Four-year-old Levi Gartner loves tractors, firetrucks and cop cars. He enjoys spending time outside and is especially fond of his horse, Cinco de Mayo. He looks forward to playing on his new firetruck swing set, which was recently presented to him by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Levi has spent half of his life fighting stage four high-risk neuroblastoma, which is a type of cancer that forms in one’s nerve tissue.
Joe and Tiffany Gartner, who live near Menoken, received their son’s cancer diagnosis on March 30, 2016 — just days before Levi’s second birthday.
Tiffany Gartner, who works as a nurse at Dakota Eye Surgery Center, as well as CHI St. Alexius Health, said she knew something was amiss after discovering a lump on her son’s belly. Arrangements were made for Levi to see a doctor the next day.
“They did an ultrasound and told us Levi had a large tumor in his belly and that we needed to go to Minnesota as soon as possible,” said Tiffany Gartner. “We left the next morning.”
Levi, whose blood pressure was elevated to 170/110, was admitted to the intensive care unit of the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital. A biopsy was performed April 1, 2016, which revealed the young boy had stage four cancer.
“It was a very big roller coaster. We cried almost every day,” Tiffany Gartner said. “Levi endured a lot of pain because they put lines in. They started treatment right away, since it was an aggressive cancer.”
Joe and Tiffany Gartner never left their son's side; Minnesota became their home-away-from-home.
Levi’s sisters, Lilly, 7, and Laila, 5, remained in North Dakota during his first few weeks of treatments, staying with family friends and a grandmother, respectively.
“It was really hard on them, too, because the girls were split up, Mom and Dad were gone and brother was sick,” Tiffany Gartner said, noting the family was reunited in May, when school let out for the summer.
Over the course of nine months, Levi received five rounds of low-dose chemotherapy. His doctors also performed a tumor resection to remove the primary tumor.
“The tumor's size was a little larger than a softball,” said Joe Gartner, a Bismarck firefighter.
Levi's left kidney also needed to be surgically removed.
“The tumor was encapsulated around the kidney, so they weren’t able to save it. The tumor was pushing on his aorta, too,” Tiffany Gartner said.
Shortly thereafter, Levi received one round of high-dose chemotherapy. He became very ill with veno-occlusive disease, a side effect from the treatment which forms blood clots in the liver.
“He almost didn’t make it through that,” Tiffany Gartner said, noting Levi was intubated, put on continuous dialysis and prescribed a medication to eliminate the blood clots. Doctors also paralyzed the then-2-year-old, so he wouldn't pull on his tubing.
Levi recovered and, in November 2016, began receiving 20 rounds of proton-beam radiation in Rochester, Minn.
Then, in January 2017, he started immunotherapy treatments, receiving six months of IV and oral immunotherapies, followed by six months of just oral immunotherapy. Levi has not received any cancer treatments since December.
Good news came in the form of Levi's most recent scans, performed last week.
“The scans are stable. He has a cluster of lymph nodes on the right side of his belly that still lights up, but it hasn’t changed, so they’re confident right now,” Tiffany Gartner said.
Last summer, doctors performed surgery to try and remove the cluster, but it's located on the renal and mesenteric arteries.
“The doctors weren’t able to go in and take any more out. They were scared if they do something to that kidney, he would be on dialysis,” Tiffany Gartner said. “That’s the only kidney he has left.”
Levi is not in remission. Doctors consider him to be “stable” because his scans haven't changed; however, they're still “lighting up.”
His iron levels are high, from receiving multiple blood transfusions while sick with VOD following the high-dose chemo. He will receive treatments to lower his iron levels at a later date.
Levi, who wears hearing aids due to partial loss of hearing from the chemo, is enrolled in physical, occupational and speech therapies. Slowly but surely, he’s regaining strength.
“After he was so sick from the high-dose chemo, he pretty much had to learn to walk again and sit up again. He wasn’t even able to sit up on his own,” Tiffany Gartner said. “Considering he went through all of that, he can run and jump … but maybe isn’t quite as fast as some of the other kids his age.”
Every time the family travels to Minnesota for doctor appointments or treatments, they stop at a farm equipment dealership along the way and let Levi pick out a new toy tractor, which he loves.
“He really, actually, enjoys going to the doctor,” Tiffany Gartner said. “He’s really inquisitive though. He’ll be like, ‘So what are we doing tomorrow? Am I going to have owies tomorrow or am I going to have pokes tomorrow?’ He really pays attention to what’s going on.”
Joe and Tiffany Gartner offer the following advice to parents of children with cancer.
“Don’t give up hope,” Joe Gartner said. “Ask questions. If you don’t understand something the doctors want to do, ask questions about it. They’re pumping your kid full of chemicals, is what they’re doing. There are a lot of things going on that are kind of harmful, but yet they’re supposed to treat the cancer, too.”
“Take everything day-by-day, because everything can change on a daily basis,” said Tiffany Gartner. “Be positive. Take help from friends. It’s still really hard for us to take help from people.
“Sometimes, it’s just nice to have somebody to listen. It’s a scary path that you go down,” she said. “I never realized, even as a nurse, how much childhood cancer is out there.”
Brave the Shave
Levi and the entire Gartner family will be honored at Saturday’s Brave the Shave event, where heads are shaved and funds raised for local families of children with cancer.
The family also is raising funds and, as of Thursday afternoon, “Team Levi” has raised $8,391 for kids with cancer. Joe Gartner also has signed up to have his head shaved.
“They are an incredibly inspiring family,” said Taner Ohlsen, local family representative with Brave the Shave. “To see how positive they’ve stayed and how active they are in the community, bringing awareness to childhood cancer. They are a family with such a big heart.”
The Gartners were active Brave the Shave participants prior to Levi’s diagnosis, helping to raise funds, as well as donating hair to be used for wigs for cancer patients.
“We’re on the total other side of the ballgame now,” Joe Gartner said, noting they’ve made a lot of new friends through the organization.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Levi received an iPad tablet from Brave the Shave, as well as a hospital-grade thermometer, which the family said was very useful. The nonprofit organization has contributed money to the family’s bills, such as heating costs and car payments.
“The iPad was very helpful,” Tiffany Gartner said. “When he wasn’t feeling well in the hospital, it gave him something to do.”
The Gartners said they appreciate the love and support they’ve received from family, friends and co-workers, as well as others they’ve met along the way.
“We’re very lucky,” Tiffany Gartner said.