A young boy battling cancer was treated to a much-needed distraction when he and his father faced off against two nurses in a Nerf war that brought smiles to everyone.
At the end of last year, then-4-year-old Drew Esposito had been experiencing headaches and vomiting spells for weeks.
Though his parents, Jeremy and Sondra Esposito, initially believed his symptoms were the signs of a stomach bug, Drew’s symptoms became more persistent as time went on, so on Christmas Eve they went in for a scan on his brain and saw something unimaginable.
“Sure enough, there was a lime sized tumor in the back of his brain that was blocking his fifth ventricle and was imperative to remove it immediately,” Jeremy, 42, of LaGrange, Kentucky recalls to PEOPLE. “On Christmas morning he went into surgery, and while they gave us hourly updates from the OR, it was almost midnight that evening when our surgeon came in to tell us that he had gotten it all.”
Doctors diagnosed Drew with medulloblastoma, a rare cancer that is also the most common malignant tumor found in children, according to Mayo Clinic. Though the surgeon was able to remove the tumor, Drew would have to undergo extensive chemotherapy to keep it from reoccurring.
“We chose a protocol that would take us through more than nine months of grueling chemotherapy with multiple complications, spending weeks and months at a time in the hospital at Norton Children’s hospital,” Jeremy — who also has two other children, William, 11, and Katie, 7 — explains.
Drew hasn’t yet completed the entire regimen, but as of today, the tumor has shown no signs of coming back. Yet, the lives of Drew and his family have been radically changed since the diagnosis.
“He is an athletic kid with a bold but sweet personality and determined as the day is long,” Jeremy says of his youngest son. “This guy may have gotten kicked out of daycare for his shenanigans if he wasn’t so loved by the director and his teachers!”
Having to stay at Norton’s Children’s Hospital for his chemotherapy treatments has been difficult for the normally energetic Drew, and his parents and the hospital’s staff have done their best to keep his spirits up.
“When you are stuck in the hospital for weeks at a time, you find things to pass the hours. When he was feeling bad, he would stay on his iPad or the TV for days, or even sleep due to the pain meds,” Jeremy says. “But, when he started to feel better, crazy little Drew would want to come out to play! So he created a bond with many of the nurses playing cards, board games, and playdough.”
Soon, Drew’s attention turned to a classic toy — the Nerf gun.
“When he was feeling extra energetic he would want to have a Nerf War with Mommy or Daddy,” Jeremy recalls. “Well, eventually that turned into bringing the nurses in for battles! And as we battled more, we got more guns, different types of guns and costumes, and the nurses would play along!”
Despite working long hours, the Norton’s Children’s hospital’s hematology and oncology nurses — Meg Garl and Taylor Bergman — took time to play with Drew, which offered a welcomed distraction from his treatments. One of the Nerf battles was filmed and posted to Jeremy’s Facebook last month, where it quickly went viral and earned more than 400,000 views.
“They are literally angels on earth,” Jeremy says of the nurses. “That fight on the video, and the dozens not filmed, were an escape for our buddy, even if it was just a little bit of time. It was a way for him to stay active while trapped in that room during his bone marrow transplant for months on end. It was a way for him to take out frustration, and most importantly for Sondra and I, it offered invaluable bonding time between us and our son.”
Jeremy says he is forever grateful for the time the nurses have given to the family, ensuring that all of Drew’s needs — whether they are medical, or just involve lending him some playtime — are taken into account.
“As far as I am concerned will be lifelong friends,” he adds. “The love mixed with skill is unmatched to any profession that I can think of. These ladies and guys, in addition to the very adept and compassionate doctors at Norton’s, are forever burnt in our hearts as the saviors of our little boy.”