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Boy battling cancer captivated a community - and my heart

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com
Elisabeth Arriero
Elisabeth Arriero is a local and community news reporter for The Charlotte Observer. She is shaving her head as part of a fundraiser for The St. Baldricks Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/13/05/wWUYt.Em.138.jpeg|323
    - Elisabeth Arriero - earriero@charlotteobserver.com
    Residents in Gilead Ridge threw Carter Dang (right) a dog parade in February at his home. Dang spent most of the parade seated in his mother’s lap.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/13/05/1ir7uG.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - Elisabeth Arriero - earriero@charlotteobserver.com
    Residents in Gilead Ridge threw Carter Dang (not pictured) a dog parade in February at his home. The toddler had entered hospice care the week before.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/13/05/KzTHY.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - Elisabeth Arriero - earriero@charlotteobserver.com
    Residents in Gilead Ridge threw Carter Dang (not pictured) a dog parade in February at his home. The toddler had entered hospice care the week before.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/13/05/1juZha.Em.138.jpeg|421
    - Photo courtesy of Ann Dang
    When Carter was made an honorary fire fighter in February, local fire fighters presented him with his badge and a special firefighter's hat.

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Carter Dang may have never said one word to me. And I may have only known his family for a short time. Yet over the last 10 weeks, the Dang family has taught me a lot about grace during crises, courage and strength and the power of a parent’s love for a child.

On Feb. 27, I learned the little boy I’m honoring for my St. Baldrick’s Fundraiser had lost his battle with cancer.

Carter, a three-year-old with neuroblastoma, had been under hospice care for about three weeks. He was diagnosed on 11/11/11 – a day that was “not a lucky day for us,” his mom told me when I first met her.

I’m heartbroken for the family because I know they did everything they could to help him.

And ever since receiving the news of his death, I’ve reflected on how God brought the Dang family and me together.

I had decided I wanted to shave my head a few months back. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I was thrilled when I discovered The Charlotte Checkers were hosting a St. Baldrick’s Fundraising event in March. The charity has grown over the years, pulling in $33,557,686 in revenue in 2012-13 compared with $33,352,106 the previous year, according to the organization’s 990 tax forms.

The non-profit spent $31,190,437 in 2012-13, compared with $31,279,601 the previous year, according to tax forms.

When I heard about the event that the Charlotte Checkers were hosting, I signed up.

The website suggested that I pick a kid to honor. There were about a half dozen selections, with kids from the Charlotte metro region to Raleigh. I picked Carter, a kid from Huntersville.

I reached out to Carter’s mom to talk with her about honoring her son.

I would have understood if she was wary of strangers honoring her son. I would have understood if she wished to remain private.

Instead, this cheerful woman emailed me back within the hour with a gracious response:

“Thank you!!! I’m so honored that you have chosen to help and raise money for children’s cancer!! As a mom of a child fighting, I cannot thank you enough!!!!

Where to begin!!! There’s so much to tell you about Carter!!! He’s sweet and such a fighter!!! And he loves to play doctor!! And loves dogs and his big brother Drew!!!

Carter was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, stage 4, high risk on 11/11/11. Not a lucky day for us:( but we have been fighting and fighting ever since!!

Thank you and thank you for making a difference for children’s cancer!!! It means so much for families like us!!!”

Ann also told me about her CaringBridge site she was using to chronicle the family’s battle. I started regularly checking in on the Dang family through that page.

Ann had told me that Carter’s cancer was Stage 4 and high-risk, but I never doubted that he would survive.

It never crossed my mind that by the March 15 fundraiser, I would be honoring Carter’s memory. I guess you’d call that denial.

Cancer can, and does, kill.

“Carter’s in hospice”

On Feb. 9, I called Ann to discuss interviewing Carter.

That’s when she said they’d received the results of their latest scans and they weren’t good. The cancer had spread so much that Carter was now in hospice care.

I told Ann how sorry I was and how I would keep her family in my thoughts and prayers. And then, this woman whom I’d never even met in person invited me into her life at possibly the darkest moment. Ann asked me if I would like to come to the dog parade that her neighborhood was holding in honor of Carter.

I told her I would be honored to come to Carter’s special dog parade.

Sometime between hanging up the phone with her and arriving at my church’s service that day, I found myself unable to control my sobbing.

I guess it just reminded me about how precious life really is. And how short it can be. And sometimes, good and innocent people are taken away from us far too soon.

An Outpouring of Love

When I arrived at the Dangs’ home in Huntersville, I was blown away by how much the community had rallied around this 3-year-old boy.

The day before, the local fire department had made Carter an honorary firefighter. And loved ones of the Dang family were able to get Carter his very own black puppy.

But the dog parade amazed me.

This was not just a few neighborhood kids walking their dogs past Carter’s Guest of Honor chair. This was an entire neighborhood rally with dozens of dogs, scores of people and even a DJ.

The sun was shining, the music was upbeat and everyone was smiling and waving to Carter. This wasn’t a sad farewell to some neighborhood toddler. This was a celebration of life, love and happiness.

Carter sat in his mom’s arms the whole time, sucking on his pacifier and quietly watching the dogs march by.

His mom talked to me like we’d been friends for years. And his dad even got me a jersey to wear to the shaving event on March 15. It’s red and the logo says “Super Carter. You can do it. We love you.”

On Feb. 27, Carter passed away at 2:50 p.m.

In the days leading up to his death, his mom had described how the pain medicine was no longer working and how Carter had become increasingly lethargic, declining to do things he used to love like watching the garbage truck come by or watching Bruno Mars and Pink music videos.

“My heart is broken,” his mom wrote . “Carter passed away today at 2:50pm. He became a beautiful angel this afternoon… This is the only way I know it makes sense in my world... Hes not alone and I know he’s Free from pain. Free from Neuroblastoma. Free from medicine and lines. Free to be a boy. A happy loving boy.”

She signed off with a quote from Winnie the Pooh:

“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, Keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.”

Please keep the Dang family in your thoughts and prayers.

I’m glad to have had the privilege to meet Carter and his family. And I will be honored to stand beside Carter’s dad and other loved ones as we shave our heads on March 15 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in support of kids bravely battling cancer, and in memory of those taken too soon.

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