OAKWOOD — Even the quickest glance at the den in the Ernst family’s Oakwood home shows the pictures of happier times in Brian Ernst’s life; before fighting a potentially deadly form of cancer became part of his reality.
Back then, life revolved around baseball for the Spartans pitcher, who was always just as healthy as a teenager could expect to be. Now, since his cancer diagnosis on May 23, his life centers around cancer specialists, oncologists, chemotherapy and physical therapy.
"Having cancer has completely changed my outlook on life," said Ernst, who is now 50 pounds lighter than his previous playing weight of 200 pounds. "I don’t worry about the little things that aren’t important anymore ... I just want to get back to leading a normal life."
Ernst, a rising senior, knows it will be an emotional day when he finally gets to return to playing baseball, which he still plans to do next season. And he holds on to his dream of being able to play in college.
"My main goal is to be able to inspire at least one person that is going through adversity in their life," Ernst said. "If I can inspire at least one person, then I’ve done my job."
Ernst is expected to have the opportunity to lead a normal life again thanks to the proactive treatment of a team of specialists, including Emory hematologist Dr. Gina D’Amato who specializes in Ernst’s specific form of Ewing’s sarcoma cancer.
He has been assured that the regular rounds of chemotherapy and radiation will either eradicate the pear-shaped malignant tumor which is lodged in his left leg near his pelvis, or shrink it to a point where it can be operated on and removed.
The Ernst family considers themselves incredibly fortunate to have D’Amato on their side to help the 17-year-old fight this rare form of cancer that only afflicts about three in every 1,000,000 people. She is only one of approximately 150 doctors specializing in this form of cancer treatment nationwide, and has maintained that Ernst’s chance of survival is at least 95 percent.
"Dr. D’Amato has been so incredibly positive," Brian’s mother Donna Ernst said. "She said without hesitation we are going to beat this cancer."
Now everyone in the Ernst family is determined to make that prognosis come true.
Donna, a staff member at West Hall High, is at Brian’s side almost every minute of the day. Brian’s father, Steve Ernst, juggles his job in Flowery Branch while trying to be at his son’s side while he is in the hospital in Atlanta.
Steve can joke about the fact that he knows almost every fast food joint near North Avenue, which have helped Brian gain 10 pounds after dropping down as low as 141 pounds following his diagnosis.
"We live minute-to-minute as a family," Steve Ernst said. "Our whole life is centered around kicking this cancer."
Brian says he also has the best group of friends imaginable. He feels like they understand what he’s going through and can comfort him by coming by and chatting about normal kid stuff. His mother says they also have a loving network of people in the West Hall community that bring dinner to the family home.
Ernst’s father added that one of his son’s favorite visitors is West Hall baseball coach Manny Pontonio, whose visits get Brian’s mind off of cancer for a couple of hours at a time, simply by talking baseball.
Ernst also feels blessed he has someone to lean on that has been in the same situation. Chad McLeod, 25, survived the same type of cancer Brian has, and has now been cancer-free for about two years. The University of Florida student was put in touch with Ernst through Dr. D’Amato, who treated McLeod as well. Ernst’s new friend, who he hasn’t had the chance to meet in person yet, lets him know what to expect in the emotional roller coaster of living with cancer.
"Having Chad as a friend is more than I could have ever hoped for," said Ernst who communicates with his friends via Facebook. "We can relate on so much; it just brightens my day to be able to talk with him."
Chemotherapy is going to be one of the main tools in Ernst’s battle against cancer.
He’s already undergone two of his seven chemotherapy treatments at Crawford Long Hospital. The treatments consist of five days of inpatient treatment followed by two days of outpatient care.
Going through chemotherapy is a necessary evil that leaves him sick for a couple days following each round.
However, if things go according to plan, he will be going through chemotherapy for the final time in early December.
Ernst is also starting physical therapy at his home three times each week. The family got one of its most promising signs last Friday when Brian stood up on his walker and was able to lift his left leg off of the ground. This is the same left leg that was so tender at one point he couldn’t even stand the touch of a blanket while lying in bed.
Ernst also rode a stationary bike for the first time last Friday, which was monitored by his physical therapist.
"Signs like that are what give us faith that he is one the right path," his mother said.
Ernst still spends the majority of his time resting in bed, and if things go according to plan, he will do homebound learning during the fall semester before returning to class at West Hall for his final semester of high school. And, almost as importantly to Ernst, just in time to rejoin the baseball program.
Those long-term goals are what keep Brian excited after, only two months ago, questioning whether he was going to live to see his 18th birthday when he received the news he had cancer while sitting in his bed at Emory.
"May 23 was the worst day of our life when we found out Brian had cancer," his mother said. "But I remember (his brother) Brett came in the room the next morning and said ‘I prayed hard last night that Brian will get better,’ and ever since then we’ve had so much good news."
Ernst’s health problems started when he injured his back lifting weights in March. He also had a driving pain in his leg, which rapidly worsened to the point where he had trouble walking. Originally he thought it would only be a matter of taking two weeks away from playing baseball.
But his condition continued to worsen.
Doctors did an X-ray on his spine and found two fractures. Through his X-rays, Dr. Holmes Marchman found that one vertebrae slid over another. Through what Brian’s father, also a cancer survivor, called a fortunate chain of events, he mentioned to his own surgeon, Dr. Bill Grist, what was going on with his son. Dr. Grist set an appointment for Brian the next day with Dr. William Horton, who had a seven-month wait for new patients.
Horton performed an MRI, and originally said there was a "50-50 chance" there wouldn’t be a need for any surgery.
They performed a spinal epidural on Brian’s back which provided temporary relief, but the pain eventually came back worse than before.
Doctors then performed a spinal fusion which included removing 60 percent of the disk in Brian’s back, and inserted two titanium rods, which he will have the rest of his life.
The back surgery was deemed 100-percent successful and Dr. Horton advised physical therapy to help with Ernst’s movement — which is when they noticed problem’s with his leg.
While undergoing physical therapy, Brian had no control of outward movement in his leg, compounded with a feeling of numbness.
His first cat scan was performed on May 21 and revealed the worst news a parent could hear about a child — cancer. When doctors delivered the news, they already had a team of five specialists lined up to help start his treatment plan.
"With everything that was going on, it was like dominoes; we didn’t have time to catch our breath," Brian’s father said.
"There’s nothing worse than having a child hurting and there’s nothing you can do about it," his mother said.
The Ernsts say their faith in God in the main element that has helped pull them through this trying time. Brian is on the prayer list at Oakwood’s Flat Creek Baptist Church, along with other prayer lists all across the country, his father said.
These days, Ernst knows there is an end in sight to all the terrible treatments he’s had to endure. He can already picture the day when he can go outside and throw the baseball with his father.
For the time being, he holds firm to a bat, given to him by his brother Brett, which is signed by Atlanta Braves infielder Kelly Johnson.
He also cherishes a baseball signed by Atlanta’s Mark Teixeira.
He knows the day is coming when he will take the baseball field once again, and hopefully be right back with the Spartans to celebrate his 18th birthday on March 11. It will be his way of showing he successfully battled and survived cancer.
"He’s an amazing little kid," his father said fighting back the tears.