapped Paul in his arms and he cried a horrendous cry,” says Gail. “I’ll always remember it. The grief, you can’t wipe it. You can’t fall apart. Paul left the room and I lay down on the bed beside Aaron. I’d always done that in the hospitals.”
Aaron wanted to go home to his brothers.
“They are tight,” says Gail. “Aaron wanted to tell them the news himself. No-one else. We got Aaron’s favourite takeaway.”
The journey home from Cork to Shanagarry, 23 miles, was tortuous.
“Aaron had to return to hospital on the Monday morning to sort his meds,” says Gail. “He was in chronic pain, finding it hard to sit on the couch. His balance was affected. He was seeing black lines and losing his vision. After a week, the meds were working to a degree.”
Aaron’s mind was working overtime.
“We were heading home towards the tunnel and he said to me; ‘What’s cremation?’” says Gail. “Is there a funeral with cremation?’
“I said, ‘What!’ I nearly crashed the car. “I told him you can still have a funeral with cremation. It is similar but different. Aaron said ‘Bury me with Grandad’.”
How does a mother react to a statement like that?
“I said, no bother,” says Gail. “How I held it together, I’ll never know. I was very close to my dad who died age 48. I was sick in my stomach. I didn’t tell Paul or Aaron’s brothers. It wasn’t the time. I decided to hold onto that for a while.”
Meanwhile, Paul was not holding back in finding a doctor who could save his son.
“I contacted the Chordoma Foundation and they gave me a list of doctors. A consultant in Boston told us that Dr Gardner had consistent success with skull-based chordoma surgery. We were lucky to find him. He has carried out 42 identical surgeries. He knows exactly what to do.”
So does Paul.
“We have to deal with it, step by step,” he says. “Even though it doesn’t feel real. We did the same in Beaumont last year. We did everything we were told. It is the only way, step by step. Otherwise you can’t do it.
“There are so many things to keep track of; appointments, hospital visits, keeping the meds on track. Aaron is on pre-op treatment meds ahead of the operation.”
Gail wanted a clear run of good health for her son after his first serious surgery in Beaumont.
“I knew there was a chance of re-occurrence, but maybe three to five years down the road,” she says. “Chordoma has a huge percentage of re-occurrence. I thought Aaron had better odds than that. I really did, and that there would be more research done before that happened.
“I thought he’d have more of life before it took over again. We thought; not this journey again.”
The McMahon kitchen has been taken over, with donation buckets for Aaron’s fund are all over the shop.
“The troops arrived like a mini-army at the weekend,” says Paul. “Aaron is CEO of operations.
“The support we are getting is colossal. Our families and my work colleagues in Campion Insurance are amazing. Everyone is rallying round to help save my son. We are so grateful. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”