Hatley senior playing despite rare brain tumor

By Melissa Meador/Monroe Journal

HATLEY – One lesson Jon-Michael Northington has learned all too well is don’t take life for granted. Instead, the Hatley senior baseball player says he’s living each day to the fullest.
Northington, who was diagnosed in June 2011 with a rare brain tumor, played in his first baseball game on Friday since completing four rounds of chemotherapy from October to February.
His mother, Debra Northington, a nurse, said the experience began when her son complained of headaches, and she made him undergo a CAT scan. Scans found a tumor on his brain, which was later diagnosed at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital as PNET/high-grade glioma.
“He’s the fourth kid in the nation to be diagnosed with this type of cancer,” Debra Northington said. “There are only 55 adults with it.”
Jon-Michael underwent two different brain surgeries, one in June at Vanderbilt University and one in July at LeBonheur. After first arriving at St. Jude’s, he was put into a clinical trial and began radiation in late July.
Debra Northington said that although it was recommended for Jon-Michael to stay in Memphis during the treatments, he was determined to go to school every day, live at home and still be a member of the football team. He was finally allowed to play in his final football game.
“I told them I was going to play,” Jon-Michael said. “I was tired of sitting on the sidelines.”
Jon-Michael began four rounds of aggressive chemotherapy in November, and the family moved to Target House in Memphis.
“He received a 12-month dose of chemo in four months, and they did stem cell replacement. He had 52 units of blood and platelets in those four months,” Debra said.
Debra Northington said several complications brought Jon-Michael close to death, including the fact that he had zero immunity during his chemotherapy. She said the worst experience was when he had to be rushed to the hospital with a 105-degree fever and packed in ice overnight.
“The nurse beside his bed was crying,” she said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m dying, Mom, aren’t I?’ And I said, ‘No son, you’re not. We just have to get through this,’” she said.
After Jon-Michael completed his last round of chemo, received a negative brain scan and was released from St. Jude’s, he had one goal in mind: to make it home for Hatley’s first baseball game.
“Being there was like being home again,” Jon-Michael said.
Jon-Michael said the experience has been able to put things in perspective for him.
“People who complain about a headache or a cold, they don’t know how bad it can get,” he said.
Debra said her son’s determination during his illness has inspired not only her and her family, but the entire community.
“He never once got down,” she said. “He never once said he couldn’t do it. He never once complained about what he was having to go through or looked back.”
Jon-Michael mentioned feeling a need to stay positive to help inspire the other kids in St. Jude’s.
“If they don’t believe I can fight this, then they wouldn’t think they could either,” he said.
Debra Northington said the response from the community has been overwhelming and that she couldn’t thank all the people who had helped her family throughout the experience. She mentioned feeling grateful to Clint Parish, who traveled to Memphis to take Jon-Michael’s picture so he could be in the baseball program and on the wall with the team’s other seniors.
“We had teachers sending us lesson plans and homework just so Jon-Michael could keep up,” Debra said. “It’s been incredible to see the support.”
Jon-Michael said playing in his first game was a relief, but a goal he had to work towards quickly because of losing much of his balance and muscle strength throughout his experience.
“I got to hit twice, and I hit them both,” he said. “I didn’t strike out.”
People in the community and outside it have been following Jon-Michael’s story through a Facebook page maintained by his family called Team Jon-Michael. The page currently has almost 750 followers.
Debra Northington said the family will have to go back to St. Jude’s for scans every three months to check and make sure Jon-Michael’s tumor hasn’t begun growing again, but Jon-Michael said he’s working on living in the present and finishing out the baseball season and preparing for graduation.