JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
On Dec. 4, 2013, Melanie Emery Dallis lived every parent’s worst nightmare – learning that she might outlive one of her children.
A CT scan revealed that Melanie’s nine year-old daughter, Fallon, had a mass on her brain. She was rushed to the Medical University of South Carolina for emergency surgery, during which doctors discovered that Fallon had a glioblastoma multiforme – one of the deadliest forms of brain tumor. She was given 6-14 weeks to live.
“It was truly the worst day of my life,” Melanie recalled. “I’m waiting and waiting while she’s in surgery. They said it was going to be eight hours, now it’s been nine hours, then 10 hours. Then the surgeon comes in and he’s got this serious look on his face and he says, ‘you should come with me and talk with two other doctors. It’s not what we thought it was, it’s something far worse.’ I’m at MUSC alone waiting; my dad’s flying in from New York. I’m sitting on a couch with five doctors in front of me saying ‘your daughter is going to die.’”
Fallon Emery says she didn’t fully understand the gravity of her situation when she was initially diagnosed because she was so young and everything was moving too fast for her to process.
“All I knew was as soon as they said it, it was rush, rush, rush, because I had to go straight into surgery or else I was going to die,” she said. “I went straight from getting an MRI, thinking I had epilepsy, to them rushing me on a gurney to get anesthesia and prepped for surgery.”
It wasn’t until after her initial surgery that Fallon was able to absorb her surroundings. She remembers feeling a sense of calm, as if time was slowing down around her.
“By the time I was out, the shock finally wore off and I was just confused about everything that was happening,” she said. “My mom was trying to be strong, but she was crying and I could see it even though she tried to hide it. I could see her going through so many emotions.
“They told me that I had 6-14 weeks to live,” she continued. “I wasn’t scared or freaked out, but it’s weird when you know your exact death date compared to just knowing you’re going to die someday. It was a process; I just wanted to spend as much time with my family as I could. I could see that they were hurting, but I was just in this calm.”
DEFYING THE ODDS
Nearly five years later, 14-year-old Fallon seems like any other teenage girl. She enjoys swimming in the summer, listening to music, reading and spending time with her friends. She says her hobbies make her “sound like such a nerd.” She writes fiction, fairy tale and romance stories, but is “not as into the realistic stuff.”
Fallon beat the odds and lived well beyond her original prognosis.
“My mom says it’s because of my hair, that being a ginger affects [the tumor] more,” she said. “Kind of like how it takes more anesthesia to affect me.”
Melanie laughed before clarifying that she wasn’t joking.
“Her oncologist truly believes, medically, that the reason Fallon is still here is the red-head gene slows the growth of her tumor,” she explained.
Regardless of what caused Fallon’s unlikely recovery, Melanie said she is grateful for the time she has with her daughter and for the support their family received throughout their fight against cancer.
“It truly is a miracle that she’s still here … She has defied the odds since day one,” Melanie said. “When Fallon got sick, I was a single mom. I’ve since re-married and [Fallon and her sister Mae] have three other siblings and a step-father who are amazingly supportive. We have had tremendous support from the community in Myrtle Beach itself, Charleston, Coastal Carolina University and MUSC. It was pretty amazing and still is.”
AIRMAN FOR A DAY
Word of Fallon’s fight against cancer eventually reached the 437th Airlift Wing Commander’s Action Group, who reached out to units across Joint Base Charleston, S.C., for ideas on how to recognize her for her effort.
437th AW senior leaders decided that Fallon was a great candidate to visit JB Charleston as part of the Airman for a Day program, which provides opportunities for children battling various illnesses to visit the base and experience life in the Air Force. Since November is recognized as “Month of the Military Family,” it was a fitting time to make Fallon an honorary Airman.
“Fallon is an inspiration to everyone at Joint Base Charleston,” said Col. Clint ZumBrunnen, 437th AW commander. “Her fighting spirit exemplifies what it means to be a warrior. She has demonstrated all the characteristics we look for when recruiting Airmen, so selecting her to be an Airman for a Day was the right choice. We are incredibly proud of her and her family for their relentless fight against cancer.”
First Lt. Thad Sollick, a C-17 Globemaster III pilot assigned to the 437th Operations Support Squadron, just happened to be near a phone when the CAG called his office.
“They called down to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this visit,’” he recalled. “I immediately spoke up and replied, ‘I got this.’ I didn’t even mention it to anyone else.”
Sollick began coordinating with Deborah “Flash” Stephenson, founder and CEO of Courageous Kidz, Inc., to learn more about Fallon’s story and plan a day she would never forget.
“We gave them a list of all the different things they could do on the base,” he said. “I don’t know how many they’re allowed to pick, but Fallon only picked two; she picked explosive ordnance disposal and the C-17 simulator. I tried to find things that would interest a young girl and something she couldn’t see anywhere else. [Being from Myrtle Beach], she’s not going to go sit on a C-17 in the county airport.”
Like most of the experiences to honor Fallon’s bravery, the Airman for a Day visit to JB Charleston was a closely-guarded secret from her until she arrived.
“She really didn’t have a clue, we had been planning this for three months,” said Flash, who has been working with Fallon and her family for nearly five years.
“I was told to get in the car and go to sleep and when I woke up, we’d be at the surprise,” said Fallon. “I knew it was something activity-wise, but I didn’t know what. When we got here, I saw that they had on Courageous Kidz shirts so I knew Flash was involved somehow – and I knew it was along the lines of something crazy.”
Fallon arrived at the 437th OSS facility to a standing ovation, received a flight suit with unit patches, took her official photo and started her day as an honorary mobility Airman.
Sollick escorted Fallon, Melanie, Mae and Flash around JB Charleston to experience airpower and the air mobility mission. They learned about night vision at the Aircrew Flight Equipment facility and used a flight simulator before touring a C-17 on the base flight line.
But the highlight of the visit, according to Fallon, was controlling an EOD robot. She also tried on a bomb protection suit during that portion of the visit.
“I liked everything, but the robot was one of my favorite things because I love things like that,” she said.
At the conclusion of the tour, the family met with ZumBrunnen and Chief Master Sgt. Ronnie Phillips, 437th AW command chief master sergeant, both of whom presented Fallon with their official challenge coins.
Sollick described his experience hosting Fallon as Airman for a Day as “one of the best days at work that I’ve had in a long time.”
“I think it’s a great program” he said. “I’m glad they reached out to OSS and I’m glad I was the one who answered the call. I’m really grateful that I got to do it.”
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
Today, Fallon still has a tumor in her head. Doctors performed a second brain surgery but could not remove the entire mass because it was too close to the parts of the brain that control memory and physical control.
“Even now, after the effects of [the surgeries], I have problems with short-term memory,” said Fallon. “I forget things and I repeat things.”
In addition to multiple surgeries, Fallon has endured a total of 33 radiation treatments and 84 chemotherapy treatments, which caused extensive weight loss – she weighed about 50 pounds at one point. She also had to re-learn to walk after being bound to a wheelchair due to neuropathy caused by the treatments.
But Fallon wasn’t the only one affected by her condition. Her sister Mae had to miss pre-school because doctors feared she could pick up germs that could put Fallon’s health at additional risk. Even at her young age, Mae was keenly aware of her older sister’s condition.
“She’d play with her dolls when she was younger and pretend that one of the dolls had cancer,” Melanie said while imitating Mae playing. “She’d say, ‘It’s ok that you have cancer. Let me go get your chemo.’ I mean, she’s four years old.”
Fallon, who turns 15 in December, says that her experience has given her a unique perspective on life. While other children her age focus on good grades in school and getting into college, her main focus in is making sure she keeps connections with friends and spending time with her family.
“I can’t go to bed without saying ‘I love you’ to everyone in the house,” she said. “Because if something happened to me, I’d want them to know.”