By Molly Horak
Allison Nichols-Clapper frantically rushed into the room. Her body racked with fear, but she pushed the feeling down. She needed to be strong.
It had been a few days since she had last seen Howell Brown III. He was a regular where she worked at Maple View Farm. When she received the call letting her know that he was in the hospital, she dropped everything.
This was it.
She met Brown several years earlier after working with Kids Path, a hospice for terminally ill children and their families, and Sam’s Wish Fund, a program that grants wishes to terminally ill children. A mutual friend introduced Nichols-Clapper to Brown, who was living with stage four brain cancer.
The two instantly clicked. They spent holidays together, ate ice cream together at the store and were even invited onstage together at a Kenny Chesney concert.
And suddenly, they weren’t. Brown died in August 2017. It was one week shy of his 15th birthday.
“When he passed away, I felt so broken-hearted,” she said. “There were times when I didn’t want to get up and get out of bed, but I knew that I had to because that’s what he would have wanted me to do.”
A day doesn’t go by that she forgets to think of Brown. But Nichols-Clapper can’t slow down: There are other children that need her. As a leader for Team Tumornators, a group working to raise money for the Angels Among Us 5K to benefit the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, Nichols-Clapper is dedicated to helping children and their families as they battle brain tumors.
Superheroes unite at Maple View Farm
On a Wednesday afternoon, Hannah Riley and her son Ridge Riley walked down the fourth-floor hallway of Duke University Hospital. Chemo day.
Jessie Curtis and her son Brody Curtis also made the trek down the same hallway. Chemo day for them, too.
Both boys suffer from inoperable brain tumors: Ridge Riley is 5 years old and was diagnosed in September 2015; Brodie Curtis is 6 years old and was diagnosed around the same time.
The families connected instantly.
“We were both moms alone in this journey, and we both felt that there weren’t other people who understood what we were going through, who understood the fear of waiting for a scan, the pain of seeing your child in pain or the uncertainty about the future,” Riley said. “No one else really got it. And, having [Jessie] there, we were and are each other’s support systems.”
The boys, along with Jake Ingham, Dominick Lawrence and Brown have become the face of Team Tumornators. Each have adopted a superhero persona to represent their strength as they battle the biggest villain of all: their tumors.
On a frigid Saturday morning in early February, the boys were the stars of the Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast event at Maple View Farm, a fundraising event to raise money for the brain tumor center.
Families, college students and friends huddled for warmth as they waited in a line that wrapped around the parking lot. Children, wearing their favorite pajamas, gleefully pressed their noses to the glass counter, incredulous that their breakfast would be a sundae covered in cereal, donuts and waffles.
Everyone was smiling. The joy in the air was palpable.
“Brain tumors touch us more than we know,” nurse Lucille Rice said.
Arms crossed across her chest, Jan Oldenburg bounced from foot to foot. She did anything she could to stay warm as she stood with her husband and son Thys Oldenburg in the Maple View Farm parking lot. The wait was nothing, she said. She would do a whole lot more to express her gratitude to the research team at Duke University.
In October 2017, Thys Oldenburg was severely injured during a football game at Orange County High School. He suffered a brain bleed. For six weeks, he was in a medically-induced coma.
Thys Oldenburg was treated by the Duke Department of Neurology, Jan Oldenburg said. While not directly affiliated with the brain tumor center, she feels what families are going through and wants to support in any way she can.
“It’s been over a year [since Thys Oldenburg’s injury occurred], but it’s great to be out here supporting a cause so near and dear to our hearts,” Jan Oldenburg said.
A few feet away, just inside the doors of Maple View Farm’s serving parlor, Lucille Rice slowly spooned her sundae as she milled around and chatted with friends.
A nurse at Duke University Hospital, Rice never thought that “brain tumor” would be a word that regularly comes up in conversations. But 25 years ago, a boy in her daughter’s kindergarten class was diagnosed with a brain tumor and began receiving treatment at the hospital.
Her daughter’s friend died at 7 years old. To honor his memory, their elementary school in Durham began participating in the Angels Among Us 5K. For years, Rice said, her family would spend the day with current patients and survivors, showing their support.
Years later, tragedy struck again. Her close friend, Alan Stephenson, was diagnosed with a tumor near his brain stem.
“Brain tumors touch us more than we know—if you had told me 15 years ago that Alan would have a brain tumor in his lifetime, I would have looked at you like you were crazy,” Rice said. “And, then he was diagnosed, and the whole world turned upside down. It was absolutely one of the scariest times of my life.”
Stephenson survived. But, many others don’t.
“I’m one of the very lucky ones. I made it through,” Stephenson said as he stood at the Team Tumornators table in the corner of Maple View Farm’s store. “Now, I try to do all that I can to give back. There’s a long road to go, but every step counts.”
Allison Nichols-Clapper tastes sweet support
Sugar pounding through their veins, kids clad in superhero costumes and fuzzy pajama bottoms wove through the crowded picnic tables. They laughed and smiled. Two professional entertainers were dressed as Batman and Wonder Woman and posed for pictures with event-goers. A group of students from UNC-Chapel Hill passed a football back and forth.
Riley stood, watching her son play with his friends. Seeing the outpouring of support gets her through difficult times.
“It’s days like ice cream for breakfast that get your mind off of it. You get out of the house and are doing something fun,” she said. “Watching your kid smile and play feels so normal for a split second. And, that’s all us parents want, for our kids to be happy and be kids.”
At one point, Nichols-Clapper stepped to the back of the room. Tears filled her eyes. She wasn’t sad, rather she was overcome by the sheer number of people who showed up.
“There was this moment where I felt so overwhelmed but not overwhelmed from stress—the kind of overwhelmed where you just want to run through and hug everybody standing in that line and just thank them and tell them that just purchasing ice cream is such a big thing to these patients and their families,” she said. “Whether they’re there because it’s ice cream for breakfast or they’re there because they know what we’re doing, just knowing that they came means so much.”
Edited by Erica Johnson