From the pool to the classroom, Stephen is like any other high school athlete. He loves swimming on his high school team, is involved in the National Honors Society, and enjoys the things that most high school students do. But in June of 2014, Stephen's life took a dramatic turn when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“It was a lot in a short time, but we all grieved quickly and moved to a level of acceptance,” said Stephen’s dad Rick, “Maybe we didn't have the luxury of getting angry.”
This form of leukemia can spread very quickly to other parts of the body, so Stephen’s family, as well as the team at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, jumped into action. Stephen endured numerous treatments and procedures, including chemotherapy and radiation in his fight to defeat cancer.
However, the treatments would not be enough to prevent the cancer from recurrence. Stephen would need a bone marrow transplant to be cured.
Stephen’s family found three potential candidates that were perfect matches for Stephen, and after choosing the best possible match, Stephen received his life-saving bone marrow transplant in October 2014, just months after his diagnosis.
During the months of recovery, Stephen was referred to Make-A-Wish Arizona.
While contemplating what his wish would be, Stephen wanted to incorporate his love of the water.
“Stephen had to spend 15 months out of the pool while he was going through treatment, so getting back in the water was his motivation to get better,” said his mom, Trish.
Stephen ultimately wished to travel to Hawaii and experience something he had never tried before - learning to surf.
“I have always wanted to learn how to surf, just being a swimmer and loving the water so much,” said Stephen. “I wanted a genuine experience, not a touristy lesson; I wanted to really feel the Hawaii surfing vibe that I have always heard about.”
While in Hawaii, Stephen and his family were able to visit The Volcom House; one of the most famous and exclusive Pipeline homes that houses professional surfers during competitions. While there, they got to meet some of the best surfers in the world.
“The Volcom House was even cooler than I expected. It was super laid back, right next to the waves, and there was a big group of pro surfers just hanging out, it was awesome.” explained Stephen. “The pros were all really interested in my story and were super encouraging.”
Among those surfers were legends Jamie O’Brien and Tom Dosland, who happened to be his instructors for the day.
“I was a little intimidated at first surfing with pros, especially because I had never done it before, but Tom and Jamie were so helpful and encouraging; it made so much easier and a lot of fun,” explained Stephen.
He spent the entire day there, surfing and experiencing the authentic Hawaiian surfer’s lifestyle that he had always dreamed of. “It was a really special day for everyone in our family, we never wanted it to end,” said Trish.
In addition to surfing, Stephen and his family were able to parasail, zip line, snorkel, and tour The University of Hawaii at Manoa during their trip.
“For the last 2 ½ years, treatment was always a part of my life. Going to Hawaii was a complete getaway, no appointments, no problems; it was the best I’ve felt. I was able to do normal stuff and enjoy a normal vacation,” explained Stephen.
Normalcy was what Stephen’s family has desired for so long, and this trip was the first step in getting them back to that place.
“My wish really felt like the ending of my treatment. It was a marker in a new stage of treatment, a fresh start,” said Stephen. “This trip was able to start the new normal for my family.”
When asked how the trip affected their family, Trish said the best way to explain it was that it was “healing.” Her husband said that he hadn’t seen her face relax and smile like that in a really long time.
Luckily, Stephen’s cancer is still in remission. He is back at school, back in the water, still involved with the swim team, and is on his way to health! He can’t wait to get back to the beach and be able to surf again.