Cover Story: A Gift That Keeps on Giving
With an iPad and a dream, Family keeps Ryan Eaton's memory alive
It was close to Christmas 2011 and 25-year-old Ryan Eaton was getting driven crazy by a pain in his lower back. He'd been to his doctor. He'd been to a chiropractor. He'd taken himself to the Emergency Room. While he was told it could be a pinched nerve or injury, the pain was ready to bring him to his knees.
"He hurt his back snowboarding a long time ago," says his mom, Vicki Eaton. "Back issues weren't a big surprise for him. The chiropractor said it is probably a pinched sciatic nerve, no big deal."
Turns out, it wasn't a pinched nerve at all, but an extremely rare form of soft tissue cancer known as Synovial Sarcoma. The tumor started in his back, wrapped around all the nerves in his leg and eventually spread to his lungs and brain.
"He said, 'I have two ways I can deal with this," Vicki shares. "I can be really mad at the world or I can approach it with the best attitude and fight as hard as I can.'" Ryan's father, Sheldon Eaton, says it didn't matter to Ryan what the doctors told him. He would simply follow their guidance and live each and every day. "Ryan didn't want to know what the statistics were. He didn't want to see the CAT scans. He said, 'I don't want to know any of the details. I just want to know what to do next. God is in control of this, I am not,'" Sheldon shares with tears in his eyes. "Cancer? At 25? That wasn't on our radar. That wasn't in our plan. But, he took the battle and moved forward with it."
The treatments began in Billings and come spring, doctors had the first round of bad news for the Eaton family. They were running out of treatment options. Ryan was at the highest dose he could take of the aggressive chemotherapy drug used to battle his tumors. Any higher, and it could damage his heart.
"So, talk about just stealing your heart again," Sheldon says."Oh my gosh, what now?"
Instead of sitting back and waiting, Sheldon got on his computer and started searching doctors with any and all ties to Synovial Sarcoma. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack, but late one Friday afternoon, he found the 'needle.' After speaking with a nurse at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance earlier in the day, the phone rang, bringing hope.
"It was 5 o'clock Friday our time, we get a phone call and it is the doctor. I was like, 'Wow, on a Friday night?' He said, 'Tell me what is going on with your son.' "Turns out, the doctor specializes in Synovial Sarcoma, studying the cancer four days a week and seeing patients on the other day. He wanted the Eaton family to make the trek to Seattle to see him. Sheldon says, "I had been waiting for this day. Talk about tears of joy."
While in Seattle, the family stayed in the Cancer Care Alliance House, a home away from home just blocks from where Ryan would get his treatment. It was there that Ryan's dream began to unfold.
"We saw a lot of people, kids in particular, that were traveling alone because they couldn't afford to have their families with them," Vicki says. Ryan, who often used his iPad to connect with friends back home, to listen to music during his long chemotherapy infusions, or play scrabble with his family by passing the iPad around, started to wonder if that little piece of technology could bring someone else comfort. "That's when Ryan started to think, 'You know, if they just had an iPad, they could connect with their families,'" Vicki says. Sheldon adds that thinking about others was Ryan to the core. "He was always too worried about the guy next to him. He would say, 'Has he had any company all day? I don't think anyone has come to see him.' That was just his personality. He couldn't stand to see others hurting."
Ryan started to dream about a project he had used a few years ago to get into graphic design school. The idea was a company that he had planned to start one day with his younger brother, Dallas. It would be called United Luv, and the mission would be to sell t-shirts and other items with the proceeds going to help others.
"Ryan had already designed all of these t-shirts for United Luv, even before he got sick," Vicki says as she runs her hand over the silk screened shirts in front of her. "Ryan started to think, 'You know what I am going to do? I am going to get this t-shirt business running and we are going to give part of the money back to buy iPads.' He got so excited about that."
It wasn't long before the t-shirts were printed and Ryan was wearing one himself.
"He said, 'When I get better I am going to hand an iPad to a patient and I can't wait. I will say, I have been there where you are at. I know what it is like. I am going to give them that iPad and watch the smile on their face,'" Vicki says with a tear in her eye.
Sadly, that day never came. His body was riddled with cancer and his strength was wearing thin.
"At the very end of his life, he picked that big long arm up around me and he said 'I'm sorry mom.' He hugged Sheldon and he said, 'I am sorry Dad.' He just knew he couldn't fight anymore but he felt so sorry for us more than him. I will never forget that."
Ryan Eaton died on February 9, 2013 at the age of 26.
His funeral was packed with people remembering the young man who taught so many how to truly live. In the course of his treatment, he urged his mom, dad and two brothers, Dusty and Dallas, to take a spur of the moment trip to Vegas. He turned a trip to the Mayo Clinic into a Mall of America shopping spree. He proposed to the love of his life, Katie.
"He wanted to enjoy every day," Vicki says. "He did appreciate the small things in life. For what we went through, we did cherish every moment and quite frankly, he made us. He was the one that called the shots on that." Sheldon adds with a soft smile, "He just loved life that way."
After Ryan's death, letters and phone calls started to come to the family and in them, Vicki and Sheldon read things about their son that they had never known. One conversation came from a 23-year-old friend of Ryan's brother Dallas who had recently been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. "This young man came up to our house after the funeral and he was walking with a cane. He said, 'I want you guys to know something.' He said, 'I am fighting this disease with a different attitude because of Ryan. Do you know that he texted me, Facebook messaged me or talked to me every single day?' Every day, he would send me a message of encouragement."
All while Ryan was waging the fight of his own life.
Another man in his seventies visited Sheldon at work just to let him know that after Ryan's funeral, he came out of that service thinking that he needed to live a better life. Sheldon says, choking back the tears, "You don't realize how many people he's touched. Now we are able to continue that and we feel so blessed."
At Ryan's funeral, the family spelled out that all donations would be used to give life to Ryan's dream of United Luv. The donations that came in ended up giving the program of t-shirts for iPads a start.
"We started with Billings. We got nine iPads for each hospital and each foundation matched our donation. So they both ended up with 18 iPads," Vicki says.
The first donation to the Billings Clinic came three months to the day after Ryan's death. Vicki admits, "I did not want to walk through the doors of that hospital." As the family got off the elevator, "It was incredible. All of Ryan's nurses were there, wearing the United Luv t-shirts. We just lost it."
To date, United Luv is up to 110 iPads that have been gifted to hospitals far and wide.
"When we do a donation, I feel like he is there smiling and saying, "Good job guys!" Vicki says with a smile.
And while the program's goal was originally to target cancer centers, the hospitals shared other ways these portable pieces of technology could prove helpful, from letting a new mom share a new baby with a husband serving abroad via Skype to a child waiting for surgery. One of the department heads from a hospital in Bozeman shared how hard it is for younger kids awaiting surgery to be separated from their parents. "She told us that trying to get the children away from their mothers was like a two-man job." But with a game or two loaded on an iPad, "The kids would be playing a game and next thing you know, a nurse can take them from their parent, slip the mask over their nose and they have to stand there and wait for the iPad to fall," Sheldon says. He adds, "It got to the point where we said, 'We really don't care where they go.' We just want to help people."
As an oncology nurse, Christina Schye sees multiple patients come through the Billings Clinic each and every day. She will tell you, "Some come for treatment that lasts six hours, which is a long time to sit in an infusion chair with nothing to do. It may seem in this day and age that most everyone has some sort of electronic device with which to stay connected, but cancer knows no economic status. So, many are just scraping to get by month to month, paying for hospital bills and prescriptions, not to mention food, gas and bills." She says having an iPad for patients to use and pass the time has proven to be a spirit-lifting connection. "They can email or 'Facebook' friends and relatives. They can stay connected to work responsibilities. Or they can simply "Candy Crush" their way through a long treatment day, forgetting, if only for a little while, why they are here."
One of the cancer patients who needed to sit back and forget life's trials for a bit was a 22-year-old young man in the end stages of colon cancer. His cousin reached out to United Luv wondering if there was any way an iPad could be sent to his loved one's hospital room. He had already spent three months in that very room. "The very next day, our son Dallas was in town," Vicki says and the family made a phone call to the hospital trying to connect that young man with one of United Luv's iPads. Not long after, a Facebook message came through the United Luv page. "The cousin sent Dallas a message that said, 'I am really sorry for your loss with your brother. I just wanted you to know that you are making a difference. I am sitting in the hospital room with my cousin and two nurses just brought the iPad in to him and his face lit up.'" Vicki says with emotion."He died shortly after that." She continues, "He probably did get the chance to connect with people that he wouldn't have been able to."
"It just makes you want to keep going," Sheldon says. "We just want this to keep going across the country. That is what our hope is." The family has made gifts statewide and will soon make their way to Seattle and Denver. Sheldon knows the reason why this program has been so successful in such a short time. "People have been so generous."
In the fall of 2013, the program got another huge boost when Vicki and Sheldon's 17-year-old niece, Rachael Eaton, put on the first of its kind Glow Run at Pioneer Park. Vicki says she was told not to expect more than a couple hundred people to run the race. More than 800 eventually signed up. Vicki says her niece told her, "I want it to be a glow run because Ryan had such a glow about him." What is a glow run? It's a twilight run where participants are encouraged to wear day-glow colors to, in essence, light up the night for a good cause. The family is still tallying the proceeds but know that they will be able to make some sizable contributions thanks to the generosity of the runners.
As Vicki and Sheldon reflect on the past year, they know that the only way to honor their son is to look at his life and pay it forward.
"Life is a gift and Ryan was a gift to us," Sheldon says. "He was a special gift. Every day you would just open this beautiful present until one day you came and you opened the box and it was empty. It was like, 'Where did this gift go?' You would come down the next day and there was the hope that the gift would be there and it wasn't. One day you say, maybe we need to put something in the box, wrap it up and give it to somebody else and let them have that gift." Sheldon and Vicki know that when you pay it forward, you are blessed many times over. Sheldon says, "We are getting a gift back every day."
T-Shirts With A Purpose
How you can share in United Luv's mission
United Luv is a 501 (c ) 3 committed to making a difference. One hundred percent of all donations and 10% of all t-shirt sales will be used directly towards buying iPads for the medical community. You can make a donation online or purchase a t-shirt at www.unitedluv.com. T-shirts are also sold locally at St. Vincent Healthcare's Frontier Cancer Center in Billings.