For 11-year-old Alex Shepherd, the past few weeks have been a dream come true..
The Ashland Middle School student, who suffers from an aggressive brain cancer, spent several days paragliding and surfing in Hawaii, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He also got to jet down to Burbank, Calif., to see the "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
But it gets better.
His family hoped Alex might be able to meet the famed comedian from the audience. But Alex and his mom and dad, Aushna and Dan Shepherd, were invited on stage to tell their story.
DeGeneres gave a delighted Alex, owner of five cats, a DVD called "Best Moments of Cat Week" from her show. "Alex is a huge cat fanatic," Aushna says in an interview from Maui. "He started really loving the "Ellen" show when she started doing cat week, and that's why he wanted to meet her so much."
And even better.
DeGeneres also surprised the Shepherds with a red, 2014 Mazda 3 for their drives to Alex's treatment in Portland and $10,000 to help with the bills.
"You're an amazing, brave young man," DeGeneres told Alex. She showed a video of Alex snow skiing just months after 33 radiation treatments, chemotherapy and four brain surgeries, which included the removal of a "banana-sized tumor," Aushna Shepherd says.
When DeGeneres asked how he got through it all and back at soccer and his other sports, Alex replied, "From all the encouragement that I would get through it from everyone else."
"And in here," his mom said, pointing to her son's heart.
When the doctors told him to stop playing sports, what did he tell them? DeGeneres wanted to know.
"Anything is possible that you put your mind to," Alex said, and the audience erupted in applause.
Alex was a normal kid until one day last April when he suffered a grand mal seizure, said his father, a critical care nurse at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center.
"Till then, he was a totally fine, smart, good-looking athletic boy, whose dream was to become a surgeon," says Aushna. "Then one day, the seizure. Then the diagnosis, the worst thing you could ever hear about your own child."
On the show, Dan said, "It was a major turning point in all our lives — beyond belief."
Alex's diagnosis, grade 3 Anaplastic Astrocytoma, is "very grim," says Aushna. "The prognosis is two to five years, with average lifespan being two years after diagnosis. We believe he will beat this because he is doing so well.
"Some kids can't feed themselves or even walk after one surgery, but he is surfing, bike racing and skiing after four. In fact, two days after his last brain surgery, he walked with his class for fifth-grade graduation at Walker Elementary. They were very deep surgeries, too, down to the brainstem."
The surgeries were performed in Portland, requiring the family to live there much of last summer. He now augments that treatment with chemotherapy at RRMC, where Aushna works as a nurse in labor and delivery.
Talking from Maui, Alex says, "I loved the paragliding, the freedom of it. I flew for 15 minutes. The surfing is great, much warmer than Oregon ... and Ellen was so much fun."
Aushna, who sent the DeGeneres show producers an email about Alex that led to his appearance on the show, says the adventures of the past two weeks "were fun, but really, it's bittersweet. How I would give it all up not to have that diagnosis."
The family was packing for Hawaii when DeGeneres' producers called and told them to get on a plane next morning, so it's been "crazy good stress for once," says Aushna. They extended their four-day Hawaii trip by a week, thanks to a friend donating a time share there. They were to arrive home Wednesday.
Donations for treatment may be made to the Alex Shepherd Medical Fund at any Wells Fargo Bank. His progress may be tracked at www.team-alex.com.
— John Darling
Note: This story has been corrected to separate Alex's trip to Hawaii, which was granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and his appearance on the DeGeneres show, which started with an email by Aushna Shepherd to the show's producers.