Washington County High School senior Stephen Tallant has a big day this Friday, as do a number of other students when they take part in graduation ceremonies for the 2012-13 school year.
Tallant, however, will have gone through more than most students could imagine to get to that point. He suffers from moyamoya disease, which has led to a pair of brain surgeries, as well as MED (multiple epiphyseal dysplasia), which led to surgeries on his hips and legs.
Tallant, and his parents, Keith and Lisa, have been battling Stephen’s health issues since he was six years old. Finding him help began as a slow process, however, after an incorrect diagnosis.
“He was misdiagnosed at age 6 with partial complex seizures,” Lisa said. “By the time he was 13, he was hospitalized, because what looked like seizures had gone to the opposite side of his face. They ended up being pin strokes, and by the time he was 13 years old, he had almost no blood flow to the middle of his brain, which supplies the rest of his body.”
Stephen remembers the day something first went wrong at North Washington School, and trying to understand what was going on.
“I called my dad when it happened,” he said. “I got help walking to the office, because both sides (of my head) were completely numb. I didn’t know what was going on. I was freaking out.”
He had to have both of his legs broken, with plates and pins put in. The process, Stephen recalled, left him homebound for two or three months.
A rare genetic mutation can be attributed to Stephen’s trouble with his hips and legs, and his and Keith’s DNA has been studied by doctors all over the world. The cause of the mutation, however, has yet to be determined.
When Stephen was 13, the family discovered Dr. Michael Scott in Boston, Mass. Scott has made a name for himself by researching moyamoya disease and developing his own surgeries to treat the condition.
When Scott and the Tallants found out about each other, the family was told to get to Boston immediately. They did so, according to Stephen, with the help of the Angel Flight program, which provides financial support for dire medical needs.
It wasn’t long before it was apparent that brain surgery was needed, and Stephen was warned of the risks involved.
“Dr. Michael Scott said the surgery, if they didn’t get done in time, could kill me,” Stephen said. “I told him, ‘You’re trying to help me, so if it kills me, I’m not going to haunt you, I promise.’ Mom and Dad were in the waiting room, and I told Dr. Scott, ‘If I die, tell Mom and Dad I love them.’”
Lisa also recalled that first surgery and speaking with Stephen before it happened.
“He said, ‘Mom, you don’t have to worry about me. If God wants to take me, he’s going to take me home, and I’ll be fine,’” Lisa said.
The surgery was a success, but at the one-year checkup, deterioration was discovered on one side of his brain, meaning a second surgery was imminent.
Again, Stephen came out of surgery fine, but he disregarded Scott’s notion that he didn’t need to return to Boston in the future.
“Dr. Scott told me after a year checkup that I didn’t have to go back to Boston, but I stopped him right there and told him that he’s like family,” Stephen said. “I told him, I’m going to be up there when I get out of school, and that’s exactly what my plans are.”
Moyamoya has still had a major impact on Stephen’s life, even if surgeries are in the rearview mirror. He’s undergone cerebral angiograms since age 13, and suffered from pin strokes again at 16. Heights and weather changes are among factors that can still cause him trouble, with the titanium that is protecting his brain.
Stephen found himself under the knife once again last year, when he underwent a bilateral hip replacement over the summer.
“Last summer, I started having more problems with my legs and we saw a doctor in Louisville,” Stephen said. “He said, ‘When you can’t get out of your vehicle …,’ and I stopped him right there and said, ‘I can hardly get out of my vehicle. What are you talking about?’”
Stephen decided to go ahead and get the surgery over with, and it was yet another bump in the road of his struggle, which has been ongoing for about 13 years now.
Still, new challenges are arising, as he was held in the intensive care unit for a week in March with migraines, which mimicked a pin stroke.
Now, Stephen is focused on moving forward, and this week’s graduation is a huge step in the right direction. School has been a challenge for him since the first surgery, but it’s just been one of many.
“Life for me is hard, but I try not to show it,” he said. “I try to act like a normal boy who has normal issues. It’s always good to have a challenge. Maybe not my kind of challenges, but it’s still fun to have one. There’s nothing I can do about it but take it one baby step at a time.”
“I’m not going to lie. I’m probably going to have a box of Kleenexes beside me, and I’m probably going to bawl my eyes out,” Lisa added about this week’s graduation. “It’s when he goes off to college that’s going to be really hard for me.”
Lisa said Stephen is planning to attend Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington for one year, before heading to Murray State. In the meantime, he’s focused on his work as a volunteer firefighter with the Mercer County Fire Protection District. He also plans to add Mercer County EMS to his list of accomplishments.
“He loves helping people, first of all,” Lisa said. “At first, he was going to be a minister, and who knows what he’s going to do in his life, but he loves being a volunteer firefighter so much. He’s got 49 hours to go before he’s at full-time, and if he wanted to go on and be a firefighter, he could.”
“That was a big concept of it,” Stephen said of wanting to help people. “I’ve always wanted to do something productive, and to me, firefighting is productive.”
Staying busy with the fire department, as well as working on the farm, isn’t just an attempt to keep his mind preoccupied, it’s something his body needs as well.
“The doctor that did my hip replacement said that if I stop walking, I will be paralyzed,”
Stephen said. “I noticed one day that the muscles in my hips were tensing up, so I ran. They said the more I do, the more it’s going to hurt, but the less I do, the more of a risk there is. That’s why I started working on the farm, because I walk everywhere.”
Stephen and Lisa both spoke on the impact that friends, family and their church — Willisburg Christian — have had on helping the family get through all of Stephen’s issues, but Lisa said that Stephen’s bravery has been maybe the most amazing thing.
“He’s been through more than any grown man has been through,” she said. “I’m not going to say he’s never cried, but he has always said, ‘Which arm do you want to poke a hole in?,’ and been really brave through all of it. He’s probably been scared to death, but he doesn’t show it.”
Friday will be a huge moment for Stephen and his family, and while he doesn’t know what his future holds, he does know what’s next: that trip to Boston. Lisa said Scott calls and checks on Stephen at least once a year, and Stephen said Scott’s work has actually led to a friendship with another of his patients.
“I haven’t seen him in forever, and I haven’t been to Boston in forever,” Stephen said of Scott. “I keep in contact with him and have him as a Facebook friend. He did the same surgery on a boy in Somerset, and I stay in contact with him. I’ve been down there twenty-something times to talk to him and his family and see how he’s doing.”
Although Stephen said the process has been baby steps, this Friday will be one of the biggest steps he’s taken to date. A moment that many people take for granted will be cherished by one family whole-heartedly.
“I thank God every day that I’ve got him, and that’s the way I try to look at it,” Lisa said. “Friday night, with him getting out of school, is the proudest moment yet.”