Ryker Earls is a fighter.
From enduring nearly 20 rounds of chemotherapy to undergoing a stem cell transplant, the 2-year-old has spent his young life battling a rare autoimmune deficiency known as Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome.
"He's been through so much in his first two years of life, but it's miraculous how he is overcoming it all," said Emily Earls, the mother of Ryker. "It has been a journey for our family."
Ryker will be one of three to serve as an honorary co-chairperson today during the Heart and Sole Cancer Walk at Mitchell Middle School. The event begins at 6:30 p.m.
Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome closely mimics leukemia-a form of cancer that affects the blood, particularly white blood cells-and similar treatments are used for combating the rare syndrome. Like leukemia, abnormal changes in white blood cells form in the body of patients diagnosed with Wiskott-Aldrich, which affects the function of the disease and infection-fighting cells. Therefore, patients are highly susceptible to infectious diseases and eczema.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the estimated incidence of the of Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome is between 1 and 10 cases per 1 million males worldwide.
"It was hard watching him have to go through so much pain throughout his treatments and recovery," said Aaron Earls, Ryker's father. "The fact that it's a rare condition added a bit more uncertainty."
While Ryker has endured more than what many people have throughout an entire lifespan, he has been backed by a village of support. An army of daycare friends, parents and community members have rallied around Earls' road to recovery by donating money to offset some of his medical bills.
That community of Ryker supporters plans on marching at today's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk, wearing lavender shirts with bold print on the front reading "Root for Ryker."
'Amazes me how strong he is'
Although Ryker's support group has been growing since living in Mitchell, it's his parents Emily and Aaron who have been the foundation that keep their son's spirits up over the course of his health condition.
"Emily and I both had to sacrifice a lot for our son, but I'm so blessed to have seen her strength and love for Ryker help us through everything," Aaron said. "We're a family, and we love each other. That's why we sacrifice for one another."
When Ryker was born on July 18, 2016, Emily said he didn't show any immediate symptoms until he was about a month old.
That's when Emily noticed the first symptoms, which were blood in his diaper and discoloration of the skin. Emily and Aaron were living in Brookings at the time when the early stages of their son's symptoms were beginning to show. At just four months old, Ryker was diagnosed with the rare medical condition.
Emily said the meeting with the Brookings doctor provided what he called good news and bad news.
"He said, 'The good news was it's not leukemia, but the bad news is Ryker will have the same treatment as leukemia patients,'" she recalled.
Emily, age 26, knew her family's life was about to drastically change. When the doctors informed Emily her son would need to begin chemotherapy and further testing, she said the choice was simple.
"I wasn't going to let anything stop me from keeping my son alive. I didn't even think about the financial costs of his treatments," Emily said.
After several rounds of chemotherapy, Ryker was admitted to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis at six months old. He immediately underwent a stem cell transplant, which Emily and Aaron said was one of the biggest medical procedures their son ever went through. The next 100 days of recovery were the most taxing days for the Earls family, Emily said.
Relying on a feeding tube, taking 20 different medications at one point and dealing with the many side effects that come with, Ryker found the will to endure through his transplant recovery efforts.
Following the transplant, Ryker spent the next six months in the Minneapolis Ronald McDonald House, where he went through a whirlwind of ups and downs. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in Ryker's recovery happened when doctors informed his parents that blood cell growth was beginning to occur. His white blood cell count went from 0.1 to 4.3 roughly two weeks into his recovery, which meant the stem cell transplant was effectively producing white blood cells in Ryker's body.
After being released from the Ronald McDonald House, the doctors told Emily that Ryker was doing better than expected. Aside from a few blood infections that put Ryker in the hospital for a couple days at a time, his health improved enough for him to begin living in his house and sleeping in his room that sat empty for almost a year.
"The doctors would often say he was doing so much better than they expected, and it just amazes me how strong he is," Emily said of Ryker.
Having their son home, crawling around and beginning to learn how to walk, the Earls' household was finally complete.
All the countless nights sleeping in hospital chairs and waking up wondering if their son was regaining his health were in the rear view mirror for the Earls family. Only Emily, Aaron and Ryker knew what it took to get to that point; together, they continue to overcome every day.
At Ryker's most recent May 3 checkup in Minneapolis, Emily said the family learned he will have one more year of being high risk for rejecting his transplant, along with being a year away from gaining a "normal" immune system.
Today, when Aaron and Emily pick their son up from his daycare provider, they see a little boy who was once relying on an oxygen mask to breathe and a feeding tube to eat, laughing and playing with his friends. It's a sight that takes their breath away. In that moment, the couple is able to reflect on how much they've watched their son overcome in his two years of life.
"We're so blessed to have made it through so much as a family. And it's a miracle to watch our son grow and overcome all of this," Emily said.