Tennessee National Guard fulfills wish for child with cancer

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Story by MSgt Robin Brown on 10/11/2017
Members of the Tennessee Army National Guard's 1/230th Assault Helicopter Battalion, out of Jackson, Tenn., conducted an orientation flight on October 10 for Wesley McCall, a 16-year-old boy who is terminally ill.

McCall was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) grade four in May of this year. He also previously suffered from craniopharyngioma when he was only three years old. That tumor was removed by St. Jude Children's Hospital in 2004, but Wesley has continued doing regular check-ups since that time.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association website, GBM tumors are highly malignant because they reproduce quickly and are supported by a large network of blood vessels. Only about three percent of childhood brain tumors are GBMs.

GBMs are difficult to treat because the tumors contain many different types of cells. Some cells respond to certain therapies, while others are not affected at all, the website stated.

"The first tumor was solid and easy to get rid of, but this one branches out and shows up in other areas of the brain," said Staff Sgt. Angela Kemp, Wesley's mother, and member of Tennessee National Guard's 168th Military Police Battalion out Dyersburg, Tenn.

"In October of 2012, he started having seizures," said Kemp. "In February of this year, his scans were showing normal, but he was suffering from some minor hearing loss. The recheck in May showed a spot on his hearing nerve which turned out to be another tumor."

"It took about a week for the actual diagnosis. In the mean time, all I could think was where did this come from and what do we do?" Kemp said. "I was going crazy, calling every day to get an update."
Wesley had surgery on May 31 and started radiation therapy again the end of June this year.
"He did five weeks of that, to help buy him some more time," she said. "It affected his balance and swallowing; some days he's even been in a wheel chair. The radiation has made it shrink quite a bit."

She added that the tumor will never go away. All treatment at this point is to continue to buy him more time and give him the best quality of life.

Wesley is currently undergoing a clinical trial through St. Jude for an immunotherapy drug named Pembrolizumab, or more commonly known as Keytruda. The drug has been FDA approved for treatment in patients with leukemia, but hasn't been fully tested for the type of cancer that Wesley is currently suffering from.

"We are hoping it helps. They will do a new MRI in November to see it's working," said Kemp.

Wesley continues to go to school every day and has tremendous support from his friends, classmates and staff at the school.

"One of his friends has helped push him in his wheelchair and helped ensure he gets to class. There are great teachers and kids there," Kemp said. "They all love him. Their faces light up when they see him; they include him in huddles at the football games. I think he has made an impact on all of them as well."

"St. Jude has also been great. They referred him to Make-A-Wish when he was three and we went to Disney World," she added. However, Make-A-Wish can only fulfill one wish per lifetime.

James McCall, Wesley's father, has been instrumental in helping Wesley complete his bucket list. One of the things he wanted to do was fly in a helicopter. Wesley's mother reached out to the aviation unit in Jackson, but that was right before they left to support hurricane relief efforts.
Coincidentally, McCall formerly worked with Cory Riley, who is now a first lieutenant in the Tennessee Army National Guard and serves as the squadron medical officer for the 278th Regimental Fires Squadron, out of Alamo, Tenn.

"I was contacted and asked to assist in securing a helicopter ride for Wesley, as this has always been a dream of his," said Riley, who was unable to see the flight take place because he was on his way to Fort Irwin, Calif., for training with the Tennessee National Guard that day.

The request quickly made it to Maj. Gen. Max Haston, the adjutant general for the Tennessee National Guard. After getting legal approval within the state and from National Guard Bureau, the flight just had to be scheduled and pulled off.

"We were surprised he got it pulled off so quickly," said McCall. "It was overwhelming that they were able to do this for him. Some Soldiers never get to fly in a helicopter, so the whole experience has been pretty cool!"

All of the flight crew wore #WesleysWarriors t-shirts the day of the flight. These were obtained through Tammila Akins, a friend of the family who started making the shirts on the side to help raise funds for Wesley's family.

A flight suit was donated by the Tennessee Air National Guard's 118th Wing, based in Nashville, Tenn. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jayson Keel, a safety officer for the Army National Guard unit, sewed all the unit patches onto the flight suit so Wesley's uniform would look official.

Maj. Mark Jordan, commander of the aviation unit, affixed two Army National Guard patches-one for the Jackson aviation unit, and one for Lt. Riley's unit. Jordan was also Wesley's pilot for his flight.

Overall, resiliency has been the key.

"It would be easy to sit at home and be depressed, but you can't," said Kemp. "The Tennessee National Guard has been great and very understanding about his weekly doctor appointments and everything that has been going on. I couldn't ask for a better group of people."

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