Wyatt Salmons' warrior spirit gave him more than a year with his family following his diagnosis with a fatal childhood cancer in early 2019.
As he endured a barrage of tests, experimental and traditional treatments, physical therapy and more, members of the Callaway County community both in his hometown of Hatton and beyond rallied to support him and his family. His supporters called themselves "Wyatt's Warriors." Wyatt even got to fulfill his dream of attending the SEMA automotive trade show in Las Vegas.
Wyatt's fight against diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma ended at 10:45 p.m. Friday night, according to a CaringBridge update by mother Veronica Salmons. He was 12 years old.
"This is the part where I'm supposed to say 'he finally won his battle,'" Veronica wrote. "Well, I won't. I won't say that. This is not a win. This is a loss that is deeper than my heart can fathom."
Wyatt leaves behind his younger brother, Cash, his parents Veronica and Jason, and many friends and family members.
"As someone born with an old soul, Wyatt understood the value of friendship," his obituary notes. "He chose friends wisely and loved them deeply. It is clear he chose well; as his friends never let go, even under the most difficult circumstances."
DIPG is a rare brain cancer occurring mostly in children, with a low survival rate and no known cure. It starts in the brainstem and spreads to the brain and sometimes the spinal cord. The brainstem controls things like breathing, heart rate and the nerves that help with important functions including sight, hearing, walking and speech.
Wyatt was an outdoorsy, extroverted, energetic kid who loved hunting, fishing and especially football.
"He loved overcoming personal challenges and still being part of a team," his family wrote in his obituary, posted to Maupin Funeral Home's website. "Wyatt even requested a personal trainer to help him prepare and reach his full potential for middle school football just before his cancer diagnosis."
Wyatt's family first noticed he seemed fatigued and unusually clumsy. The symptoms were alarming enough that his mother took him to the family pediatrician, who referred them to the hospital, where the tumor was discovered. He received his official diagnosis Feb. 11, 2019: grade IV DIPG, the most aggressive kind.
The prognosis for children with DIPG is grim: According to defeatdipg.org, only 10 percent of children with DIPG survive for two years after diagnosis, while less than 1 percent live for five years. The median survival time is nine months from diagnosis.
Later in February, he had surgery to relieve pressure from fluid build-up inside his skull, then began radiation treatment in March of 2019 at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The tumor's growth crawled to a halt and Wyatt saw some relief from his symptoms, feeling well enough to attend a "Wyatt's Warriors Cruise and Carnival" fundraiser organized by family friends.
"His love of classic cars started at a very young age, watching/helping (his) dad in the shop and attending car shows as a family," reads one update on his family's CaringBridge page. "One of his first requests when finding out his diagnosis was terminal was to have a car show held in his honor."
However, Veronica wrote, radiation only provides a temporary relief for children with DIPG: "About 6 months after radiation, the tumor begins to grow again and symptoms come back fast and hard." The family decided to enroll Wyatt in a drug trial at St. Jude. He became one of the first children to take an experimental chemotherapy drug targeting a specific genetic mutation found in his tumor.
But by July, his body's strong reaction to the drug had made it unsafe for him to continue participating in the study. Doctors recommended another chemotherapy drug typically used in adult lung cancer patients, but it ultimately proved ineffective. An MRI scan in October showed tumor progression.
"What won't change is our focus on making as many memories as we can and putting a smile on the face of our amazing warrior," Veronica wrote.
With help from the Central Missouri Dream Factory, the family attended SEMA and even got to meet car customizer Steve Darnell. An escort of classic cars helped see him off.
"The show has a strict policy of being closed to the public and especially to children; however, Wyatt's wit and smile was all that was necessary to get him in the door and win over the hearts of everyone he met," wrote Nancy Hanson, the local Dream Factory volunteer who helped coordinate the trip, in an email Monday. "I certainly don't feel like I did anything more for Wyatt than any other friend would, but I am so blessed that my life has been forever changed just by knowing such a young warrior."
Wyatt attended school as much as possible and spent time with his family.
More bad news came in November, when another area of cancer emerged along his spine and necessitated immediate radiation treatment. In February, more scans revealed another cluster of cancerous cells along his spine and one on his brain — another round of radiation. Wyatt's legs grew weaker and he began having trouble sleeping; his decline continued from there, with cancer stealing his body's ability to function day by day, as his mother chronicled.
"Wyatt told us a few weeks ago that he felt the cancer getting worse," Veronica wrote April 17. "He said it was a horrible monster. He is so right."
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wyatt's family plans to host a celebration of life ceremony at a later date so "family and loved ones can gather to honor Wyatt is a way he deserves," the family wrote in his obituary (bit.ly/2W0tHE8).
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to two organizations that have been powerful forces of comfort and helped sustain them throughout Wyatt's cancer journey: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (stjude.org/donate/donate-to-st-jude) and Super Sam Foundation (supersamfounation.com/donate).
As of Monday, tributes from Wyatt's Warriors filled the "Wyatt Salmons Support Page" on Facebook. Supporters arranged hundreds of glowsticks in the shape of a giant shield emblazoned with a "W" in his front lawn. The Callaway County Jeepers organized a caravan of Jeeps whose headlights lit the night.
Family friend Amanda Young, who helped organize the Wyatt's Warriors Cruise, shared her thoughts via email.
"Wyatt is a one of a kind kid that has left an impression with many people — More of an impression than some people twice his age," she said. "Wyatt's Warriors near and far have come together to be a warrior just like Wyatt. Wyatt has challenged me to be a better person and to give myself without pause and to give 110 percent to everything that I do."