In honor of what would have been her son’s 13th birthday, Elisha Nelson has a request: $13 donations to a hospital program that helps sick, disabled and injured children play sports.
It’s in line with a final wish of Aidan Nelson, who died at age 12.
He was an active kid before doctors found a cancerous tumor in his spine when he was 10 years old. Piercing pain came on suddenly in his neck one August day in 2016. An MRI revealed a tumor, and he was rushed into emergency surgery.
The tumor was removed, but it resulted in Aidan being paralyzed from the neck down. He eventually regained a little mobility in his arms and legs, along with the use of his right hand, but he was never able to walk again.
Confined to a wheelchair and wearing a neck brace, he watched children his age play sports. He wanted to join them but couldn’t. Aidan used to play all kinds of sports, including basketball, track and field, soccer, wrestling and baseball.
The next best thing was watching them, and generous community members gifted Aidan and his single mother tickets to numerous sporting events. Among the highlights was watching a Golden State Warriors game and meeting basketball player Stephen Curry thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It just brought us joy in the midst of sadness,” Nelson said. “It uplifted our spirits. They (the games) were a really good distraction from what was really happening in our life.”
Aidan was looking forward to his first day of football practice on the day doctors found his tumor.
Nelson was told Aidan’s cancer, deemed terminal, would return. When it did, doctors didn’t perform another surgery. It was believed that removing the tumor again would significantly reduce Aidan’s quality of life. Radiation therapy also wasn’t an option because it had already been done, and the same area couldn’t be treated twice.
Aidan died Jan. 26, about six months after his tumor returned, in his mother’s arms.
After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, doctors thought Aidan had six months to live. He lived for 16.
He was strong, and he was selfless. On his last Christmas, he used gift cards given to him to buy toys for children in need.
Dr. Jennifer Crocker, medical director of Valley Children’s Rehabilitation Center, along with founder and director of the adaptive sports program, recalls Aidan’s “spunk” and “typical fourth-grade boy” jokes with affection.
“He had such true grit, I guess is the way to put it – he did not give up,” Crocker said. “He was willing to give it his all every single day, and not every kid can do that.”
His mom recalls how he often wouldn’t tell her when he was in pain – an attempt to shield her from any more suffering.
Since his death, Nelson has been on a quest to see and do everything Aidan wanted to, but couldn’t. He left her with a list. Among his requests: Help other children in wheelchairs play sports, because all kids should have that chance.
The free program brings sports to individuals from age 2 to 21 “who have any kind of physical ailment – anything taking them out of their ‘normal game,’” Crocker said.
Participants don’t have to be hospital patients to join the program’s adaptive sports programs, or take advantage of outdoor recreational opportunities such as skiing and kayaking.
Nelson will deliver a donation check to Crocker next week. As of Friday, more than 70 people had pledged more than $1,500 via Nelson’s GoFundMe account.
Nelson wants to eventually start a foundation that will provide tickets to sporting events for individuals with a disability or serious illness, along with supporting groups that help these individuals.
On Sept. 16, Aidan’s 13th birthday, Nelson and other family members watched a Giants baseball game at AT&T Park in San Francisco, then a Raiders game at a sports bar wearing matching jerseys.
The trip to the stadium was to pick up a baseball for Aidan. He asked his mom to visit every stadium for him to get a baseball.
The mother and son duo visited five stadiums together. Since Aidan died, Nelson visited another five, with 20 more to go.
Aidan said the trips were for him, but Nelson suspects it was for her: Aidan’s way of looking out for her after his death. Aidan’s bucket list has given her purpose and kept her from holing up inside the house with her grief.
He also asked that she watch a sporting event in Europe, so next month, she’s going to London to watch the Seattle Seahawks play the Oakland Raiders – Aidan’s favorite team.
“It’s almost like a healing for me in my grief,” Nelson said of attending to Aidan’s bucket list, “to still be able to do things for him.”