For Bluffton teenager Michael Mugrage, Christmas Day marks the end of a brief reprieve in his fight against a rare form of cancer.
The day after the holiday, he starts 13 weeks of chemotherapy so intense that he likely will be hospitalized for much of it.
“The first six weeks was like an intro,” his mother, Jessica Mugrage, explained about the chemo her son has endured so far. Michael’s cancer-treatment plan includes more surgeries — he’s had three so far — and stretches over 54 weeks.
Michael was diagnosed last month with high-risk rhabdomyosarcoma. “High-risk” means the cancer has spread widely, according to the American Cancer Society. The cancer has surrounded his left lung and was found in his bone marrow. He also has tumors on his skull.
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Because of the aggressive way Michael’s cancer has spread, the chemotherapy treatments have to be potent.
But those treatments also pose risks.
“The side-effects have to be monitored in the hospital,” Jessica said.
For now though, the single mom who also has an 11-year-old son said, “We are just looking forward to being able to celebrate Christmas at home.”
A day at school
On Wednesday, Michael was feeling well enough to attend an assembly in his honor at May River High School.
He had not been to school since Oct. 30. After school that day, his lung collapsed, starting a chain of medical tests and surgeries that led to his diagnoses and a lengthy stay in Savannah’s Memorial University Medical Center.
Students at the Bluffton school have been raising funds to help the Mugrage family.
At the assembly, five people had their heads shaved by barber Brent Nelson to raise funds and show unity with the 10th grader.
Principal Todd Bornscheuer, history teacher Richard Bonneville, school resource Officer Amber Swinehamer, and students C.J. Chewning and Donte Shelton were shorn before a crowd of cheering students, who raised more than $5,400 for the event.
“It’s really nice for them to do this for me,” Michael said after the assembly.
Michael said he has had to decline invitations from his friends because of his health, so he enjoyed being able to be back at school and be with his friends for a little while, at least.
“Stay positive during negative times,” he said he has learned through his experience so far.
Jessica Mugrage, who works at Haverty’s in Bluffton and has lived in town only a couple of years after moving from Hawaii, said the community support offered to her family has been overwhelming and a great morale booster.
Michael has enjoyed the many cards sent to him in the mail, his mother said, and a Go Fund Me account has collected nearly $52,000.
“It’s been a wonderful amount of support,” Jessica Mugrage said.
“This isn’t anything anyone expects to be in a situation to be receiving,” she said. “How do you say thank you? ... I wish that one day I will be able to pay it forward.”
After Michael’s diagnosis, a trio of Bluffton women — Austin Kirby Kristoff, her mother Karen Cline and her grandmother Dianne Robertson — decided they wanted to help the family in a unique way.
They crafted a handful of “Christmas crowns” — headbands heavily adorned with colorful ribbons, ornaments and baubles — with 100 percent of the $15 sale price going to the Mugrage family.
“We made about 20 our first round, and we weren’t sure if anyone would love them but us,” said Kristoff.
Their creative venture paid off, however.
They ended up raising more than $2,700 by selling 178 crowns to buyers in Beaufort County and well beyond — New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee, Kristoff said.
The women have sold out of the crowns but are still accepting donations on the family’s behalf.
“(The crowns) are so fabulous and festive, it’s hard not to have fun when you’re wearing one,” Kristoff said. “It is our prayer that as everyone wears their crowns, they would be visible reminders to remember Michael and his family this season.”
Golf tournament planned
Brown Golf and the Bluffton Police Department are planning a “Miracle for Michael” golf outing Feb. 17 at Pinecrest Golf Club. The fee is $75 per person. Donations and volunteers are being sought. To register before Feb. 1 or for more information, call 843-368-0625.