Lubbock teen conquers high-risk cancer battle with aid of Children’s Miracle Network at UMC

Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 10:52 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - AJ Hounshell was just 13 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. That’s hard enough to battle, but further testing showed he would have extra hurdles in his fight.

He credits UMC Children’s Hospital and the services it provides through the Children’s Miracle Network in helping him and his family through it all.

“I would get out of breath really easily, couldn’t get out of bed, just a lot of fatigue,” AJ said. “I had back pain, which was kind of the first thing that we noticed, which was a little weird to us when I just finished a season of football. I thought that was what it was from, but it just kind of spiraled out after that into a series of events where we we had to go check bloodwork. Eventually, when we got those results back, we were told to go to the emergency room.”

That was in December of 2019 when the 7th grader at Trinity Christian School was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. AJ began treatment, but genetic testing showed his cancer was “hypodiploid,” meaning his cancer cells had fewer chromosomes and, at his age, he was at higher risk of not achieving remission.

“There are higher incidences of relapse,” Troy, AJ’s dad, said. “When you get news like that, you start reading things, and that’s not good for your mood. It’s not good for your mind but we were determined, he was determined, all of us were determined to support him. We just believed and prayed and they just pushed forward and at 30 days when they did the bone marrow check, sent it off, and he was cancer free.”

However, the challenge did not end there. AJ still had several more years of treatment and maintenance. That’s when he’d find his biggest fights.

“The side-effects of the treatment; it was fatigue, nausea, a lot of times, just feeling sick all the time,” AJ said. “I couldn’t do a lot of stuff. I couldn’t hang out with friends, couldn’t play sports, couldn’t do anything besides lay in bed and that was really miserable for me.”

AJ experienced reactions to chemotherapy and even an episode where his mother discovered him unresponsive in his bedroom. With each obstacle, his family sought help from UMC Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Erin Barr is AJ’s pediatric oncologist. She said the group of experts UMC has access to through the Children’s Oncology Group helps them determine the best course of treatment for patients like AJ.

“We watched more closely for him for signs, symptoms, if there’s anything abnormal, then we’re certainly going to do more investigations earlier, knowing that he’s higher risk,” Barr said.

However, she said it is not all about the clinical medicines when it comes to treating children and their families.

“It’s not just the stuff that happens in the hospital,” Barr said. “This affects your whole family, and that’s outside the hospital, inside the hospital and in the clinic. When you’re stuck in the hospital for weeks sometimes on end, the Children’s Miracle network helps support our Child Life with games and activities that they can do to keep them entertained in the hospital.”

That’s exactly what AJ needed. The LEGO-building hobbyist sought distraction from the hardship through various sets he obtained through CMN, as well as the emotional support.

“You had Child Life Specialists, who also shared in my faith,” AJ said. “They would often discuss about these types of things in front of me, which would always encourage me to keep fighting and not to give up hope.”

Denay, AJ’s mom, said those specialists also helped the entire family, including AJ’s sister, Ava, in navigating this new chapter in their lives.

“She was in high school trying to cope with his diagnosis and everything,” Denay said. “The child specialist really came in handy for us just to talk through life. It’s hard enough to get a diagnosis, but then we’re still trying to raise a daughter in high school. So they were very supportive.”

That’s all funded with Children’s Miracle Network donations. The Hounshell family says those donations go a long way and Dr. Barr agrees.

“It’s not just the medicines, it is the whole patient and the family group that we need to treat and that’s how you get them out to the other side and to being amazing people like AJ is.”

AJ has taken his final chemo pills and currently continues regular doctor visits and testing to ensure he continues to be cancer-free.

To learn more about the Children’s Miracle Network at UMC Children’s Hospital or to donate, click here.