Test of faith
Marietta teenager diagnosed with a brain tumor
“I think it was just realizing if this is what’s required of me, I’ll do it,” explained Austin Rehl, of Marietta.
He has watched his son Dallin’s trial unfold and calls it a real test of faith, starting first with headaches and numbness last fall but then the diagnosis on Jan. 23 of a tumor the size of a baseball in Dallin’s brain.
He likened it to the test of Abraham, commanded to sacrifice his son.
“I had already made up my mind that I was not going to be angry with God if Dallin needed to die for whatever greater eternal purposes Heavenly Father might have,” Austin said, as moisture appeared in his eyes Friday. “I had already made up my mind that I would not feel a bitterness towards Heavenly Father for that.”
Austin was facing the prospect on Feb. 1 that his son would not wake up from brain surgery.
But Friday, a week to the date of Dallin’s surgery, Dallin, 18, was playing his own composition, “Odyssey,” on a baby grand piano at Veritas Classical Academy, where he attends school.
“I started having periods of numbness on the left side of my body,” recalled Dallin. “That was a little strange, just like you’d been sleeping on it or something. I didn’t really think anything of it.”
He said it would happen periodically, once every couple of weeks.
“But then they started getting more frequent and with those episodes, I started getting headaches on the right side of my head,” Dallin continued. “That was a bit of a tip-off, but still I just thought it was migraines.”
But then last month a family friend who is a surgeon heard about Dallin’s symptoms and suggested that just for reassurance the family take Dallin to get an MRI of his brain.
“By then, for a whole day, my face would sag and I couldn’t do very much with my left arm or leg,” Dallin described. “We were able to get the scan done in Belpre– I just went thinking I’d go in and out like a dental appointment.”
The images were sent to the friend, but life carried on as usual.
“Dallin had an activity to lead that evening and we went,” explained Austin.
But on Jan. 23, the father got a call which stopped him short.
“He asked if I was at home or at work,” recalled Austin. “I immediately wondered why that mattered.”
When Dallin returned home from school, he was called into his parents’ bedroom.
“My dad sat me down, and he said they found a mass,” explained Dallin. “At first I wondered if he was joking.”
And maybe that initial unease, the question of whether to joke, has helped Dallin cope and recover.
“It’s never really been real to me, and was a little scary with that vagueness at first,” he continued.
The danger started to set in a few days later after a trip to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
“After we met with the doctor there, we stayed at my uncle’s in Columbus that night, and I had the most painful episode to date that night,” Dallin recalled.
“He said ‘Dad, don’t let me get a hold of anything sharp,” added Austin.
Dallin explained that the location of the tumor was applying pressure to the parts of the brain associated with motor control and judgment.
“The pain was so excruciating I wanted to take it out myself, “described Dallin of that night. “It was hard to differentiate between a good idea and a bad idea.”
Austin said the pair slept near each other on his brother’s couch that night, the father’s hand clasped around his son’s wrist.
And quickly appointments were made to remove the mass before irreparable damage was done.
Preparing for surgery
“Dallin was on every prayer roll of every church in the Mid-Ohio Valley, I believe,” said Austin, noting his gratitude in the support of friends, family and colleagues who reached out in support as they read Austin’s social media updates on Dallin.
Dallin spent his time before surgery on Keppra, an anti-seizure medication, feeling tired and slow but not angry at his circumstance, just worried what may change.
“After we saw the scans and that week when I was taking the Keppra, I would play piano as well as I could even though the left hand was kind of shut down,” he explained. “I told myself, I was just going to do this because this could be the last time I can.”
He said he never worried or thought he might die.
“I didn’t want to change my personality and what I was able to do with something I couldn’t make a choice about,” he explained. “I really value knowing the kind of person someone chooses to become over their life and seeing they’re a result of their choices. But I didn’t choose this.”
Under the knife
At the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center on Feb. 1, Dallin and his parents were prepared with a plan.
“The surgery was supposed to take three to four hours,” explained Austin. “But the staff there was so kind, they give us updates every two hours.”
Preparation took a little longer than the first hour planned. Dallin joked it was because he asked them to shave his whole head.
“I didn’t want that half done,” he smiled.
But after the four hours where both Austin and his wife Wendy busied themselves with work in the waiting room, the unease began to grow.
“I just kept thinking ‘don’t tell yourself a story’ you know we always tend in the absence of information to tell yourself a story,” explained Austin. “I had confidence that he would do well, but it’s the not knowing.”
They were planning on one hour of preparation, two hours of surgery and one hour of recovery.
“They told us in two hours that he was doing well… then two hours go by, and they say Dallin’s doing well, but it’s taking a little longer,” Austin recalled. “Then two hours went by, then two hours and 38 minutes went by, and I’m wondering what’s going on.”
Platitudes didn’t comfort the parents at that point.
“When they finally did say the surgeon wants to meet with us in the little quiet room they said it wasn’t because anything had gone wrong just that’s where they always have these conversations,” he explained. “Once the surgeon sat down with us he said this was not a surgical cure and again I wondered what did that mean.”
The surgeon explained that he was able to remove 95 percent of Dallin’s tumor, but was worried about the proximity to major blood vessels and that any more removal would put Dallin at risk of a stroke.
Despite 5 percent of the tumor left in the tendrils of his brain, Dallin left the hospital 40 hours later on his own two feet.
“We know what kind it was and that it was benign,” he said. “We know contact sports are out and there will be less rough-housing in the Rehl house for me.”
And Dallin’s plans for a church mission and higher education are back on track.
“I think maybe now I have more empathy and think more thoroughly than I did before, but mostly I’m humbled by the amount of support my family has been showed through this,” he said. “I don’t know if I can still really believe what happened to me but I have faith that I was prepared and I feel blessed with my circumstances.”
Austin said it confirmed his faith, too.
“I believe that God puts his angels in the people near to you,” he said. “I wouldn’t have paid much more attention to the headaches without the guidance of our friend, and we wouldn’t have taken care of this so quickly without people listening to that benevolent guidance.”
• Headaches and numbness began last fall.
• Then there were brief episodes with a loss in motor function and facial drooping.
• This was followed by severe pressure inside his head.
Common symptoms of a brain tumor:
• Difficulty thinking and/or speaking.
• Changes in personality.
• Tingling on one side of the body.
• Stiffness on one side of the body.
• Loss of balance.
• Change in vision.
• Memory loss.
• Fatigue and muscle weakness.
Source: National Brain Tumor Society and the Rehl family.