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Moments: 7-year-old cancer survivor crosses the monkey bars for the first time

Connor Dykes is the youngest person to have ever received an autologous bone marrow transplant at University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital

July 23, 2014|8:00am

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For two years, brain cancer survivor Connor Dykes, weakened by lingering health complications, struggled to cross the monkey bars at his elementary school. But Connor hit a milestone in his recovery this summer, when he made it across for the first time.

For two years, Connor Dykes lined up with his classmates to wait for his turn on the monkey bars during his elementary school recess.

For two years, he pulled himself up with his left arm and reached out with his right hand, searching for a strong grip to take him across the bars.

And for two years, Connor always fell.

Mindy Dykes didn’t know about her son’s playground habit until his teachers—moved by Connor’s dedication to the monkey bars—told Mindy and her husband this spring. The news evoked both pride and pain in Connor’s parents, but they weren’t surprised.

After all, 7-year-old Connor had survived a fist-sized brain tumor as an infant, a risky bone marrow transplant, a stroke and several seizures over the course of his young life. His health battles left him with partial blindness in his right eye, some hearing loss and developmental disabilities, balance issues and muscle weakness on his right side.

“He had all the cards really stacked against him,” Mindy said. “He’d fall every three steps just running across the yard.”

Connor Dykes, 7, has survived a fist-sized brain tumor as an infant, a risky bone marrow transplant, a stroke and several seizures over the course of his young life. 

Connor’s health issues began when he was six weeks old. At 3:30 a.m. one morning, following a bout of vomiting and crying, Connor’s face swelled up. Within minutes, he had trouble breathing and was ghostly white, Mindy said.

Connor and his parents went to their local hospital, but were quickly transferred to a children’s hospital in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. There, Connor underwent a CT scan. After the scan, the doctor returned with the hospital chaplain.

The scan found a tumor the size of an adult fist in Connor’s tiny head. The mass occupied the entire left hemisphere of Connor’s skull. He would need emergency brain surgery. Connor’s care team did not expect him to survive the procedure, and he was baptized by the hospital chaplain just before the operation that morning.

But Connor lived.

Four days after the brain surgery, Mindy and her husband David were hit with more bad news: Connor’s biopsy results showed that he had stage IV congenital glioblastoma multiforme—a rare cancer that started developing while Connor was in the womb. For the Dykes, who had already suffered through one stillborn birth, the diagnosis was a hammer blow.

Just days after one major operation, doctors told Mindy and David that Connor would need months of intense chemotherapy, followed by a bone marrow transplant.

Mindy and David elected to have the procedure done at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital. Under the care of Pediatric Neuro-Oncologist Christopher Moertel, MD, Connor started four months of chemotherapy in February 2007. He underwent the transplant in July of the same year, becoming the youngest person to ever receive an autologous bone marrow transplant at University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital.

“When it comes down to bone marrow transplants, why would you go anywhere else?” Mindy asked.

In the seven years since Connor’s transplant, he has struggled with seizures—including one that weakened his right arm. As a result of the tumor, he is without the left hemisphere of his brain.

Connor receives ongoing care through the Cancer Survivor Program to monitor for late effects of the treatment he received as a baby.

But in other ways, he is thriving. He went up two reading levels last year, Mindy said. Like any 7-year-old boy, he loves crawling, climbing and crashing around, and playing with his sister, 9-year-old Joselyn.

And he is especially fond of the monkey bars.

After Connor’s first successful trip across the monkey bars, his 9-year-old sister Joselyn drew this portrait of the attempt. 

After speaking with Connor’s teachers earlier this year and learning about his two-year-long attempt to cross the monkey bars at school, Mindy and David worked with him to build his strength.

One night earlier this summer, Mindy, David and Connor attended a gathering at a friend’s house. Connor, using a play set at the get-together, made it all the way across the bars for the first time.

His parents were stunned.

“He was so excited that he could do it that he didn’t even waste time celebrating, he just went back to do it again,” Mindy said. “I was just so elated. It was such a beautiful moment, and I can’t wait for the next one.”

On a hot and humid Friday morning two weeks ago, Connor hangs in midair, right hand outstretched as he reaches for his next grip on the monkey bars at his elementary school playground. His momentum carries him forward, but he misses the next bar on his first pass.

Undeterred, he hangs on for a second attempt.

At last, his right-hand fingers wrap around the final bar on the play set. The 7-year-old swings forward and across, then climbs down from the playground equipment.

He pauses to give his mom an enthusiastic high-five—and then sprints back to the beginning, ready for another trip across. 

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