Tiffany and Richard Everett live in Dawsonville, Georgia with their three children, Shya, who is 19 years old, Zamar, who is 14, and 10-year-old Israel.
On Labor Day weekend in 2020, for the first time during the pandemic, Tiffany and Richard Everett allowed their three children to go stay at a friend's house. Their youngest child, Israel, started complaining during the night, so his friend's mom brought him home.
“He said there's something wrong inside my body and I don't feel good, and my oldest daughter said, for real there's something wrong with him,” Tiffany recalls. She actually tried dissuading him from going to the hospital at first since it was 11:00 p.m. and his fever was low-grade—reminding him that since it was the pandemic, she probably wouldn’t be allowed back with him. But when he came out dressed, ready to go to the hospital, they knew something was really wrong.
The family headed to the ER where they performed bloodwork on Israel. “Within 10 minutes, a doctor came around the corner and said I need you to prepare for a diagnosis of leukemia,” Tiffany remembers. “She had already called for medical transport down to CHOA. We were accustomed to this because our two older kids have asthma and have been transported previously.”
Everybody the Everetts called that night was shocked, thinking Israel was too healthy to have cancer. But within 30 minutes of arriving at CHOA, the leukemia diagnosis was confirmed, and within an hour, they were admitted to the hospital—where they would stay for 30 days.
Israel was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia: T-cell/myeloid mixed-phenotype acute leukemia.
But Israel’s challenges weren’t confined to cancer, as he also has autism. This combination created a massive challenge, Israel's dad said, when it came to balancing medication, emotions, and behavior. It even impacted how and when they told Israel about the diagnosis. "His little eyes just got so big, and he cried a little bit,” Richard says. “I know he was trying to just make it make sense for him. And that was hard. All of it was hard, but watching him trying to understand it was really hard. But man, this kid is something else, ‘cause he just bounced back. He was like, alright, let's get to work."
In fact, there were some parts of the experience that Israel even seemed to enjoy: such as all the attention he was getting by the hospital staff, the play zone at the hospital, and all the food. But for his parents, watching his long hair start to thin out and his energy level start to decrease... was a major challenge. “But for him, he just never stopped. His high spirit was one of the things that helped me to be able to persevere on this journey with him,” Richard recalls.
With the rare type of leukemia Israel had, the doctors wouldn't give Israel’s parents a prognosis. In fact, there wasn't even a direct path for treatment. "We were extremely blessed that the t-cell outweighed the myeloid, and the myeloid began to die quickly within the first seven days of treatment,” Tiffany explains. “So, after the first seven days, they came in and said we're going to treat it as a T-cell leukemia because they were able to get the myeloid under control so fast.”
The Everetts thought that June of 2022 would be the end of treatment for Israel, but before that celebration could be planned, they learned Israel would need another 18 months of treatment after all, “because it's rare, and his liver and kidney function are fine,” Tiffany says. “So, they'd rather him stay in treatment longer to keep the myeloid from coming back. Because if it does pop back up, it's harder for them to catch it again the second time.”
While it was not great news to receive, the Everetts took it in stride. “One of the parts that could be challenging is if you constantly look at every roadblock that is ahead of you, that could be irritating,” Richard acknowledges. “But I think for us, we found so much favor with what God did for Israel—just with like placing the perfect doctors in Israel's care. So being able to look at this and understand why they would want him to be in treatment a little bit longer... It's not even an issue, it's like we trust God, we trust the doctors.”
“We persevere through everything,” he continues. “This is just one of the many hiccups that we've had in life. We just keep trucking. Because there's no other choice. We can stop and cry about it, but there's still work to be done. We still have kids we have to take care of. We still have a house we have to take care of. Life doesn't stop for these hurdles; we just have to learn how to get over them and keep persevering.”
And persevere they would have to, especially when it became clear that Israel was allergic to his treatment. Thankfully, that situation led to Israel getting to be part of a research study. He was able to resume his treatment, AND he was able to help other kids by preventing potential allergic reactions.
"One of the things we wanted to do was to be able help other families who may be going through the same things,” Richard explains. “So being able to be part of the research—and now it's more than just helping one person, it's helping thousands of children around the world. Being able to be a part of that... It just showed me that we can pray for things, but we have no idea how God is actually going to use us.”
The Everetts share that their doctors not only helped Israel beat cancer, but one doctor also gave them great advice on parenting. “With Israel being our youngest one, our doctor's advice was not to baby him—not to handicap him. Tiffany shares. “To still to have him do everything for himself as much as he could. And to say 'no’ to certain things. When he was in the hospital, he was getting so many things gifted to him, so that became normal for him. He would ring a bell, and someone just comes. So being like no, you're still going to brush your teeth, you're still gonna do the normal things. We worked to keep things as normal as possible. Also, we took the bell away immediately,” Tiffany laughs.
“He was like, we can treat the cancer, but we can't treat the monster that you're gonna create if you don't manage behavior,” Tiffany continues. “And dealing with a child with autism is already like managing behavior every day. They become fixated on the things that make them feel good. So of course, getting gifts and a ton of attention...we started managing it, turning away gifts and things like that. Plus, we have two other children who are watching all of this, including another middle schooler who had his own life happening. “
"I'm the indulgent one with my kids, so I had to manage myself,” Tiffany admits. ‘”Because I would give them the world if I had it to give.”
To hear more of the Everetts’ story, listen to their interview with Chris and Christy on The Lighthouse Podcast!