A year and a half after receiving a life-altering diagnosis, a rising junior at Jackson High School is regaining a sense of normalcy and sharing his story in hopes that it helps others.
Eric Lenning, now 16, was working out with the Red Devils baseball team in the offseason and participating in marching band activities when he began to experience back pain in December 2017. His father took him to a local doctor’s office, where they discovered two compression fractures in his back.
In a trip to a specialist, they discovered several more, and made an appointment to be evaluated by a hematologist, trying to discover the underlying cause of the fractures.
But before that appointment, Kim Lenning, Eric’s mom, said her son became pale and began having trouble walking. She and her husband Dwayne took Eric to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. In the early morning hours of Dec. 19, the family was given news that would affect their lives and the lives of those close to them for months.
Eric was diagnosed with leukemia and started a treatment regimen that would keep him off the baseball field, away from school for long periods and largely away from friends for several months.
Eric and his family spent that Christmas in the hospital, but praise the Children’s Healthcare staff for making it as pleasant a stay as Christmas in a hospital can be. Kim also credits former Red Devils coach Mickey Moody and the team for making Eric a part of the Red Devils team, even if he never played an inning of baseball at the high school level.
While he returned to school after spring break of 2018, during his sophomore year, Eric still had to make trips back to the hospital because of complications due to his chemo-weakened immune system.
And though he appears healthy now, he still takes a daily chemotherapy pill, returns once a month for a chemotherapy treatment via a port in his body and every three months for a spinal treatment aimed at keeping the leukemia from returning.
He said doctors have given him the date of his final planned chemotherapy treatment, which will wind up being just a month before he plans to graduate from high school in May of 2021.
By the time he graduates, leukemia will have impacted nearly all of Eric’s high school career, which is in line with what he was told of the usually three-and-a-half year treatment process for boys.
Kim and Eric say their faith has helped them through what have been trying times, along with the help of friends and family. Everyone in the household, Kim said, including Eric’s older brother Coleman Conner and younger sister Ansley Lenning, was impacted by his diagnosis, with his illness and treatments leading to time off work and juggling of schedules.
Kim said it was often Eric’s positive outlook that helped keep her going.
“I actually pulled strength from Eric,” she said.
Sharing their story, the Lennings said, will hopefully help other families going through trying times. Kim encourages families facing crisis to not be too proud to accept the help they are offered by friends and strangers.
“Accept that help. They want to be there for you,” she said. “And in the end, you will be grateful.”
And through Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Eric has been able to expand the reach of his story, with appearances on Atlanta radio stations, and a speaking engagement at a fundraiser hosted by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, where Eric and his family were able to share a meal with Ryan.
These days, Eric is preparing for the upcoming marching band season, and working at the local Ingles grocery store. He’s also a student at the Griffin Region College and Career Academy, where he’s earning college credit while in high school.
He says the trajectory of his life may have been forever altered by leukemia. Having previously considered pursuing a career in sports management, he’s now considering a career in healthcare, perhaps with a focus on oncology, hoping that he can help others through his own experience.
“Always keep your head up,” Eric says he would advise others in his situation. “You’re going to feel sick, all the time pretty much, but you can’t let it get you down. You always have to be positive about it.”