While we do all we can to make their appointment an enjoyable experience, going to the hospital is the last thing most people want to do, even if they know it’s the best place for them. However, this is a story about one 8-year-old who loved going to the Georgia Cancer Center’s Radiation Therapy Center.
He loved it because the team of radiation therapists, radiation oncologists and others helped him feel like he was a superhero. And it’s all thanks to a mask painted like his favorite superheroes, Spider-Man and Black Panther.
“Baxter loved superheroes because of their superpowers,” said Brook Duddy, Baxter’s mom. “They could do things ordinary people could not do. So, we told him the radiation was turning him into a superhero to fight his cancer.”
His cancer was ependymoma, a type of tumor that can form in the brain or spinal cord. Ependymoma begins in the ependymal cells in the brain and spinal cord that line the passageways where the cerebrospinal fluid flows that nourishes your brain.
When Baxter was diagnosed in 2015, his tumor was a Grade 2. At the time, he underwent radiation therapy for 30 days at a medical center in his family’s home city of Elberta, Alabama. When the cancer returned in 2016 in his brain, it had also metastasized to his spine. Baxter underwent surgery to remove the spinal tumor and one brain tumor and then joined the Pediatric Immunotherapy Program led by Drs. Ted Johnson and David Munn.
After undergoing cranial spinal radiation targeting the entire brain and his spine at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory, which was a partner for the program’s Phase 1 trial, Baxter had stable scans for 17 months. However, the cancer returned for the third time in March 2018. First came a surgical procedure in Memphis. Then, Baxter and his family packed up and headed to Augusta to see Johnson and his team. As part of the clinical trial for children with relapsed brain tumors, Baxter would undergo more radiation therapy to attack his tumor.
“When we walked into the Georgia Cancer Center’s Radiation Therapy building, the radiation therapist asked him who his favorite superhero was,” Duddy said. “At the time, his answer was Black Panther. The Black Panther movie had just come out.”
To help him feel like a superhero, the radiation therapy team turned his treatment mask into a Black Panther mask. It was the first of two superhero masks Baxter would wear during his cancer journey. After 26 days of radiation treatment wearing his Black Panther mask, Baxter achieved another 10 months of stability, where his tumor did not grow in size. But in February 2019, a follow-up scan showed seven new tumors, so Duddy and the family knew they would be going back to Augusta for more radiation sessions.
“When we went in February to make his new mask, they said, ‘Who do you want to be this time, Baxter?’” Duddy said. “He said he wanted to be Spider-Man. And when we came back a few days later to start the treatment, he was tickled with joy to see his new Spider-Man mask.”
While a previous employee crafted the Black Panther mask, the new Spider-Man mask was created by Megan Lumpkin, interim chief therapist for the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Georgia Cancer Center.
“Baxter’s mask was the first mask I created,” Lumpkin said. “I wanted him to feel like Spider-Man. I wanted him to think about transforming into a superhero for the 15 minutes he has to be on the treatment table. When he was done, he would show us the biggest smile.”
While Baxter’s mask was the first, Lumpkin has created about 12 masks in the two and a half years since she took over the creative process. Along with Spider-Man, she has created Paw Patrol masks, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn and others.
“The design process is such a personal experience for me,” Lumpkin said. “I pour a lot of myself into these masks because it’s my way of connecting with these pediatric patients. You really end up loving each and every child because you spend so many days with them and their family.”
Baxter’s family said seeing the boy’s smile when his treatment was over every day meant everything to them. They knew it meant Lumpkin and the radiation team were doing all they could to love on him and make him comfortable during treatment.
“It made us feel better because we didn’t feel like we were hurting him,” she said. “It’s hard to put your child through radiation treatment.”
But Lumpkin and the radiation therapy team don’t just use masks to connect with their pediatric patients and help them feel comfortable at treatment day after day. They also have an art program where patients and their families can decorate ceiling tiles hanging in the treatment area. The team provides the families with a blank tile, a set of paints and a few paintbrushes. Once they’re done, families bring the tiles back to be hung for all to see. Lumpkin compares it to a cooler version of having your art posted on the family refrigerator.
“Baxter’s design is hanging just as you enter the door to treatment room 2,” she said.
Though Baxter passed away in August this year, his legacy lives on in every mask Lumpkin creates and his ceiling tile will serve as another reminder of the impact he had on the radiation therapy team and even other patients.
“One of the sweetest memories I have of my son is when he reached out to connect to a little girl with the same form of cancer as him,” Duddy said. “Baxter asked me to go to the store after his treatment one day. He wanted to buy the girl a Wonder Woman Barbie doll and the Wonder Woman movie because he wanted her to know she was a superhero, too. We took it to her and her family the following day. The family was amazed by the love of an 8-year-old boy.”