ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Nate Noonan says there has never been any reason to worry or complain.
Noonan is 15 years old and about to begin his freshman year at Byron High School in Byron, Minn., just outside or Rochester.
On May 2, 2019, the strapping and athletic teenager — 6-feet, 185 pounds — was given every reason to worry and complain. It was then that he was diagnosed with leukemia, a blood and bone-marrow cancer.
For some, it’s fatal.
But for Noonan, it’s simply been a test of faith, one he is passing with breathtaking certainty.
“I just know that whatever happens, the Lord wants to happen,” Noonan said. “God has a plan for me. The Lord will take care of everything, so there is really no reason to worry.”
At present, the youngest of Lisa and Don Noonan’s five children is looking good. Nate is once again occupied with the things he loves most: playing baseball, hunting, chopping wood and riding his four-wheeler in the Noonan backyard.
The initial news of leukemia was surreal, though not completely out of the blue. Nate hadn’t been himself physically for weeks leading up to his first Mayo Clinic doctor’s visit 14 months ago. A series of fevers had been concerning, along with periodic vomiting and a lack of bounce to his step.
An initial test showed abnormalities in his blood count, which led to more tests, which ultimately led to a phone call from Nate’s doctor.
“I asked the doctor what was wrong, and he told me that it’s serious,” said Don, a pastor at Rochester Baptist Church.
Then the staggering news came. Nate’s blood counts were way off. The determination was made that he had leukemia. The only thing left to sort out was which kind.
Don was floored.
“For me, it was like getting punched in the chest,” Don said.
Nate said the whole thing felt like a horrible dream. Still, he wasted no time in revealing the attitude that he was going to proceed with. This came as Don made a call to Lisa, who was traveling, to tell her the awful diagnosis. Don said that Lisa became so overcome, tears raining down her face, that she had to pull off the highway, her vision compromised.
That’s when Nate stepped in.
“Nate told me to give him the phone,” Don said. “Then he said to Lisa, ‘Don’t worry, God has got this.’ That was 10 minutes after finding out (he had leukemia). It was Nate who gave us strength.”
Hanging in there
Nate hasn’t stopped giving strength, even when he didn’t have much strength to give. After immediately undergoing chemotherapy, his doctors later were forced to change course as Nate’s body wasn’t reacting to it.
What they ultimately settled on was his need for a CAR-T cell transplant. It would be new territory at Mayo Clinic, as the hospital had never before done this with a pediatric patient, with a sample of a patient's T cells collected from the blood, then modified to produce special structures. The CAR-T cells are then reinfused into the patient, with the new receptors latching onto the patient's tumor cells and killing them.
The process made Nate incredibly sick. He ended up in the intensive care unit for five days with a fever of 105 degrees.
But that’s what was supposed to happen. His body was waging a war with the cancerous cells.
It worked. The beginning of December, a bone biopsy was done on Nate, and it revealed no remaining cancer. Then, three months later another was performed, and it also came out clean.
There is no guarantee that the leukemia won’t come back. But for now, things look good.
Nate is back to being a kid again. He is reveling in playing baseball for his Byron summer team. And his teammates are reveling in having him back.
Nate didn’t make it definitive that he was coming back to the team this summer. Byron coach Jim Isaak, whose son, Grant, is a close friend and teammate of Nate’s, noted how eager the players were to be with him again.
"Grant kept asking me all week (before the first practice), 'Is Nate going to play? Is Nate going to play?,' " Isaak said. "I told him, 'I don't know, I haven't heard yet.' "
And then it happened. The team’s first practice began with an emotional explosion. Descending the hill that leads to their practice field was a sight they’d pined and prayed for. It was their big guy — Nate Noonan — making his way to practice, smiling.