Friends rally around teenager with mysterious illness

By Mike Bush

AFFTON, Mo. (KSDK) - In this class at Rogers Middle School, Mr. Crites is unlocking the door to the mysteries of seventh grade math.

"Solving equations is what we're working on," said teacher Ray Crites. "Solving multi-step equations."

But as one of his students knows all too well, even when you see the problem you can't always find the solution.

Thirteen-year-old Mitchell Herndon was a healthy, active kid.

"Very fast, very competitive, very athletic," noted Matt Herndon, Mitchell's dad.

Until about a year and a half ago when he started to lose his motor skills. When trying to walk, he'd fall or run into things. He couldn't even hold a pencil. His neurologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital suspected the worst.

"At that point she was thinking brain tumor. It was all the signs of a specific kind of brain tumor," explained Michele Herndon, Mitchell's mother.

To everyone's relief, that wasn't it. To their consternation however, doctors still didn't know what it was.

"They even looked at the MRI and they weren't sure and I'm like, what do you mean you're not sure," Michele said.

What they did know is that Mitchell had developed a lesion on his spine.

Dr. Soe Mar, a pediatric neurologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital said she'd never seen anything like this before.

"No, not like that," she said.

What followed was physical therapy, long stays in the hospital and literally hundreds of tests.

"MRIs, CAT scans, ultrasounds, tons of lab tests, spinal fluids, blood tests, urine tests," sighed Michele.

Every time doctors would try a new treatment, Mitchell would get better for a short time and then worse. Much worse.

"The toughest part was when I was in a wheelchair," said Mitchell. "I didn't know if I'd ever get back to where I was."

Mitchell's refuge has been his sense of humor and positive attitude. To keep his teachers and classmates up to date on his progress, he posted a video during one of his extended stays at Children's Hospital.

"He's a very well liked young man and so the kids were very happy to see him," said Mr. Crites.

These days, Mitchell and his family have seized hope with an unyielding grip. He is out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair, and out on the basketball court again. He's even resumed his piano lessons. All thanks to the latest round of treatment that includes two immune suppressant drugs.

"So it suppresses whatever it is in his immune system that's trying to attack his own body," explained Michele.

"I feel pretty good now," said Mitchell. Like pretty close to where I was."

His classmates at Rogers Middle School were so happy to have him back in school that they decided that
all proceeds for this year's Affton 5K charity run, which includes participants from the five schools in the Affton School District, would go to Mitchell's family and the Neurorehabilitation Unit at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

"He probably has had to pay a lot of hospital fees and stuff," explained classmate Xander Ertmann.

"A lot of us know him so it makes it more special," added classmate Kelsey Moore.

Uncertainty is now the Herndon family's constant companion. There's still no diagnosis and no one's sure how long Mitchell will continue to respond to the treatment but his doctor says she will never stop trying to unravel the mystery.

"I have to take care of him," said Dr. Mar. "It's like my child. I have to make sure that he gets better and I will do whatever I need to do to make him better."

Perhaps the equation for a happy ending is resilience multiplied by determination and hope.

"He's doing great and we're grateful for that," said Matt Herndon.


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