Mount Shasta boy celebrates conquering cancer

Barry Kaye
James Herfindahl and his mom, Mary, stand in front of Mount Shasta Elementary School during a teacher parade April 10. He was happy to report he’s cancer free after fighting Stage 3 Clear Cell Sarcoma since last fall.

James Herfindahl is like any other 8 year-old boy.

He loves to ride his bike and swing on a rope from a tree. Mac and cheese are a dietary staple. His favorite sports team is the San Francisco 49ers.

The worst part about the current statewide lockdown due to the coronavirus is that he misses his friends and teachers at Mount Shasta Elementary School. Google classroom has replaced four-square.

The best part is “just having my family around,” he said.

He is also cancer free.

James’ life changed forever last fall just after Labor Day when two of his teachers at MSE, Robyn Stokes and Kristen Riccomini, noticed something wrong. Teachers are often on the front lines of health care in America when it comes to children.

“The two of us went to the (school) nurse and asked if she wouldn’t mind taking a look. It was recess,” Stokes said. The nurse, Patty Morris with the Siskiyou County Office of Education, called the family and an ultrasound was scheduled.

Two days after the ultrasound James was at Children’s Hospital Oakland having a seven-pound tumor and his right kidney removed. It took four hours and involved three surgeons. Chemotherapy left him with no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes.

For any parent, finding out your child has cancer can be terrifying, especially something called Stage 3 Clear Cell Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Survival rates are not terribly encouraging but there are many success stories. So far James is winning his battle.

His mother, Mary, said it has been an emotional roller coaster. There have been blood transfusions and bacterial infections and feeding tubes, not to mention three emergency airlifts back to Oakland. She spent one two-week stint sleeping in the window seat of a hospital room.

“He had more bad days than good days,” she said. “It is nothing a child his age should have to deal with.”

But before anyone starts feeling sorry for James it would be a good idea to check with him first. He has big plans.

The first is to become president of the United States “to lower taxes. I also want to change health care,” he proclaimed. He then plans to move the White House to Mount Shasta. It should come as no surprise that the staff at the Oakland hospital said James seemed remarkably mature for his age.

He also wants to be an artist. He spent much of the endless down time at the hospital painting. “It just makes me feel good when I paint,” he explained. He envisions becoming a world-famous paint ball artist.

But there is no place like home. He would FaceTime with his older sister, Maggie, almost every night from the hospital. Their conversations would often end with James in tears from being homesick. His Dad, Jon, runs the family restaurant, Lilys, in Mount Shasta. The restaurant is closed due to the virus.

Talk about a double whammy.

“It’s a nightmare but we’ll get there,” Jon said about the restaurant. He could not do it without his staff. He also knows his family is still at the beginning of a long journey with James’ health.

“We don’t know the lasting implications yet,” he said. “They gave us a laundry list of all the things that can go wrong.”

For the moment – after seven months of treatment – this phase is ending on a positive note for James. A scar runs halfway around his abdomen but his hair is starting to grow back. On a beautiful spring day, he is out playing in the sunshine. He gets to eat anything he wants as long as he puts on weight.

And he still has the blanket his classmates made for him with all their pictures attached as a show of community support.

“I just want people to know it’s fine,” he said. “I’m used to all this stuff now.”

When a patient is discharged from Children’s Hospital Oakland there is an “end of treatment” bell. It is a moment of pure hope and joy.

All the nurses were there. So was the lead physician, Dr. Betts. And, of course, mom. The two shared a hug after James rang the bell.

“He’s okay. We are home,” Mary said. “At least we can all be together again.”