Local families share stories of hope and happiness
This will be a memorable Christmas for 6-year-old Ethan Barnhart and his family. It’s the first holiday season in three years — half his young life — he’ll be free of childhood leukemia.
“That first Christmas was the hardest,” said Ethan’s mother, Ali Strahn. “He was going through the most intense chemotherapy, he lost his hair, he was young and not really understanding what was happening.”
Ethan’s treatment plan was to run over three years, Strahn said, and included the installation of a “port” – a device implanted in his skin to receive infusions of chemicals and medications. The risks included increased susceptibility to infection, and last year, Strahn said, that concern put Ethan in the hospital over Christmas.
“He was feeling OK but he had a fever, and anytime it hit more than 100.3 degrees, he had to go to (Nationwide Children’s Hospital in) Columbus, no matter what, to make sure there wasn’t an infection in the port,” she said. His younger sister, Penelope, who was less than a year old at the time, had to stay home with other family members.
Ethan started kindergarten at Putnam Elementary School in the fall, and two weeks after he started classes the port was removed. He’s in remission and celebrating the first Christmas in three years without it.
“He was actually upset when they took the port out,” Strahn said. “He had a sentimental attachment to it, and called the infusion machine Robo. They were best friends. This year, he asked me what cancer means. I had to explain the details, something I’d been dreading, what it means, telling him how hard he has been fighting. He’s always made the best of it.”
Ethan has inspired his family with his resilience throughout the battle, and Strahn said he’s taken that inspiration to their place of worship, Pathways Community Church.
“He’s shifted a lot of his happy spirits into the church, celebrating Jesus and his birthday,” she said. “He’s inspiring with his faith, and the church has been there for him.”
The church holds three services every Sunday, and assistant pastor Nate Gibbons said Ethan sometimes stays for all three.
“This is a huge win for his family, a huge win for God,” Gibbons said. “He loves to come to church.”
Strahn is now 25, and gave birth to Ethan when she was 19.
“I was young when I had him, and this has changed everything for me, how I look at life, what I appreciate,” she said Sunday. “Last night we made Christmas cookies. Sitting around the kitchen table, I felt like I’d won the lottery.”
A new child injects fresh meaning into Christmas, Alexis Conley said, and this year will be unique for her and her husband, Stephen Perry.
Atlas Stephen Perry was born Nov. 22, 7 pounds, 8 ounces. It’s the couple’s first child.
“We call him our Thanksgiving baby,” she said. “He’s wonderful, just a month old on Saturday. He’s already grown a lot, he’s gaining weight, he’s beautiful.”
As the new mother spoke from her home in Fleming on Monday morning, gurgling and sounds of delight could be heard in the background.
“Grandma’s changing him now,” Conley, 24, said. Christmas gifts included a continued flow of new clothing and diapers.
“He’s already grown out of the newborn size,” she said.
Conley said she works in health care and fortunately was promoted to an administrative position recently, which makes her schedule easier to dovetail with her new responsibilities and gets her away from Christmas duty at work. Her husband was working a half-day Monday and is off today, she said.
The grandparents, she said, live in Marietta and Wheeling, W.Va.
“They can’t get enough of him,” she said. “They’re ecstatic.”
“For the most part we’ve always spent Christmas with family, and we’re very blessed we get to spend time together,” she said. “This has really made it a more positive experience, something to love and cherish.”
A random survey
A few people shared their thoughts on Christmas Monday afternoon as they came and went from last-day shopping at the Frontier Shopping Center.
Kelsie Masters, 27, and Chris Watson, 31, of Marietta are marking a holiday unique in their experience.
“It’s our first Christmas together as a couple, and it’s our first Christmas in our new home,” Masters said. “We got the kids a lot this year to celebrate, probably more than we should have. We’re getting rain instead of snow, but hey, we’ll make mudmen instead of snowmen.”
Jamie McCombs, 42, and her father, John Meyers, said they’re thankful for the company of family but try not to forgot those who aren’t as fortunate.
“We’re grateful our family is all together,” Meyers said, adding that the two of them live only a few blocks apart in just north of downtown Marietta. “One way we celebrate the birth of Christ is to consider the homeless, those who don’t have what we do. We took some packages to the Latrobe Mission today.”
Theresa Harris, 61 and a resident of Marietta, said she’s glad to have another Christmas just like those that have come before.
“It’s going to be a beautiful Christmas, and I’m happy all my family is going to be here to celebrate with us. We do it that way every year,” she said.
The animal companions
Sharon Paul of Marietta spent some of her Christmas Eve day at the Humane Society of the Ohio Valley animal shelter, along with several other volunteers, doing cleaning work and visiting with the animals to allow shelter staff to go home early on Monday and begin Christmas celebrations.
Paul, who also oversees a feline rescue service, recalled a few of the animal stories from 2018 that moved her as Christmas Day neared.
“There was that sweet senior Australian cattle dog that was picked up in Little Hocking in March after she was hit by a car,” she said. “She was taken to the veterinarian, but she didn’t have broken bones or anything. A few hours with some warm blankets, a little extra comfort from Rennelle (McIntire) at the shelter, and she was OK.”
The dog was clearly old, apparently deaf and nearly blind with cataracts, she said. After a photo of the dog, whose name turned out to be Shiloh, was posted on the shelter’s Facebook page, someone recognized her and notified the owners, who called immediately to claim her.
“They said she was 26 years old and had somehow wandered a mile away from home, and by some miracle lived to tell about it,” Paul said. “It’s an amazing story of survival.”
The world record for canine longevity is held by Bluey, also an Australian cattle dog, who lived to be 29, according to the dogtime.com website.
Another local survivor was Jackson, an orange male tabby cat found abandoned and nearly dead with three litter-mates in May. His siblings died but Jackson lived, with the help of a foster volunteer, but lost his right eye.
“He always looked like he was winking,” Paul said. Jackson was adopted at the beginning of September, possibly making Christmas more cheerful for a local family.
“He finally found a nice home,” Paul said.
And then there is the cat given the impromptu name Downspout.
A Marietta resident walking the family dog in East Muskingum park encountered a kitten with its head stuck in the end of a large piece of plastic pipe. A humane society volunteer responded to the report and took the kitten, its head still stuck in the two-foot piece of pipe, to the shelter, where the pipe was carefully removed. Downspout was spayed and released back into its neighborhood.
“She’s enjoying being home and free, along with being fed by the generous residents of the area,” Paul said.