Friday, December 01, 2023

WHS senior Daniel Stevenson defies odds through one of life’s biggest hurdles

Whitefish Pilot | May 31, 2023 1:00 AM

In the fifth grade, Daniel Stevenson and his family received devastating news with the potential to alter his entire life.

He was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a small lemon and had to start treatment in Salt Lake City right away. His mother, Laura Stevenson, says that with the treatment came so many unknowns when thinking of his future.

Through it all, the community and the Whitefish School District supported Daniel as he worked hard to regain his memory and academic abilities following radiation treatment.

“We have loved the school district, and the teachers and administration have been amazing,” Laura said. “Daniel missed most of fifth grade. He had to re-enter it slowly and just the way that the faculty and administration helped him catch up with his peers and gave him so much support was incredible. We will always be so grateful.”

On Saturday, June 3, the Whitefish High School senior will walk across the stage and graduate with the Class of 2023.

Daniel nowadays is a happy, healthy teenager who enjoys the outdoors, skiing and snorkeling. Two summers ago he even snorkeled in over 20 lakes and streams — he finds it fascinating and it's one of his favorite hobbies. He also loves hands-on projects and technology, such as he recently took a class where they made stop motion picture videos, he enjoyed woodworking in school and loves to create projects on his 3D printer.

Daniel is also involved in the National Honor Society and fondly remembers serving the community through various volunteer projects. For the past three years, he’s held a part-time job at Nelson’s Ace Hardware — people there call him “The Mayor.”

“It’s because I know everybody it seems like,” Daniel said with a laugh. “I work a three-hour shift after school two days a week at Ace Hardware and I probably see like 10 people I know each day.”

This likely stems from Daniel growing up in Whitefish. The Stevensons moved here when their oldest daughter was in second grade. Daniel says he has great parents and an older sister and brother, each of them are six years apart, and he enjoys spending time with his close-knit family.

IT WASN’T only his family that was there for Daniel when he was diagnosed with cancer at age 11, but the entire local community.

He says he remembers struggling for a few years and visiting several doctors before they found the tumor on his pituitary gland. The symptom that helped diagnose it was when Daniel’s vision started going blurry.

“The eye doctor said everything looked fine with my eyes, but I couldn’t see the biggest letter on the chart,” Daniel recalled.

Laura distinctly remembers calling the hospital one Saturday morning to see if they could get the results from a recent MRI, and within minutes a doctor was giving them the difficult news on Daniel’s condition.

“We did (go to the ER) and we were on a plane, like it was so fast,” Laura said.

Daniel had to withdraw from school and spent three months in Salt Lake City, Utah for treatment. At first, doctors believed he would need surgery, then they thought chemotherapy would be the best course of action. But, if they waited to do chemo, Daniel could have lost his eyesight entirely. Emergency radiation was eventually what his doctors landed on and after just two weeks the tumor had started shrinking, by four weeks it was completely gone.

The type of tumor he had was a malignant germinoma and radiation works to melt it away. When the pressure was off his optic nerve, his vision also came back.

Laura can still recall a time leaving the Huntsman Cancer Institute after radiation and Daniel’s hair started falling out. It was also Valentine’s Day and the kids in that neighborhood were walking home from school with their Valentine boxes. It hit her, just how much her son was missing out on.

But as she pulled up to where they were staying in SLC, on the doorstep was a massive box of valentines for Daniel from every kid in his grade.

“So we sat there at the table and we opened and read every single one. And it was like so much joy…” Laura said. “They never forgot about him while we were away.”

JUMPING STRAIGHT to radiation, there were some concerns. It made his pituitary glad nonfunctional and doctors also said it would affect his schooling. The big unknown was just how much of his memory and IQ would be affected.

Daniel recalls returning to school in the sixth grade as extremely hard, and assignments would take him a lot longer than most other kids. But midway through that year, things started getting easier and by eighth grade, he was caught up.

“He was just so persistent and diligent and didn’t give up,” Laura said. “It was so amazing to see that progress.”

Some memories from that time are blurry, but Daniel says the amount of people who showed up at the airport when they returned home and the support he received from his teachers is really what stands out.

Now he feels like his learning ability is back to normal, but some subjects are harder than others, and at times it’s hard for him to focus.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get going on certain things, and sometimes when I do get into something I can spend two or three hours straight working on it,” he said.

School is still mentally taxing on him, but he does well in his classes and keeps up with assignments. He plans to attend BYU Idaho for college in the fall and hopes to study information technology.

Though cancer is unfair, Daniel says his perspective on life has changed and he has gained more compassion and empathy for others.

“I feel like I value my time a lot more now…” he said. “Like ever since I’ve gotten cancer, I kind of sit back and look at the big picture instead of all these little details... it’s like nothing needs to be perfect.”

And as a parent, seeing all Daniel has been through, Laura and the rest of the family can’t wait to see Daniel graduate this week.

“Honestly we really didn’t know what it was going to look like. What would this school experience be? Would he be able to keep up? Would he graduate? We just didn’t know,” she said. “So to be at his point and have him graduating… we’re thrilled and we’re very proud of him for overcoming so much.”

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