ADVANCED FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2013 In this Aug. 28 photo, Jonah Hammett poses for a photo with some of the sports memorabilia that's been sent to him during his battle with cancer. (AP Photo/Winston-Salem Journal, Lauren Carroll)
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ADVANCED FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2013 In this Aug. 28 photo, Jonah Hammett poses for a photo with some of the sports memorabilia that's been sent to him during his battle with cancer. (AP Photo/Winston-Salem Journal, Lauren Carroll)

Teen fighting cancer aims at returning to baseball field

By Brant Wilkerson-new

Winston-Salem Journal

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LEWISVILLE — Jonah Hammett had his sights set on Cooperstown.

For as long as he can remember, Jonah, 13, has lived and breathed baseball. From his backyard batting cage to travel teams to Southwest Forsyth Little League, the game has been a year-round obsession.

The pinnacle of his career was on the horizon — a trip to Cooperstown to play in a tournament with his travel team in mid-June 2012.

That’s when the headaches started.

Jonah’s parents, Tommy and Amy Hammett, and doctors thought nothing of it. Just a passing ear infection, they thought. But the day before the Hammetts were scheduled to drive north, a doctor suggested a CT scan, just to be safe.

After the scan, Amy and Jonah sat down, awaiting the results. They waited and waited, then Amy’s phone rang, and a doctor broke the news — Jonah had a mass the size of a golf ball on the left side of his brain.

“Every time we sit and talk about it, and we look back, it’s very surreal,” Amy Hammett said. “It almost feels like you’re outside of it, watching a movie.

“There’s just no way to describe it — words you think you’re never going to hear. Words you definitely never want to hear in a sentence with your son’s name.”

Amy didn’t immediately tell Jonah, instead waiting for Tommy to join them at the doctor’s office.

“It was unbelievable,” Tommy Hammett said. “A little bit in shock, devastated, sort of, at the same time.”

Jonah finally heard the news for the first time — he had a rare form of brain cancer, anaplastic ganglioglioma. His first question to the doctor was: “Am I going to be able to go to Cooperstown?”

Amy said: “That’s when he realized it was serious — when he knew he couldn’t play baseball.”

The next day, a Thursday, the family met with an oncologist and learned that the tumor was malignant. Jonah had surgery to remove the mass by Friday afternoon, but a month later, the cancer was back.

Jonah immediately started chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and they worked well enough to allow doctors to remove the rest of the tumor last December.

During Jonah’s treatment, word got out that he was a sports fanatic.

Now, the family dining room is a shrine of sports collectables, with items from around the country.

Desmond Howard, the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL player, sent a signed football helmet. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees autographed a “Team Jonah” T-shirt. The teams at Wake Forest and South Carolina sent signed footballs.

During a visit to an Atlanta Braves game last fall, Jonah acquired a Braves jersey. He also met his favorite player, Chipper Jones. Despite having an open wound on the side of his head from a second surgery, Jonah had his heart set on playing baseball again in the spring. Because his scalp wasn’t fully healed, he couldn’t bat, but he was able to play first base and third base.

Itching to get back in the batter’s box, Jonah took things into his own hands one day when Amy left her phone unattended: “So I pretended to be her, and texted Dr. (Alexander) Powers,” Jonah said.

Jonah wrote: “Jonah wants to hit at his game today, and he really wants to.”

Powers replied that it would be OK. Jonah replied “Thanks, he will be so glad!”

Despite the doctor’s blessing, it was an anxious moment for Amy.

“I was not quite ready,” she said. “I was a little skeptical. I would sit there and hold my breath, and pray.”

In his first at-bat after 10 months away from the game, Jonah swung at the first pitch and got a base hit.

“I’m glad now that he did get to play, but no, I was not a willing participant in that,” Amy said. “It was great to see him out there.”

Jonah continued playing through May, even on days he had treatment.

“He would have chemo that morning and go play a ballgame that night,” Amy said. “He was doing really well.”

Jonah played his final game of the season in late May, because of a cosmetic procedure scheduled May 27 to clean up his scalp.

But soon the headaches returned. This time, they were accompanied by severe vision problems, back pain and trouble walking. Jonah was sleeping 20 hours a day, and when he was awake, he couldn’t open his eyes because of the pain.

Just three weeks earlier, a scan showed that he was stabilizing. Now, the cancer had spread to his spine.

“You look back and you think, just two weeks (ago), he was on the ball field, he was running the bases, he was hitting some really incredible hits,” Amy said.

Jonah immediately resumed chemotherapy, then went through radiation treatments in August.

“Radiation is over, and they’ve basically told us this is inoperable now,” Amy said.

July was the first time that doctors used that word, and the Hammetts said it took a few days for them to regroup. “We were extremely devastated” Amy said.

Jonah again became an inspiration.

Teams at Southwest Forsyth Little League wore wristbands and put his name on their jerseys. His travel team took his jersey to the dugout for every game. Classmates went to the Hammetts’ home to play video games and keep Jonah involved through social media.

Around town, the Hammetts have seen people they don’t know wearing “At bat for Jonah” T-shirts.

“It certainly renews your faith in people as well, because it’s brought a whole lot of good out of people,” Tommy Hammett said.

Just last week, the Hammetts saw both ends of the spectrum.

After a man offered to pay for their meal at Cracker Barrel, they returned home to find that their house had been broken into and that some small items had been taken.

“We saw two opposites of mankind,” Amy said. “At the same time a stranger is paying for our meal, a stranger is combing through our house, breaking in and taking our stuff,”

Amy said that Jonah’s situation has given her a new perspective.

“I think it would have bothered me a whole lot more a year and a half ago,” she said of the burglary.

The family has adopted a saying throughout Jonah’s battle: “Let the skinny rabbits go.”

“There’s a lot of skinny rabbits these days,” Amy said.

Jonah will undergo a CT scan Sept. 13 to determine what the options are.

“They’re kind of at the end of what they know to do, so right now, they’re trying to involve others and searching their colleagues in other hospitals to see,” Amy said.

A deeply religious family, the Hammetts are putting their faith in a higher power.

“We just keep trusting Him,” Amy said. “If I trust Him with all the others areas of my life, and I trust Him with my soul, then, you know, I’m going to trust Him to get us through this — and He has.”

Jonah said that his faith hasn’t been shaken.

“If you think He did that, you’ve got nowhere else,” he said. “If you blame it on Him, then where do you turn?”

Amy agreed.

“I think human nature, you wonder why,” she said. “That’s human — but we’ve always felt like . we know there’s a purpose. We don’t believe God did this to Jonah, but we do believe God will bring good out of it.”

Jonah said that some good has come of it.

“As much as I hate this, and wish it hadn’t have happened, our family is a whole lot closer because of this,” he said.

Amy said: “I tell people all the time, we should be curled up in fetal positions, crying our eyes out, and want to pull the earth in over us. We have had hard days, but we’ve had a whole lot of good.”

Hearing Jonah speak softly in his Southern drawl, there’s little hint that he’s fighting for his life.

Sitting under a baseball-patterned blanket on the couch, he zips through pictures on his iPad. He stops on one of his scalp after his first surgery, pointing out that his scar looks like the stitching on a baseball.

He often flashes a big smile, laughing as he talks about how he pulled a slick one on his mom and doctor.

“I admire him a lot,” Amy Hammett said, her voice cracking. “He has gone through a lot of stuff, and he has struggled with a lot of things that 13-year-olds shouldn’t have to — and he’s done it with a heck of a lot of grace.”

Amy said that Jonah’s is now on a more normal sleep schedule and is determined to walk on his own.

Each day, he goes through an exercise routine that he developed — first with a walker, and now with little assistance.

He has his mind set on making sure that he didn’t walk to home plate for the last time in May.

“He loves it, just loves it,” Amy Hammett said. “That’s what drives him now, he wants to get back on the baseball field.”

Jonah doesn’t care how or where he plays again, as long as he plays.

“I really don’t care what position I play. I just want to be on the field,” he said.


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal,