Emma Dray and her family have been through a journey this past year that many parents hope to never experience.
Last summer, Emma was 11 and preparing to start at Tahlequah Middle School after having finished fifth-grade at Heritage Elementary School. But on July 14, 2018, when Emma suffered from headaches and began vomiting, she was taken to the hospital.
"We knew something was wrong, but we didn't know what," said Megan Norman, Emma's mom.
Six hours later, the nausea and headaches continued. Emma went to the emergency room, and a doctor ordered a CT scan. The results of that scan caused the upheaval of the family's lives.
"The doctor said, 'We can see a mass. You will be flying to OU Children's within the next few minutes.' The tumor was huge. It was Stage 4," said Norman.
Emma was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a cancerous tumor that starts in the region of the brain at the base of the skull, according to stjude.org. The subgroup of the tumor was WNT, which is the least common. The tumor was removed on July 19, and because it is so rare, it was donated to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.
"Luckily, it was not in any brain tissue. It was resting on her brain stem, so she suffered a brain stem injury from the surgery," said Norman. "Her hearing is gone in her left ear. The brainstem and auditory nerves do not communicate."
Norman decided not to say no to anything and allowed Emma to be in research studies and clinical trials. In one trial, Emma received 25 percent less radiation and chemotherapy.
"Because of her age, she was in a bracket they hadn't studied before. They were only testing lower doses, not new medications," said Norman. "They follow her progress, the environment in our area - they get shut down on that a lot."
While Emma was going through treatments at The Children's Hospital at OU, the family stayed at OK Kids Korral, founded by the Toby Keith Foundation, for 127 nights. The free facility offers 12 private suites, daytime rooms, a kitchen, laundry room, dining areas, a movie theater, a game room, indoor and outdoor play areas, and more. It also features a neutropenic wing for children with weakened immune systems.
"It has been a godsend. It's safe, and they don't have to stay in the hospital. It feels like home," said Norman. "At Kid Korral, there's always somebody to talk to and bounce things off of and understand what you're going through. They focus on getting families through."
Norman credits OKK and the people there with keeping Emma's spirits up.
"They gave my kid back to me when she really got down. When we're there, she's answering phones, doing projects, and she even gives tours," said Norman. "They've helped us more than I can say."
Through her enjoyment of crafts and a stand-out personality, Emma was selected to do a painting that was auctioned for over $700 at a recent Toby Keith Foundation event. A video featuring Emma was shown, and she and her mother went on stage to talk about OKK.
"I'm so proud of her. They had a professional artist come in and help her, and they framed it. She made it bright and cheery," said Norman. "She got up and talked in front of 800 people and celebrities. They raised $1.3 million that night."
She said other nonprofits and organizations have also helped the family, include the local Sweetwater Foundation, which gave Norman gift cards and is currently helping four Cherokee County families impacted by pediatric cancer.
"All of that stuff is so helpful and I'm so thankful. It gets you through and keeps the family together," she said. "Cancer is expensive, and you get there and you can't work."
While Emma is set to have eye surgery next week, she has rung both bells to signal the end of her radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Norman said that although she doesn't know what "normal" is anymore, they will get back to their lives, including Emma's starting the sixth grade. She will be taking a break in September to go on a Make a Wish trip.
Her mom hopes to get her into consistent counseling and various types of therapy, especially to help Emma regain dexterity on her left side.
"She used to tell me that she wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but now she wants to run Kid Korral. She wants to help families and kids going through the same thing she went through," said Norman.
Norman said she has learned a lot about different grants and foundations and she tries to help others.
She encourages community members to do the same - simple things such as checking in on families, saying kind words, or donating money or items such as household supplies, gift cards, or money.
"Be aware that there are a lot of people in Cherokee County affected by cancer, and unfortunately, there will be a lot more. Be vigilant about who you vote for and what they stand for. Look for people who want better things for our kids and not their own pocketbooks," said Norman. "Be human and love one another."