CARL JUNCTION, Mo. When 4-year-old Gabe Garrison ran to new playground equipment installed in his backyard on Thursday, his hair — as thick as a lion’s mane — flew back revealing a huge smile on his face. Miranda and Paul Garrison, his mother and father, smiled just as big.
“I love it,” Gabe exclaimed.
Gabe’s hair is back – the boy is considered in remission from leukemia. He and his family have been battling the disease since 2019. The smiles returned when the playground equipment was donated to the family.
“It means the whole world,” Miranda Garrison said as she watched Gabe and his two brothers climb around the new gear. “It’s bigger than I can express in words.”
The playset, valued at approximately $1,500, was donated by Backyard Discovery through the Roc Solid Foundation, a fundraiser that helps families fight childhood cancer through donations of overnight bags and play equipment.
Organized by the foundation, more than a dozen volunteers gathered at the family’s home and built the playset in the morning. Just before noon, Gabe got a chance to try it out as volunteers applauded and cheered him as he shot down the slide and rushed forward for another journey.
Play is one of the driving forces behind the foundation, said Eric Newman, the founder and CEO — and also a childhood cancer survivor. He said that while play doesn’t cure cancer, it offers hope and entertainment that can sustain a family through difficult times.
“Play is something you never have to teach a child,” he said. “But when they’re diagnosed, the first thing that’s taken from them is play.”
Saying this is what hope looks like, by the time the year is over, the foundation will provide playsets to more than 500 kids, Newman said. Having playground equipment in the home is especially important for pediatric cancer patients, who may have weakened immunity against viruses and infections that are often passed between children.
That was Gabe’s case, Miranda Garrison said.
Gabe’s diagnosis started with a bunch of little things, she said. By the end of May 2019, Gabe had a constant low-grade fever. He was sometimes swollen. He lost interest in playing with the Paul Jr. brothers. and Eli, who are now 12 and 7. He lost his appetite and then lost weight.
“We took him to the emergency room and emergency room six times, and each time we were told it was probably something from a 2-year-old or was given an antibiotic,” Miranda Garrison said. “After about four months of running in circles, not knowing what was going on, we went to see his pediatrician.”
During that appointment, Gabe was seen by a nurse practitioner. Miranda Garrison said that when the practitioner left and returned with the doctor, her heart dropped.
Then they were told that cancer was suspected. They had to go to a hospital and prepare for a stay of at least five days. That stay became 16 days, followed by another seven days after being home for four days.
In August, they were officially diagnosed: mixed phenotype acute leukemia, a variety that includes the two types of blood cancers. According to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the mixed phenotype variety is rare, occurring in about 3% of all acute leukemia cases, and is more commonly found in adults.
During the last two years of treatment, Miranda Garrison said, her son underwent severe treatment, but was strict about it. He has received seven or eight forms of chemotherapy, including doxorubicin, a therapy known as the “red devil” because of its bright red color and harsh side effects, including hair loss.
The treatment also took its toll on the rest of the family. Paul Garrison is a machinist who runs his own shop, and Miranda Garrison is a stay at home mom.
“We have a little bit of PTSD. If one of the kids gets sick, we automatically think of cancer,” Miranda Garrison said. “It was also frightening to have to go to the hospital for something small.”
She said she has found support in other families who have dealt with childhood cancer, including parents who have lost children to the disease.
However, Gabe endured and survived. He is in remission and will receive his last treatment on December 5. If he does not relapse, he is considered cured.
The new playground in his backyard will help him get back to normal, Miranda Garrison said. She was grateful for the donation and the volunteer effort to build it – although Gabe likes to play, he can’t go to larger playgrounds due to the risk of infection and fatigue from overheating.
“We are so excited,” she said. “Gabe loves playing outside, loves being in the mud, running around with Nerf guns. … If he has something here that he can use whenever he wants, that means everything.’