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Good Words

Friends, my playlist is about to get a major Mama makeover. Elliott and I have never been the kind of parents to keep our preferred music away from our son. Sure, some of the content got watered down once little man’s ears started to pick up on words, but we never fully converted our music of choice over to a Kidz Bop-approved variety. Over the last year or so, Brooks – our son who is now five years old – has taken a special interest in singing along with me to the songs that are on my playlist. We sing in the car, he sings along with the music while I work out or while we run down back country roads. It’s kind of become our thing. When we get to the songs that are filled with uplifting messages – messages that reinforce our faith or encourage self-confidence – I always say, “Listen, buddy! These are good words.” After a few months of me reminding him to pay close attention to the lyrics in certain songs, Brooks has now started to ask me, “Mommy, are these good words?” wh

Hope for Hattie

After getting back into writing more seriously over the course of the last year, I have developed a recent interest in working harder to tell other people’s stories and not just my own. One of the reasons I love writing so much is the opportunity it brings for storytelling, and I believe deeply that everyone’s life produces a fascinating story.

But as a writer, it’s not every day that the chance to tell a story like this one falls into your lap. I am both thrilled and terrified to write it, because it is such an important story, and I don’t want to get in the way of it. When I heard recently that our dear friend John Halter had just completed a 75-mile run in honor of his little girl’s incredible fight with cancer, I knew I wanted to help tell this family’s story, in any way that I could.
Elliott and I met John during our days running cross country for Mars Hill College, in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. John was the best kind of college teammate – a talented runner, a genuinely good guy, always down for a good time and constantly making everybody laugh.
After college, we largely fell out of touch with John, as you sadly tend to do with the folks who have become like family over the course of four years. We watched his life from a distance, as he eventually moved to Tennessee, married his wife and they had their daughter, sweet little Hattie, in June of 2017.

Nine months later, life got turned upside down for John and his family. When we spoke recently, John tearfully recalled the evening – seemingly like any other – that everything changed. He and Hattie were at home alone; his wife Melissa was at a dance recital. While giving Hattie a bath before bed, he noticed a lump by her collarbone. As alarming as the sight of the bump was on his nine-month-old baby girl, he didn’t jump to any conclusions right away, thinking instead that it was probably a swollen lymph node. “Nobody wants to think their child is sick,” he told me.
A trip to the pediatrician soon ruled out the possibility of a swollen lymph node, and the Halters were then referred to an oncologist. “The oncologist didn’t think anything of it,” John said. “He said that Hattie was fighting two viruses at the time, and he thought that was why her white blood cells were low.”
Over the course of the next two months, more bumps developed on Hattie. Although smaller in size than the one initially found near her collarbone, they started to appear all over her little body, including the bottom of her feet. The oncologist remained unconvinced that there was cause for concern, but to do his due diligence, he referred John and Melissa to a dermatologist. The trip was agonizing for the whole family; John held Hattie, who was wide awake, tightly to his chest while the doctor cut one of the bumps off of her back.
“It was awful,” John told me, “and doubt and fear started to creep in…all these tests and procedures were not normal. You immediately think the worst and wonder what is wrong with your child.”
Despite blood and bone marrow tests that failed to show sickness in her body, an eventual biopsy - of the bump originally found on her collarbone - produced the results the Halters feared most. Their perfect nine-month-old baby girl had cancer – they would learn a few days later that the official diagnosis was Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a quickly progressive type of blood cancer. The memory of the doctor coming in to give them the news is etched perfectly in John’s brain. Hattie was sleeping on his shoulder when the doctor came into the room. With tears in his eyes, he explained to John and Melissa that their daughter had cancer.
John’s brain wouldn’t allow him to accept the news; he told me that it took a week before it finally sank in. He just assumed that the doctors had done something wrong with the tests – he physically could not bring himself to believe that his baby girl had leukemia.
“I remember going back to work and crying in my work truck for about 30 minutes,” he said. “That feeling is just hopelessness and overwhelming dread and fear and anger. You really question God and why it happened.”

Hattie was admitted into the hospital the day after the family received the diagnosis; chemotherapy treatments began five days later. This was the beginning of what would be a full year of hospitals, treatments, relocating to be closer to medical facilities, celebrating Hattie being in remission and then learning that the dreaded disease had returned to her. In September of 2018, the Halters’ journey would bring them to a bone marrow transplant for Hattie  – perhaps the most grueling part of this whole story for this sweet family.
But there is so much more to this story. There is so much more than sickness, hospitals, doctor visits, feeding tubes and waiting rooms. As I talk with John about the road they have walked for over a year now, he makes it abundantly clear to me that the real story is one of hope and faith. It is a story of one little girl’s incredibly courageous fight against leukemia. It is the story of a mother and father who would do anything for their daughter, who have left their jobs to be by her side for every treatment, who have trusted their instincts and advocated on behalf of their baby girl – demanding healthier formula for their daughter during treatment and even driving to another state to get it - parents who have prayed without ceasing, asking God every day to heal Hattie and to give them strength. It is the story of a devoted mama, who has yet to return to her job so that she can care for Hattie at home. And it is the story of my friend John, who decided to put himself through a painful 75-mile run, so that he could come as close as possible to walking the same journey as his daughter.

John made the decision to do the run while he was sitting in a Nashville, Tennessee hospital, watching his daughter fight for her life in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) after the transplant. She had both liver and kidney failure, and she had so much fluid retention that she had to be sedated and put on a ventilator. A tube was put on each side of her abdomen because of all the fluid pushing on her lungs. Because the kidneys were not working properly, the fluid continued to build. “The doctors told us that we essentially had to wait for her body to respond. It was hell for a few days,” he said.
Because she was so inflamed, she had blood transfusions almost every day. Now that his family has experienced this first hand, he encourages anyone who is healthy and willing to donate platelets. “Pediatric cancer kids need them constantly; Hattie has had well over 50 platelet transfusions in the last year,” John said.
When the swelling was at its worst, she had gained four pounds – making her total weight 25 pounds. Because of this, John initially planned to wear a 25-pound weight vest on the run; the advice of his friends, family and a trusted chiropractor convinced him otherwise.
But there was no talking John out of doing the 75-mile run – he was a man on a mission. “I want to feel the pain and suffering she felt,” he told me. “But I’ll never be able to feel it, and she can’t communicate it to me. I can see it in her eyes, and I can’t do a damn thing about it.”
In addition to wanting to walk this journey with his daughter, John hoped to bring awareness to families affected by childhood cancer by doing the run – and he has plans to do more. “Lots of families have been on this path,” he said. “You lean on God, you gain strength. You have bad days and good days. Your child continues to fight, and you learn to fight with them. It makes you so strong that the impossible doesn’t look that impossible.”
John enlisted the help of Jon Stoehr, another teammate of ours from Mars Hill, to plan the run. John and Jon have remained close friends since we all left college, and Jon had asked repeatedly what he could do for the Halters through Hattie’s diagnosis and treatment. When John decided to honor his daughter with an endurance challenge, Jon got his chance to help.
“Jon suggested we run a marathon, but I told him that wasn’t long enough,” John told me. The two friends settled on the 75-mile distance between the Mars Hill campus in North Carolina and Jon’s home in Greer, South Carolina, totaling the length of nearly three marathons. Jon spent weeks preparing for the run, creating a 15-page document of the route, complete with built-in stops for rest, food and bathroom breaks.

They set the date for March 29, 2019 – almost one year since Hattie was first diagnosed with AML. The run was an emotional experience for John, not just because of the intent behind it and the physical exertion it required, but because it also mirrored the journey his family had been on for the last 12 months. John told me the first few miles were all about acceptance and control – he realized quickly that he had to let go of certain things. “I reached a point pretty early on of feeling overwhelmed and anxious, and everything hurt,” he told me. “But in my heart, I didn’t have a choice – I was going to reach the goal. I was going to keep fighting just like I saw my daughter, and so many other children, fighting.”
One of the factors John had to mentally overcome throughout the entire 75 miles was that his knee hurt every step of the way. He had developed a knee injury several weeks before the run, and he didn’t run a step in the week leading up to it. Interestingly, John was grateful for the added discomfort – to him, it only enhanced what he was trying to accomplish. “I didn’t end up wearing the 25-pound weight vest, but as luck would have it, God gave me this knee pain instead. It made it even more of a challenge. It made me appreciate the pain and the suffering on the journey even more…like God was telling me that Hattie had overcome so much more and now it was my turn.”
Not being able to control the pain in his knee was one of the factors he had to accept early on in the run – he knew he couldn’t control it - and he dealt with it by talking with Jon and trying not to think about it. Going through Weaverville, North Carolina, Jon began feeling anxious as well. 
“We were about 10 miles in, and Jon told me he started feeling overwhelmed because we still had 65 miles to go,” John said. “I didn’t feel that; I wasn’t looking at the finish line at all. It’s just like the journey of the last year. You can look at the future and assume the worst. But then the worst doesn’t come, and you get strength from that.
About halfway through the run, John got the inspiration he needed to get him through the rest of the journey. He shared with me that throughout Hattie’s battle with leukemia, God has sent signs to the Halter family – little drops of grace that have gotten them over each hurdle along the way. At 3 a.m., at mile 39 of this 75-mile run, God gave John another sign in the form of a road sign.
John shared with me that there is another family in their hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee that has walked a similar road as the Halters  – their young daughter has also gone through multiple rounds of leukemia treatments, including two bone marrow transplants, but with a far less positive outcome. After enduring the transplant process for the second time, the doctors  told this family – the Massey family – that a bone marrow test had revealed that they could not get rid of the leukemia in their daughter’s body. They encouraged the Masseys to take their daughter home and enjoy their time together.
This news was especially hard for John to grasp because this girl’s father is the one he is able to communicate with the best about their unique situations. “He is incredibly positive. He is dependent on God. He is just a good person to talk to; sometimes when you communicate with someone, and you laugh and joke around, you forget your children have this awful burden – this awful disease. We all have this difficult life, and you can relate with these people. You always root for other people’s children. Always.”
At mile 39, in the darkest part of the night, John somehow noticed a road sign for Massey Road. It didn’t make any sense for him to see it; he had been running with his head down, not paying any attention to what was around him. “I think a car drove by, and I had to look up to make sure I didn’t fall into a ditch,” he said. “God put that road sign there to tell me, ‘this isn’t about you, or your knee,’” John said. “It’s about so much more than that. Society tends to forget about these stories and only focus on the success stories. The families – the brothers and sisters and the parents – don’t forget. They never get to forget. We have to do so much better.”

This “doing better” refers to a general awareness and empathy for families dealing with pediatric cancer. Those of us with healthy children can be so guilty of not wanting to even think about what these families go through. We quickly change channels when we see a bald baby in a television commercial. We turn a blind eye, because the idea of it feels like too much to bear. But John reminds me throughout our conversations that no one knows what tomorrow holds.
“It’s the painful reality of having no options and just relying on God and His grace. Put yourself in those shoes. With pediatric cancers, parents are faced with unbelievably low statistics for survival. Regardless, no one pays attention to those statistics; even a one percent chance of knowing that you may lose your child is too much to accept.”
Around mile 43, near Hendersonville, North Carolina, Jon needed to rest. His sister Rachel, who had not intended to participate in any part of the run, took his place and ran with John for the next 15 miles. John said her willingness to step in was one example of so many of people who have shown love to their family over the last year, people who would do anything to support them. “It has given us strength,” John told me.
Jon picked back up with John around mile 55, and the two finished the journey to Greer, South Carolina together. When he finally reached mile 75, John FaceTimed Melissa. “I did it,” he said – and they both started crying.

“It’s not about me running 75 miles,” he told me. “I don’t even think I was thinking about the run. I was thinking about how much my little girl has been through. How proud I am that she is my child. How I want her to be proud of me. We did this as a family. My daughter is here. I don’t know what the future holds, but we are stronger as a family.”
The day after the run, the Halters traveled to Florida for a retreat held for families who have faced the journey of childhood cancer. Through sharing with the other parents who attended and reflecting on the weight of the run he just endured, John felt the true realization that there is a bigger purpose to this mountain his family has been given. “What are you going to do with it?” he remembers thinking to himself. “You can let the weight, anxiety and fear consume you, or you can ask God for strength every day, and you can do things that make you stronger.”
For John, the physical release of exercise is one of the main things that has made him feel stronger through this journey. “I used to go in the bathroom at the hospital, after just sitting and looking at Hattie, and do 300 push-ups just to try and get rid of it,” he said. “And we prayed every night for God to wrap His arms around Hattie, and we asked Him for strength every day. We were at the mercy of the situation.”
Hattie, just two months from her second birthday, is now in remission for the second time. “In February, I got to see my child walk down a hallway,” John said. “Now she’s running down the road…from that hell to strength every day. Every day is a blessing.”
Melissa has not yet returned to her work as a special education teacher, choosing instead to stay home and care fulltime for Hattie. “Melissa is so positive, she’s incredible,” John said. “She’s the whole reason I’m going to get into heaven someday.”

While the Halters admittedly don’t know what the future holds, they are counting their blessings – for how well Hattie is doing now, and for the family and friends that have loved them through their darkest days. “We are so blessed,” said John. “So many people have been praying, bringing food and offering to help. Some people have friends that don’t want to accept that it can happen.”
But the Halters know all too well that it can happen to anyone, and they are dedicating themselves to the work of bringing awareness to childhood cancer and support to affected families. The couple hopes to start a nonprofit organization with this idea at the heart of its mission. In the meantime, you can follow the Halters on their journey at and with the social media hashtag #hope4hattie. And if you would like to make a financial contribution in their honor to an organization they believe in, check out, an organization dedicated to assisting families affected by childhood cancer by educating them on healthy options to aid in the healing process.
And most of all, you can pray for sweet Hattie, Melissa and John, and for all the incredible families who courageously fight the battle of childhood cancer. John’s main call to action by sharing their story? “Inspiration, awareness, faith. I am hopeful this will be the first step in many to helping families with children that are facing this. My goal is to have the opportunity to inspire other families that think they have impossible odds in front of them and are overcoming them one step at a time. I also want to bring education and awareness to pediatric cancer to the people that aren’t affected. I think the goal is to open hearts and minds…you may not have the answer to cancer, but you can sure try to love someone going through this.”


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