Constable: Shirtless children's hospital 'mayor' brings strength and smiles for everyone
Comfortable in his skin, 11-year-old Michael Carr of Bloomingdale sometimes peels off his shirt when he makes his rounds.
"I'm known for it there," Michael says of the shirtless look he's perfected during his more than four years as a cancer patient at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. "I'm the mayor of the 18th floor. I like to play with kids, make them laugh and help them, even if they have tubes and everything."
Michael helps raise the spirits of adults, too.
"Michael Carr is an exceptional young man. I like to call him the mayor of Lurie Children's," says Dr. Stewart Goldman, the division head of hematology, oncology, neuro-oncology and stem cell transplantation at the hospital, who says he finds "absolute joy" in treating patients such as Michael who still want to be kids. "He'll come up and rub my belly and ask if I have twins in there, which I love. He's an inspiration. You can't help but be happy when you spend time with Michael Carr."
With his shirt off, Michael can show off the faint scar near the center of his chest where doctors inserted a port for his chemotherapy. Three years ago this month, Michael got to make the triumphant walk in front of family, friends and his medical team to ring the End of Chemo bell and celebrate. That summer his family hosted a Done With Chemo party in the family's backyard with bounce houses and waterslides.
Michael's cancer returned in October 2017, and Michael has been enduring a new trial of oral chemotherapy ever since.
His parents, Gia and Michael, recall how Michael got sick as a first-grader at Erickson Elementary School in Bloomingdale.
"I threw up every morning," the boy says. "Then there was the day they picked me up at school and took me to the hospital and I got an IV."
On Oct. 20, 2015, Michael was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor that starts at the base of the skull and affects between 250 and 500 kids a year. Three days later, two days before his 7th birthday, he had his first brain surgery at Lurie Children's Hospital to remove the tumor. Then came 30 days of radiation at the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center in Warrenville.
"That's where I got the stickers," Michael says proudly, rushing off to his Chicago Blackhawks-themed bedroom to grab the laminated sheet of stickers awarded him after treatments. "I enjoyed that. They always kept me asleep for it."
While Michael, and his parents, acknowledge the stages of fighting cancer are not pleasant, Michael has found a way to make the best of it.
"At first, getting my port in hurted. Next thing you know, I got used to it," Michael says. "I really enjoy the hospital, the doctors and nurses. I have ice cream, Coke and Goldfish, and sometimes Oreos."
He loves being the big brother to Frankie, 9, and 7-year-old Joey.
His smile knows no boundaries.
"He does make it easy," his mom says.
"He handles everything just like this," says his dad, who owns GMC Realty.
All the pokes, probes and potions don't seem to bother him.
"Sometimes," Michael says, lowering his voice as if he's telling a secret, "just to be dramatic, I fake it."
He even finds a silver lining in that first chemo session that made all his brown hair fall out.
"I didn't even have to get haircuts," Michael gushes.
The cancer returned in the form of a tumor on the left side of his head, requiring a second surgery where part of the tumor was too difficult to remove from his brain. He had a third surgery after he had a seizure, stared off into space and starting drooling while at a local restaurant with his dad.
"That was kind of weird," Michael says of the seizure. "I felt like I needed to throw up and then I couldn't remember anything. I just woke up in the hospital."
With a slight eye roll, Michael nods in his dad's direction. "To him, it was scary," Michael concedes.
"I was talking to you and you just started drifting away," his dad recalls.
"It was terrifying," his mom says.
While the cancer's return was devastating news, the fifth-grader now is part of a new and novel trial where he takes a combination of oral chemo drugs to keep his cancer from getting worse.
"Given all that's happened to him, he's doing remarkably well," says Goldman, who notes that Lurie Children's is one of 11 top hospitals nationwide that make up the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, which is dedicated to curing illnesses in children such as Michael.
Things are stable now, Gia says, noting that her son gets scanned every two months to check on the tumor's progress.
"There are still options out there," she said.
In the meantime, Michael and his family are doing all they can to support other kids and families. On Sunday, Jan. 26, Michael will participate in Aon's Step Up for Kids -- climbing 1,643 steps to raise money to support Family Services at Lurie Children's. This will be the fourth year the Carr family has participated with their "Miracles for Michael" team, which will probably consist of more than 50 family members and friends wearing matching T-shirts.
"Mine says, 'Miracles 4 Me,'" notes Michael, who also designed the logo featuring him as Superman crushing cancer. To find out more about the fundraiser or to donate to Michael's team, visit foundation.luriechildrens.org and search for "Miracles for Michael."
The steps will be difficult, but Michael has experience with difficult journeys.
"How about when I'm done with all this, you put that in the paper?" says Michael, who knows the thrill of ringing that End of Chemo bell. "That was nice, and I'm going to be able to do it again."