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Matthew Donald Erickson has two siblings already, but he'll gain 14 new big brothers when he is "adopted" by the Elgin Community College men's basketball team in what promises to be a heartwarming gathering Saturday at 11 a.m.
Such moments of joy are welcome for Huntley parents Ben and Sue Erickson, whose son has spent the first 13 months of his life battling a rare form of brain cancer rarely diagnosed in infants.
Ben and Sue learned something wasn't quite right shortly before Thanksgiving 2011. An ultrasound revealed Matthew would be born with hydrocephalus, an excess of cerebral fluid. The Ericksons' third child was born on Dec. 11. Four days later he endured a procedure to relieve pressure on the brain caused by the fluid.
It was during that surgery doctors discovered a more dire threat. A large, aggressive brain tumor called a high-grade glioma had encircled the right side of Matthew's brain.
The diagnosis was devastating. Stunned, the Erickson's were given two choices: take the baby to hospice and care for him while the tumor followed its tragic course; or fight the disease with chemotherapy, which has shown middling success among infant patients.
"It's despair," said Ben Erickson, a Larkin graduate who played baseball at ECC and Judson University and now teaches and coaches at South Elgin High School. "You just want somebody to come and help. Fortunately, we felt really good and really confident with the people who worked on Matthew at (Lurie) Children's Hospital.
"I don't know if it was just the doctor we had, but we just felt like we were in a place where they could help. They were up front and honest with us the whole time, that it was going to be rough and that there may not be a happy ending in so many ways. But we just trusted them."
Matthew underwent a second surgery on Feb. 14, 2012. Then another a week later. And another 10 days after that.
The chemotherapy regime began on April 2. Matthew endured five rounds of chemo in all, the last on Aug. 15.
Between his cancer, hydrocephalus (for which a permanent shunt was installed) and diabetes insipidus -- which affects the kidneys' ability to conserve water -- the Ericksons had much to worry about. If he survived, doctors were unsure if Matthew would ever walk or talk, whether his vision would be compromised, his hearing affected.
So how is the odds-beater doing today?
"Considering everything, he is doing absolutely amazing," Sue Erickson said. "He responds to everything we say. He is the happiest kid ever. He is talking, walking, laughing, waving hi and goodbye. He's puckering for kisses now. There's a lot of things he's starting to do. It's kind of crazy. Once he started doing one thing, it all started falling into place.
"He's in physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, but he is really only a couple of months behind what he should be. With his diagnosis, that's amazing. His therapist and doctors and nurses are really, really amazed every time that we see somebody."
Soon after the Ericksons celebrated the momentous milestone of Matthew's first birthday in December, Sue signed the family up with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation (FoJ). The FoJ, according to its website, seeks to improve the quality of life for children with pediatric brain tumors and their families by pairing them with supportive college and high school athletic teams.
The foundation is named for Jaclyn Murphy, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor as a 9-year old in 2004. Murphy vowed to return to full health and compete in lacrosse, just like the young female player in an inspiring framed photo Murphy saw hanging in the hospital every day when she was receiving treatment.
The Northwestern University women's lacrosse team came to learn of Jaclyn's fight through mutual friends and "adopted" Murphy as an honorary teammate in 2005. That same year the Wildcats won the first of five straight NCAA championships and seven in eight seasons.
Seeing the positive effect the bond between their daughter and the Northwestern players had on Jaclyn's health and happiness, Denis and Lynda Murphy started the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation in 2005. The story of her support from Northwestern lacrosse was chronicled in a segment on HBO's Real Sports. The foundation claims to have since paired 300 pediatric brain tumor patients with high school and college teams across the country.
The ECC men's basketball team became one of the many teams to volunteer assistance to the FoJ after assistant coach Scott Cork saw the HBO segment about Jaclyn Murphy. Moved by the message, he conferred with head coach Reed Nosbisch and got the Spartans on the list.
Community service is nothing new to ECC basketball. In Nosbisch's six seasons the Spartans have annually taken part in Special Olympics events and have even passed out candy on Halloween to ailing children at Elgin's Sherman Hospital.
"We've always preached to our kids when recruiting them that it's not just about basketball, that it's about giving back to the community and helping others out," Nosbisch said. "To us, it's all about that atmosphere of teamwork."
When Sue Erickson signed up, FoJ matched her family with the ECC family the same day. Ben, Sue and Matthew met last week with Nosbisch and his assistants. The Ericksons will meet the players Saturday during an informal "adoption" ceremony inside the ECC Events Center.
The cool twist? All three Erickson siblings will all be adopted by ECC athletic teams, not just Matthew. In separate ceremonies to take place in the future, the ECC baseball program, of which Ben is an alum, will adopt Nolan Erickson, 5. The ECC women's basketball team, which will be on hand Saturday before its game at 1 p.m., will adopt Sophia Erickson, 3.
Each of the Erickson children will become an honorary member of his/her team. In turn, the ECC athletes gain a chance to view the world from a different perspective.
While Matthew was receiving treatment, Nolan and Sophia normally came along, too. They've spent nearly as much time inside hospitals in the past 13 months as their little brother. Sue Erickson expects Saturday to be more of a feel-good experience for the entire family, even if the kids don't truly understand what is taking place.
"Honestly, the kids are not going to comprehend very much of anything other than it's awesome and it's a party and they're smiling," Sue said. "But that is just something they have not had a chance to do all that often in the last year, so to see them having something done for them ...
"I can already guarantee I'm going to be crying, but it's just something that means more to Ben and I as parents, just to see them doing something like that, to see Nolan and Sophia smiling and laughing and having a good time, to see them surrounded by people that don't even know us but are so willing to bring our family in and wrap their arms around us.
"To be surrounded by people who want to love our kids and do something that special for our kids is beyond words."
Sue Erickson said awareness of how to treat pediatric brain tumors through the option of chemotherapy was the motivation behind signing up for FoJ, just as it was the motivation behind blogging about her son's ordeal via a community Facebook page. Matthew Donald Erickson's page had 2,807 likes as of Thursday evening.
"When we were first diagnosed you could Google babies born with brain cancer and you were not going to find anything good," Sue said. "So I hope that people who have been diagnosed since Matthew and are in our shoes can find Matthew's story and see that there is hope, that there is something to fight for.
"It might not be the easiest road at all, but it is possible. Putting a baby through chemo is scary because you see how adults respond to it so parents wonder how a baby would ever make it through that. We want to share our experience so the next person knows there is hope."
Matthew will return to the hospital for his next scan on Feb. 11. If it's clean, he will be cleared for three months until his next scan. If the scan is not clean, he resumes chemotherapy immediately. Matthew will submit to quarterly scans the rest of his life.
However, Matthew Erickson is a fighter. Named after Matt Wright -- a former South Elgin student of Ben's who fought yet succumbed to complications from testicular cancer on Oct. 5, 2009 -- Erickson has bucked the odds and made it through his first year of life despite facing an uphill battle.
His parents hope Matthew will someday be able to return the favor to everyone who supported him and his family during this tumultuous time.
"Our biggest thing is that he'll be able to thank everybody himself when he gets old enough," Ben Erickson said. "We think that will be the most powerful thing, when he can stand up in five years and say thank you to everybody because there are so many people to thank who have supported us and have thought about us.
"That will be an awesome moment. And we really believe it will happen."
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