Not so long ago Isaac King was undergoing grueling treatments for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a common childhood cancer that attacks the blood and bone marrow.
It would be an understatement to say Isaac has come a long way from those days in the hospital.
With the disease now in remission, the now 9-year-old took a leap last month into icy Lake Minocqua as part of the Chill Out polar plunge benefitting the Children’s Miracle Network.
Isaac, who was sponsored by Ace Hardware in Woodruff, raised $1,000 for the cause. In total, the event raised over $21,000.
“It was cold, but it was fun,” Isaac said of his Dec. 28 dip in Lake Minocqua.
Isaac was diagnosed with ALL in July 2015 at the age of 5.
“The reason I took him into the doctor originally was he became really pale and lethargic,” his mother, Shonda King, recounted. “He had a cold that he just didn’t get better from. He got more and more pale and was very tired, and that’s what we originally went in for.”
It didn’t take long for the doctors to deliver the difficult news.
“They found that he was extremely anemic and sent us right down to Marshfield Children’s Hospital,” Shonda King said. “He was diagnosed the next day.”
“Like anything like that, it’s a huge shock,” she added. “I think as parents, you just go into survival mode during that initial treatment because there’s nothing else you can do. It just has to be done, you have to make all those appointments, you have to do what needs to be done that’s best for your child.”
The trip to Marshfield was just the beginning of a very long journey for Isaac and his family.
“The treatment for that type of leukemia is really intense chemotherapy,” Shonda King explained. “The first nine months of his treatment we were at the clinic or hospital two, sometimes three times per week. So he spent a lot of time in the hospital those first nine months, then after that it was a little easier.”
Now, almost five years after Isaac’s initial diagnosis, the Kings can rest a little easier.
“He has completed three and a half years of treatment,” his mother said, joy and relief apparent in her voice. “He’s one year off treatment and that was successful.”
Although there’s a five-year waiting period after treatment before Isaac is considered “cured,” his mother says he is doing great.
“We’re hoping to stay cancer-free and we’re hoping to get to that ‘cured’ stage,” she said. “Right now he still visits his oncologist every two months and that will progress to further and further apart. But he’s doing really well and just trying to re-learn to be a normal kid.”
While Isaac’s treatment cycle is over, there are a lot of emotions still to process for the entire family, she added.
“Later on you finish treatment and everyone thinks it’s over and you’re all excited, and that’s the time that you end up coping with a lot of those feelings,” she said. “So the first year after treatment is really emotional as well because you’ve made it through and you’re elated and joyful, but at the same time, you’re done with the survival mode and you have to process all those experiences and feelings.”
“We’re finally coming to the point where we’re looking more forward than backwards,” she added.
“He’s an outdoor kid,” King said of her son. “He likes to swim and fish and ride his bike — normal kid stuff.”
Isaac is homeschooled in the fourth grade and is an active member at the Rhinelander YMCA, where he likes going to their Y-Zone program, his mother said.
Isaac also spends a lot of his time at the Rhinelander Fire Department, where he befriended a group of 20 firefighters whom he calls his “best friends.”
At the fire department, the crew takes Isaac on ride-alongs and makes him feel like he’s part of the team.
“I like to go play on the trucks with them,” Isaac shared.
In an effort to give back to the firefighters who gave so much to him, Isaac raised over $2,000 in December 2018 to purchase carcinogen-blocking hoods for his firefighter friends.
“He wanted to help buy some protective gear for them,” his mother said.
Since firefighters have a higher rate of lung cancer due to their jobs, Isaac decided it would be a great reason to raise money.
In October 2019, Isaac also won second prize in Acuity Insurance’s video contest, “why I’m thankful for my fire department.” He donated the $500 prize to the Rhinelander Fire Department.
When asked what inspired him to fundraise for the fire department, he said, “Because they helped me for three years, so I just wanted to help them.”
“It’s what he wants to do, he loves to help people,” his mother added.
When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, Isaac responded with confidence.
“I want to be a firefighter,” he said.
But Isaac’s passion for helping others doesn’t end there.
In addition to Isaac’s efforts on behalf of the Rhinelander Fire Department, he also raises money for others battling childhood cancer.
In March 2019, Isaac was chosen to be a 2019 Miracle Kid ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network (CMN). Since then he’s represented CMN at several events around North Central Wisconsin.
In May 2019, Isaac was the 2019 Human Hero for the Puppy Up cancer walk in Madison, which funds collaborative research between pediatric and canine cancer.
In the fall of last year, Isaac also became a representative for the Make-a-Wish Foundation at fundraising events.
And then there was the Chill Out Polar Plunge held in late December at the Thirsty Whale in Minocqua.
When asked why he wants to help others, he answered “because they’ve done so much for me, I just want to help them.”
Isaac also has many more plans for the future.
He will be a Northwoods representative for “Christmas in July,” an organization which supports CMN by fundraising to purchase equipment necessary to improve patient care, his mother said. They also have a toy drive each year to provide “Christmas in July” to Marshfield pediatric patients, complete with a visit from Santa himself.
King said Isaac will also continue being a Miracle Kid ambassador and attend CMN events when he can.
“We’re really proud that Isaac can be an ambassador and help fundraise for CMN,” his mother said. “It helps a lot of kids, not just kids with cancer but any of our local area kids who need more specialized medical care.”
Isaac has demonstrated great thoughtfulness in the organizations he chooses to fundraise for, but one organization in particular stands out among the rest for the King family.
Off to Alaska
In March 2018, the Make-a-Wish Foundation sent the entire King family to Fairbanks, Alaska.
“Make-a-Wish is a wonderful organization that provides hope and something to look forward to for kids with really difficult medical situations,” Shonda King explained. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the good things and it gives them something to wish for.”
In keeping with that tradition, Make-a-Wish helped make Isaac’s dream of seeing the northern lights come true by sending the family of 10 on a trek north.
“We had a wonderful week-long vacation that included dog sledding and seeing the northern lights on a photography tour and museum visits,” King said. “He (Isaac) was interested in Native Alaskan culture, so they organized a program of elders and Native children that did a program just for our family with dancing and traditional foods. They provided a week we’ll never forget.”
When asked about his favorite memory of Alaska was, he said, “seeing the northern lights.”
Isaac said the trip was everything he thought it would be and when asked if he wants to go back someday, he gleefully responded, “yes.”
While this trip was a dream come true for Isaac, it was also an eye-opening experience for his eight siblings as well.
Isaac’s sister Nava was especially impacted by the family’s trip to Fairbanks.
“I kind of fell in love with Alaska,” Nava said. “The landscape is beautiful.”
She said their family had the opportunity to visit the Fairbanks college campus during their visit, which sparked Nava’s interest in attending school there.
She said the trip was one she won’t forget.
“The Make-a-Wish trip was wonderful,” she said. “We got to do all sorts of amazing things I never imagined I would do.”
Nava agreed with Isaac that the northern lights was a highlight of the trip.
“The northern lights were magical, they really were amazing,” she said. “It was like watching colored ribbons dance through the sky.”
The trip to Alaska was meant to fulfill Isaac’s dream, but in the end it also became a reason for the Kings to give back to those who gave so much to them.
Time to reflect
After a busy year post-treatment, the family has had time to reflect on their experiences.
Although their journey has been filled with plenty of ups and downs, Shonda said she’s grateful for all the shining moments in between.
“Isaac has taught me a lot in finding the joy in all situations, not just the good ones,” she said. “He oftentimes will remind me that there’s blessings in everything, even cancer and even midnight rides to the emergency room. He’s a pretty cool kid that way.”
Nava agreed there were some positive outcomes to an initially bad situation.
“Really, it’s tough, but I also feel like it changed me as a person,” she said. “I feel like I’m more caring now and more understanding of people in tough situations.”
Nava said she’s thankful her family and friends were supportive throughout Isaac’s treatment.
“Our parents were really great about supporting us as well, not just Isaac,” Nava said. “If there was a situation, they would talk us through it, tell us what was going on, and I think that also helped with just understanding everything that was going on.”
Nava said their family bond was strong before the diagnosis, but after their almost five-year journey battling Isaac’s cancer, that bond is even stronger.
Shonda King said she also felt a lot of support from the community during Isaac’s treatment, which is why she and her family feel the need to give back to others.
“Our older kids have found a lot of joy in helping and volunteering and I think that’s also been a by-product of our situation. They’ve seen other people come to our aid and help, and they want to help too,” she said. “I think that has been a really great outcome of our difficult situation. While I wouldn’t want that to be the reason why they help out, it has been a really great outcome for our family. I think they’re better people because of having to deal with what we’ve dealt with.”
Nava agreed, and said now that Isaac is done with his treatment, she thinks it’s great he can be a role model to other kids dealing with difficult situations.
“If his struggle can help other people through their struggles, I feel like that’s a really great thing too,” she said.
Isaac isn’t the only one of his siblings who is involved in fundraising efforts.
King, a proud mother of eight, highlighted some of her other children’s accomplishments.
Daughters Mira and Nava developed two service products through Wisconsin 4-H to benefit kids throughout the state, their mother said.
In one project, called “Monster Pillow Project,” the sisters made homemade pillows to donate to local emergency rooms and children’s hospitals to provide comfort to children in scary medical situations.
The other was a journaling project called “I’m All Write,” which teaches teens journaling as a form of stress management and creates a special journal and activity book to donate to other teens in stressful medical or family situations.
In addition, Mira won a Presidential Volunteer Service Award for her Monster Pillow Project and a YMCA Teen Character Award for her other efforts.
The Kings’ 16-year-old son Noah is a volunteer young adult patroller at Granite Peak in Wausau and is also a lifeguard at the YMCA.
Like his younger brother, he is hoping to become a firefighter or paramedic one day, a dream that was influenced by the family’s unique bond with the Rhinelander Fire Department.