Students across Beaufort County are preparing to return to class, but for 16-year-old Jason Garcia of Bluffton, the start of the school year is less certain.
The rising junior at May River High is recovering after surgeons removed a large tumor from the back of his head — where his spinal cord and brain meet — and he’s waiting to hear whether he’ll need to undergo chemotherapy, radiation or both.
For his mother, Naty Abarca, the uncertainty makes it hard to sleep.
“This is just so difficult for us, and I’m very worried because we don’t know the type of tumor,” she told a reporter in Spanish.
“It could have been there ever since I was little, and it could have been growing and growing,” the teen said about the tumor, which doctors call ependymoma.
Jason had been suffering from headaches and nausea for years before his diagnosis.
“In the morning time, every day — mostly every day when I woke up — I would have a headache,” Jason said.
“The front, the back, the top of my head ... pretty much my whole head (hurt) sometimes,” he explained. “I couldn’t shake my head because that would give me a headache.”
The headaches and nausea were so frequent that they became a normal part of the teenager’s life, but while he and his mother were visiting family members in Guerrero, Mexico, an aunt persuaded them to see a doctor there for what the family thought was a migraine.
That doctor told them they needed to get Jason to a neurologist right away.
The family returned home, and Jason underwent a 10-hour surgery July 22 at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
The surgery was a complicated one because of the location of the tumor, and while Jason is unsteady when he walks, he said doctors are optimistic because he can still talk and move.
For the teen, who enjoys playing soccer and basketball, this is no small victory.
“I’m starting to be able to walk on my own,” he said.
Naty Abarca said she’s hopeful, and that her son’s recovery is happening little by little. She helps him change his shirt and walk around the house.
“I’m feeling very scared though, because we do not know what could be happening next,” she said.
The next steps in Jason’s treatment are still being determined by his doctors, but the teen is thankful for support from friends and family during the eight days he was in the hospital.
“I don’t really like being the center of attention,” he said, “... but so many people came to visit me.”