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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Joel and Christina Hoffman pose with their children – Carley, 7, front, Emily, 21 months, and Zach, 5 – and a photo of their 3-year-old son, Ethan, who was killed in a car crash in April.

Overcoming grief

Family stays strong through cancer, losing son in accident

This was supposed to have been the summer when Joel and Christina Hoffman’s life got back to normal.

Their daughter Carley, about to turn 8, was still in remission from a rare and aggressive cancer called neuroblastoma that she’d been battling since she was 3.

Their three other children, Emily, Ethan and Zachary – their mom and dad’s little stair-steps at 1, 3 and 5 – were active, healthy and growing like weeds.

The Fort Wayne family thought maybe this was the year they might finally be able to plan a future without worry, maybe even take a vacation together. But mostly, they were just enjoying the things they usually did, like loading the kids into the family van that last Sunday evening in April and going to a weekly Bible study at the home of friends from their church.

They were on their way home, stopped at a red light on westbound U.S. 24, when, as Christina puts it, it felt “like a gong going off in my body. The pain just reverberated.”

Their van had been hit hard from behind, by someone who was later charged with eight felonies, including being under the influence behind the wheel.

The impact would reverberate through the Hoffmans’ family.

Not the 1st crisis

It was not the first time the Hoffmans had faced a crisis.

One day in July 2008, while Christina was pregnant with Ethan, Carley began refusing to walk. She’d been complaining of stomach pain, and even had been taken to the hospital because she’d become constipated. But when the diagnosis came, it was a shock.

“When the doctor said, ‘I wish I could tell you it’s leukemia,’ we knew it wasn’t going to be good,” Carley’s father, 35, recalls.

Neuroblastoma, a nerve cancer, strikes infants and young children. In Carley’s case, it caused multiple tumors along her spinal cord – which, in turn, caused her bowels to shut down and weakness and pain in her legs.

She was diagnosed when the disease already had reached an advanced stage – Stage 4 – dropping her chances of survival to only about 50 percent. And, the disease was known for relapsing.

In the next 18 months, Carley would undergo two surgeries to remove a tumor in her abdomen and several along her spine and six rounds of chemotherapy, during which she lost all of her long, light-brown hair. The family had been preparing for her to have a stem cell transplant, but that was canceled because she had stopped responding to her last round of chemo.

With Carley’s survival prospects cut in half, the family was sent in early 2010 to specialists at Comer Children’s Hospital of the University of Chicago. They thought of trying a preliminary approach to another stem cell transplant to buy time, her mother says.

But after a few treatments, “The words of the doctors were that they were shocked and amazed to see her scan was clear,” Christina, 34, says. They then placed Carley in an experimental therapy that required the injection of humanized mouse antibodies – in theory, they would attach to the cancer cells and cause the body’s immune system to destroy them.

Carley’s parents prepared themselves that Carley might have life-long side effects – learning disabilities, hearing loss, stunted growth – or that she would not survive.

But Carley did so well that by early 2010 she had stopped all treatment and had no evidence of cancer. Her doctor “has done several articles on her,” her soft-spoken, stay-at-home mom said a few days before the accident in April. “We just don’t hear so many stories of kids surviving.”

Joel, a manufacturing company quality manager, added then: “We’re just now getting to the point that the threat of relapse is starting to lessen. It never really goes away, but at least the bell curve is going in the right direction for us.”

Abrupt impact

Joel Hoffman says he barely saw the vehicle coming. All he remembers is a quick glare of headlights in the rear view mirror, then the crash. The next thing he recalls is hearing crying from the kids in the back seats.

Zach, his broken legs splayed in opposite directions, kept asking, “What happened? What happened?” Carley was lying still on her back, arms at her sides, with pieces of metal from the car frame wedged on both sides of her neck; miraculously, her parents say, she only had a broken toe. Little blond Emily, seated behind the driver’s side and just learning to walk, would require a half-body cast for six weeks to heal a broken femur.

Ethan, who loved riding his bike, playing with Legos and watching Thomas the Tank Engine videos, was quiet.

“Everyone else was awake and crying, and he wasn’t,” his father recalls, adding that the little boy was in a car seat that had been pushed forward so far after the impact that he could be reached from the front seat.

Joel, who was not badly injured, says he eventually cut the tether to the seat with a knife given him by an emergency worker and handed the little boy out the driver’s side window. Christina, with bruised and broken ribs, had tried to keep Ethan’s airway open until help arrived.

“They pronounced him (dead) at the hospital,” Joel says. “But we’re pretty sure he’d passed, right there.”

“It’s actually a comfort,” Christina adds. Ethan didn’t suffer. “God took him,” she says. “His body was there, but he was home.”

‘Hole in our family’

The loss of their son left a void in their lives, one they say they confront every day.

A tow-headed blond with energy to burn, Ethan charmed relatives and strangers alike with his big smile, they say. People often remark upon it when they talk about him now.

“There’s a huge hole in our family,” Christina says. It’s hard when the children are playing together not to think about how he’d react to something, she says. Sometimes, Emily will ask to see him, and sometimes she thinks the little girl is looking for him when she runs around the house.

Carley, Joel says, was “totally calm” after the accident. She made sure Zach was taken care of after they were taken to the hospital. After so many visits of her own, “Hospitals are old hat,” her dad says with a smile. But in the months since the crash, sometimes she and Zach seem on edge or get upset or frustrated about little things or seemingly for no reason. Zach will require surgery to remove metal plates in his legs.

“The hard thing now is you have these other children you love,” Christina says. “They’re hurting because they’re grieving. And you can’t make that any better.”

But, she says the family talks about Ethan every day and the kids are encouraged to say what they feel, though their parents don’t push them.

“Ethan was born right after Carley was diagnosed, so he represented a lot of promise for us,” his father explains. “Like I’ve told people, the key with Carley is we’ve already had to confront what it would be like to lose a child. But what I had imagined wasn’t as horrible as what happened.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to live without Ethan.”

Honoring memory

Sept. 5 was a day the Hoffmans were dreading. It was the day Ethan would have turned 4. But, they say, it turned out to be a bittersweet remembrance of his life.

Friends – who earlier had been helping the Hoffmans organize a June fundraising walk for a children’s cancer research charity, CureSearch, which had sponsored clinical trials that helped Carley – created places on Facebook and Blogspot.com where Ethan could be remembered.

The friends, Laura Swymeler and Kasi Maple, asked online visitors to wear green, the little boy’s favorite color, on his birthday. Scores of people posted photos of themselves – even people that Christina says she does not know who found out about the family through friends or CureSearch.

Children at his siblings’ school, East Allen’s Highland Terrace Elementary, wore green, released green balloons and gobbled green-iced cookies donated by a local bakery. Friends from church filled the evening with a gathering at which they reminisced and offered prayers.

That morning, Ethan’s brother and sisters decorated the kitchen as they always do for family birthdays. They bought and wrapped presents they thought Ethan would like and donated them to the Ronald McDonald House in Chicago, which the children considered their second home during Carley’s treatments and whose staff members had showered Ethan with attention and treats.

Swymeler, who says she went to grade school with Christina, but did not know her well then, says more than 300 people have “liked” the Facebook page, “Hope for the Hoffmans,” or donated for the Hoffmans’ needs during fundraisers organized throughout the summer.

She says that when Ethan died she felt even more drawn to the family, which she helped support with fundraisers during Carley’s illness. She had lost a baby son, Matthew, a twin, from complications of prematurity 13 years ago.

“I know it’s hard. It’s hard no matter what,” Swymeler says of losing a child. “You have dreams for a child. … I just try to give her (Christina) the perspective of time that it gets better.”

Swymeler says while the family has struggled financially because of medical expenses, they are stable at the moment. Christina has asked that donations go toward a memorial to her son that others could enjoy. “It’s a pretty awesome family,” Swymeler says.

Driver ‘sorry’

Joel Hoffman says that right after the accident, it was like “a phantom” had come out of nowhere to wreak havoc on his family. It seemed they could find out nothing about the driver who had struck their van; even police had trouble getting information because the man, a refugee from Myanmar, formerly Burma, spoke little English.

On Sept. 4, Mya Tha Tun, 52, of Fort Wayne pleaded guilty to four of the felony charges from the crash – three counts of criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury and one count of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing death. He is awaiting sentencing in Whitley County, where the judge will decide if sentences of eight to 20 years on each count will run concurrently or consecutively.

Tun fled from the Karen region of the former Burma, to Thailand, where he lived in a refugee camp with his family since about 1979, according to Sein Than, 58, of Fort Wayne, who met him there.

Through a translator, James Thwee of Fort Wayne, Sein Than said he and his wife, Pya Than, 53, took in Tun after he came to the United States around 2010 because he couldn’t find work in Utica, N.Y., where he went to live with his sister. He had left his family in Thailand – a wife, three daughters and a son now ages 13 to 24 – thinking it would be better for him to come to the United States alone and send them money.

Once in Fort Wayne in 2011, Tun got a job at a Tyson poultry processing plant in Logansport. Tun stayed with co-workers during the week and came to Fort Wayne on weekends. The day of the accident, he had attended a wedding of refugees here. Sein Than says Tun told him he had “a little bit to drink” at the wedding, but he needed to drive back to Logansport for work. He also said he doesn’t remember the crash.

Tun, who attended Southwest Lutheran Church with Sein Than and his family, told them “that he understood that their (the Hoffmans’) pain was very great and he couldn’t change that and he was sorry that his actions led to that,” Thwee says, translating. “He said it was in God’s hands. He said he had asked for forgiveness from God, and it was his hope that they could forgive him.”

Sein Than and his family and other church members wrote a letter of apology to the Hoffmans on behalf of Tun.

Tun was “very sad” when Pya visited him in jail, Thwee says, translating. “He knew he would be in prison for a while, and he was very worried for his family and his children in Thailand because he can’t support them anymore” and might never see them again.

Tun’s wife, Ma La Pu, recently phoned Sein Than. “She said she sympathizes with the (Hoffman) family and was really deeply sorry,” Thwee says, translating.. “She said if she could come here and meet with the family she would love to, to apologize, and the family is always in her prayers.”

Forgiveness

Joel and Christina say they are grateful that Tun took responsibility for the accident and spared them a trial by entering a guilty plea.

The two say their faith teaches them to extend forgiveness, and they have been walking through the process a step at a time. Getting and reading the apology letter was part of the process. They also take comfort in the assurance heaven holds for them.

“I hate everything about how the accident happened,” Joel says, adding he can’t condone Tun’s actions. “But I know, and this is what we’ve told the children, that he did not intend to go out that day and cause what happened to occur. … Everyone makes choices, and he made a very bad choice.”

Joel says sometimes things happen that God uses in his own way. If his child’s death means others “might come into the grace of God and peace of his love, then, OK,” he says.

Christina says she will forever remember the outpouring from family and friends and sees the hand of God in a dream she had the night before Ethan’s birthday.

“I got to hold him again,” she says, adding it was hard waking up without the little boy, who will always be a part of the family. “That was a good dream.”

rsalter@jg.net

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