Granting wishes: Somerville man diagnosed with brain cancer helping other young adults
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
A light blue ballcap emblazoned with the words “Bring Joy” in yellow sat atop Joe Thompson’s head. Sitting in his Somerville home in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Thompson remembered to last year when, at the age of 22, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
“This may sound strange, but being diagnosed with brain cancer helped me realize my true purpose and calling. A dear friend of mine told me, ‘A man has got to wake up every day with a purpose.’ You have to feel like you are doing something for an important reason in their world. I have that now,” Thompson, now 23, said.
Because of his diagnosis, Thompson, as the Alabama spokesman for the Nikolas Ritschel Foundation, which grants wishes to young adults battling cancer, is living out his life’s mission.
“This organization has changed my life,” Thompson said. “To help other young adults, like me, be able to escape their diagnosis just for a little bit and find some hope, that is my passion.”
Thompson’s journey with cancer began in January 2022. He had just graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in management and was starting his first job when he began experiencing blurred vision and dizzy spells.
A trip to a walk-in clinic resulted in a diagnosis of vertigo and a prescription to help ease the symptoms. But the symptoms progressively worsened.
In March, after he fell in the supply closet at work, Thompson’s parents insisted he go to the emergency room.
“My dad said I should go to the ER and I said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ I didn’t want to waste all my time there. But I could see how concerned he and my mom were. I asked my mom, ‘Do I need to go to the hospital?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ If my mom tells me to do something, I’m going to do it,” Thompson.
A CAT scan at Decatur Morgan Hospital revealed swelling on Thompson’s brain. At 1 a.m., the hospital rushed Thompson to Huntsville Hospital. Three hours later, on March 3, Thompson heard the news that would change his life. A tumor was on his brain stem. Most likely, it was inoperable.
“It didn’t scare me or make me worried. My first thought was OK, if the tumor is inoperable, what are our next steps. I wanted a plan,” Thompson said.
The neurosurgeon at Huntsville Hospital referred Thompson to Dr. Burt Nabors at UAB. There, Thompson learned the name of his cancer — DIPG.
Found mostly in young children, DIPG is a rare and often fatal cancer. The median survival rate is eight to 11 months with 10% of patients surviving two years and 2% of patients surviving five years.
“I did a lot of initial research on Google and talked to my neuro-oncologist about it. He never gave me a life expectancy. He told me he didn’t know because all of the data they had on DIPG was for young kids. I was 22. He said he had four or five older patients like me with similar tumors that were still alive after five years,” Thompson said.
To treat the tumor, Thompson underwent radiation. Every day, Monday through Friday, for six weeks, Thompson arrived at the hospital at 10:30 a.m. for 30 minutes of radiation.
“The radiation made me physically weak. I was able to walk into treatment the first week. The second week, I used my grandmother’s walker. The third or fourth week I had to use a wheelchair because I could hardly walk,” Thompson said.
While undergoing radiation, Thompson also began taking oral and IV chemotherapy drugs, which he will continue through the end of March.
“If the scans show the tumor is stable, then I will be able to be done with chemotherapy for a little bit. That will give me more time to concentrate on Nik’s Wish,” Thompson said.
Young adults’ wishes
Thompson first learned of Nik’s Wish from a social worker at UAB, who encouraged him to apply for a wish. A lover of horse racing, Thompson asked to attend the Kentucky Derby. Two months after filling out the application, Kelli Ritschel Boehle, the founder of the Nikolas Ritschel Foundation and mother of Nikolas Ritschel, told Thompson he would be going to the Kentucky Derby in May of 2023.
After hearing about Nik’s Wish, Thompson began reading more about the organization — about the young adults who received wishes, those waiting for wishes and the inspiration behind Nik’s Wish — Nikolas Ritschel.
“My son was the energy in the room. His smile lit up the whole room. He was very charismatic. He had lots of energy, even when he was fighting cancer,” Boehle said.
While undergoing treatment, Ritschel met another young adult, Nate, who was diagnosed with cancer one month after his 18th birthday.
“Nik was of the age where he was eligible for Make-A-Wish and he wished for some crazy things. He wanted to be on ‘Deal or No Deal,’ to be a towel boy for the Chicago Bears and to own a pet monkey. All of those were denied,” Boehle said.
But Nik saw the value in providing wishes.
“When he met Nate and found out he was ineligible for Make-A-Wish because of his age, he said, ‘Mom, we have to do something.”
As Ritschel’s cancer progressed over the next eight months, he continued to talk about filling this need to provide young adults, ages 18-24, with wishes.
“Nik was very spiritual and knew his time was coming. The night before a procedure, while I was trying to find out what else we could do, he said, ‘Mom, stop.’ He played a Dave Matthews song that begins, ‘To change the world, it starts with one step. However small, first step is hardest of all.’ He asked me one more time if I could help,” Boehle said. “The next morning, during a 20-minute procedure, the tumor invaded a major blood vessel and Nik died in the operating room in the doctor’s arms.”
Three months later, Boehle founded the Nikolas Ritschel Foundation and Nik’s Wish. The first fundraising event raised enough money to grant five wishes. Today, 11 years after its founding, the foundation has granted 300 wishes.
“When I went on the website and read about the young adults and their wishes, I grew attached to them. I felt like being part of this organization was what I was supposed to be doing,” Thompson said. “I reached out to Kelli about a possible part-time position. She said for me to send her my resume and that they were looking to expand in 2023.”
While at a Halloween party last year, Thompson met Jim Phillips, who lives a few minutes away from Boehle in Illinois. Thompson told him about Nik’s Wish and about his diagnosis. Inspired to help out the foundation, Phillips contacted Boehle and arranged to host a couple of charity events.
‘Sense of peace’
In January, Boehle, seeing Thompson’s passion for Nik’s Wish, reached out to him about serving as the Alabama spokesman for the foundation.
“When I found out about Joe’s strong desire to work for us, I realized, for him, it was much more than just a job, it was his real wish. I am so thankful we are able to help him fulfill his purpose,” Boehle said.
As the spokesperson for the foundation, Thompson plans on raising awareness about Nik’s Wish in the community.
“These wishes are so important. They give a sense of peace in a really dark time. If you are 18 to 24, you may have just graduated from school or got your first big job or are starting a family. That should be your top priority and all of a sudden you are fighting cancer and thinking about your life,” Thompson said. “These wishes, in a sense, allow people to escape cancer for a little bit and just live.”
To find more information about the Nikolas Ritschel Foundation and Nik’s Wish, visit nikolasritschelfoundation.org.