Pullen for Marshall: Sikeston 3-year-old has a rare brain tumor

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Three-year-old Marshall Pullen is cuddlier than he's ever been, and his mother Stephanie Pullen takes every chance she can get to snuggle with him. But she'd give anything for Marshall to be the way he was before July 4, when he'd rather ride his bike and play with tractors than sit in mommy's lap.

Marshall is being treated at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis for an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT). It's an extremely aggressive, malignant and rare tumor, with only about 30 cases diagnosed each year.

"His personality has changed, not necessarily in a bad way," said Stephanie. "He's such a happy kid overall, even when he does feel bad. He had gotten really sick after his first dose of chemo, and as soon as he was done with the sick feeling he started singing 'Jesus Loves Me.' He tries to cheer us up when we should be the ones cheering him up. He's a little different now, but he's so sweet."

On July 4, Marshall got sick at a family barbecue. His parents, Stephanie and Derrick Pullen of Sikeston, Mo., figured he had gotten in the pool too soon after eating. That day, the sickness wasn't a big deal. But Marshall was sick for the rest of the weekend, landing in the hospital by Monday to be treated for dehydration. He had a headache, continued to vomit, became incontinent and had a seizure. Not knowing what else to do, the doctors sent Marshall to Cardinal Glennon in an ambulance -- but he had trouble breathing along the way, and a helicopter had to transport him the rest of the way from Ste. Genevieve, Mo. Within 10 minutes of the Pullens' arrival at Cardinal Glennon, Marshall had a CT scan that revealed a mass on his brain, later discovered to be an AT/RT.

Marshall has a long road ahead of him, said Stephanie, including aggressive chemotherapy, radiation and possibly a stem cell transplant. So far, he hasn't tolerated the chemotherapy very well.

"I think he's doing better now that we've got his medications lined up for pain and nausea," Stephanie said.

But for this family, prayer may be the most powerful medication anyone can give.

"I think prayer is what has gotten us this far," said Stephanie. "Marshall shouldn't have made it that night from Southeast to Cardinal Glennon. The surgeon said it was a miracle he was still here with us."

The Pullens have thousands of friends, family members and strangers praying for Marshall through a prayer chain called "Pullen for Marshall." In addition to a Caring Bridge webpage and www.pullenformarshall.com, Stephanie and Derrick keep supporters updated on their Pullen for Marshall Facebook page.

"It's a good way for everybody to keep up. They post that they're praying for him, and all we ask for is their prayers," said Stephanie. "He's got a very aggressive tumor that spreads very rapidly. It's not a good tumor to have. We're just hoping that the chemo and all the treatments he's had thus far are going to keep it away so it doesn't return."

The Pullens pray and sing worship songs together continually, including before all of Marshall's procedures. And though it's early in Marshall's journey, Stephanie says she and Derrick see the power of prayer and God's work in their lives every day.

People have been "incredible," Stephanie said, sending prayers as well as meals for the family, toys for Marshall and suggestions to make living temporarily in St. Louis a little easier. Stephanie is staying in the Ronald McDonald House "pretty much until they say we can go home," she said. Meanwhile, Derrick is living and working in Sikeston, caring for their daughter and making it up to see Marshall and Stephanie on weekends. Many families at the Ronald McDonald House don't have a support system, Stephanie said. On top of all the medical bills, many parents travel great distances and have to choose between seeing their sick child and their children and spouses back home.

"I never knew what parents and families of kids with cancer go through until now. They are amazing people," Stephanie said.

And despite all those challenges, she can't imagine turning to anything but God and prayer.

"There's nowhere else really to turn to," she said. "Why would you choose to be bitter and blame God? I don't blame God -- I don't think that's why we're in this position. I do think that God chooses parents who can deal with situations this way. I don't think it's something everyone can do. I don't see how anyone gets through something like this without faith and hope. I do have hope that Marshall will be healed; he's already been healed in so many ways."

Stephanie says she is still "overwhelmed" and touched by how many people know her little boy's name and are praying for him.

"God has had a hand in this from the beginning," she said. "My husband has said several times, God could have taken Marshall from us. He could have said he was going to go ahead and bring him home, but he trusted us to take care of him. I feel like God has a big plan for Marshall's life if he trusted us to take care of him and go through this."

rgautschy@semissourian.com

388-3633

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