On a wing and a prayer

Families with seriously ill and injured children take a hand from local nonprofit Wings of Eagles

Jessen Whelchel, 4, has undergone myriad treatments since being diagnosed with neuroblastoma last year. His cancer is currently in remission.

Jessen Whelchel, 4, has undergone myriad treatments since being diagnosed with neuroblastoma last year. His cancer is currently in remission.

Party with Gatsby:
Chico State students are hosting An Evening at Gatsby’s, a 1920s-themed fundraiser for Wings of Eagles, on Saturday (Nov. 15) at The Palms (2947 Nord Ave.) from 5 to 10 p.m. To purchase tickets, make a donation, or for more information about the program, go to www.wingsofeagles.org.

When doctors told Mollie Openshaw that her 18-year-old son, Hunter, had suffered a decompressed skull fracture and would be placed in a medically induced coma for his emergency flight to Sacramento, she could be forgiven for not immediately considering what her daughter, Mallory, would eat for lunch the next day.

But as Openshaw discovered after Hunter’s motorcross accident at Cycleland Speedway near Oroville on July 16, even amid tragedy, practical matters continue demanding attention.

It was a tremendous relief, then, when Wings of Eagles, a local, volunteer-based nonprofit program for the families of seriously ill children, offered its assistance. Over the next two months, Hunter underwent three surgeries to alleviate bleeding in his brain and repair his eye socket, optic nerve and skull. Meanwhile, Wings of Eagles provided a gift card to Safeway so Mallory, who stayed in Chico with friends, could buy lunch or groceries while her parents were away from home—and their jobs.

“You’re not working, not providing for your family when you’re taking care of your child in the hospital,” Openshaw said during an interview. “Everything was taken care of back here.”

Amazingly, Hunter hasn’t experienced any lingering cognitive effects, Openshaw said, and he’s cleared to drive, work and go to school (he wants to enter Butte College’s welding program). And with the help of Wings of Eagles and a groundswell of community support, the family has made it through an episode Openshaw calls “a complete and total blur.”

Georgia Alvarez of Chico formed Wings of Eagles in 1993 after her son, Joseph, died of a rare form of leukemia. Since then, Wings has directed more than $1 million raised through community events and private donations to families in Butte, Colusa, Glenn and Tehama counties.

Much of the support the organization provides is practical. Each family receives a prepaid gas card for emergencies, gift cards for groceries, and a “hospital care kit” for lengthy hospital stays. The nonprofit also picks up slack financially, often paying for phone bills, vehicular maintenance, furniture and appliances.

Further, Wings of Eagles is there with emotional support. Its volunteers keep in touch with families via phone calls, letters and home visits, and they host a Christmas party for all the families each holiday season and provide the children with egg baskets on Easter.

Most children accepted are under 18 years old, but Alvarez said Wings also serves 18- to 25-year-old dependents because “they’re considered adults, but they’re relying on their families for help,” she said. Families must provide documentation of illness upon referral, and preference is given to families living on limited government assistance, single-parent households and pediatric cancer cases.

Take 4-year-old Jessen Whelchel. On March 1 last year, he was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma. His mother, Melanie Whelchel, was told that a tumor had wrapped around his left kidney and abdominal aorta, and the cancer had already spread to his bones and surrounding organs.

Whelchel never received a prognosis from doctors, because “they didn’t want me to know the numbers. It’s not good chances,” she paused. “His kind of cancer is kind of a crap shoot. There’s no commonality in which kids will relapse, which kids won’t, and how they respond to treatment.”

It didn’t take long for Whelchel to hear from Wings of Eagles. “They came right away, because everyone knew we would be leaving straight to Sacramento,” she said. “They came with toys and blankets to keep him busy and keep his mind off everything. It was all done quickly—literally the morning we left.”

In the months that followed, Jessen went through six rounds of chemotherapy, four surgeries—including one 9 1/2-hour marathon procedure to remove the tumor—a stem cell transplant and antibody treatments, at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento and UC San Francisco. Travel, caring for Jessen and catering to his picky eating habits demanded all of Whelchel’s time.

“He wouldn’t eat hospital food,” Whelchel said. “But [Wings of Eagles] gave us a Safeway gift card every month, so I would go get him food he was used to, food he was willing to eat. He was down to 29 pounds.”

Jessen has put on weight since finishing his treatments in May. He’s currently 43 pounds, and his cancer is in remission. Her son is still at high risk of relapse, Whelchel said, but for now, he’s in good health and super into toy trucks.

Wings of Eagles also offers long-term support. For instance, Teresa Kemper and her 14-year-old daughter, Meghan, have benefited from the program since Meghan first got sick at age 4, when she stuck a Tic Tac up her nose. “When the doctor went to remove it,” Meghan said, “he hit a membrane.”

“It attacked her brain,” her mother continued. “It caused a viral infection; she was having 300 to 400 seizures in a day.”

Meghan was diagnosed with Rasmussen’s encephalitis—an extremely rare neurological disease that causes inflammation in the brain, frequent and severe seizures, and loss of motor skills and speech. The only course of treatment was a hemispherectomy—removing half of her brain.

Meghan has undergone a total of seven brain surgeries. She’s paralyzed on one side of her body, and walking, even small distances with a cane, is laborious for her. Remarkably, she’s able to talk clearly and is quick to laugh. Her favorite hobby is drawing.

For Teresa Kemper, life is “nonstop therapy, runs to Sacramento and homeschooling,” she said, but she’s had help along the way. Wings of Eagles has, on more than one occasion, changed the oil in her van and provided her with new tires.

“If I need help throughout the month, I can always ask,” Kemper said. “I wouldn’t have been able to make it without them.”