Marathon kid clung to music through cancer battle


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Jacki Eckrich sits nestled on the couch, a laptop perched on her lap and a SpongeBob blanket hugging her legs. She’s watching home videos, remembering, as her little boy belts into a microphone. Off-camera, the audience is cheering and clapping.

“He was full of cancer here,” Jacki said, as her eyes follow her son’s onstage dancing. “But you would never know it.”

At the time the video was shot, 5-year-old Jason Eckrich had acute myeloid leukemia, a fast-growing cancer targeting the blood and bone marrow. But for the kid who named his IV pole “Punk” and who, up until his death, never stopped singing, he never showed it.

The bubbly, smiling boy spent 10 months of his 15-month battle with cancer in the hospital. But Jason made a lasting impression on those he encountered before he died on March 27, 2010.

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“He was kind of a star,” said Rolla Abu Arja, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and one of Jason’s physicians.

Jason had a passion for music — something he became famous for in the hospital and with the many Dance Marathon volunteers who befriended him.

“He had this knowledge of music beyond his age,” said Kirsten Nelson, a UIHC music therapist who worked with Jason. She credited the knowledge to Jason’s 16-year-old brother, Joe Eckrich, who plays the drums.

Nelson met Jason shortly after doctors diagnosed the then 4-year-old with cancer. In their music-therapy sessions, Jason fell in love with the drums, and to Nelson’s surprise, when he played, he threw one hand behind his back — she later found out it was a tribute to the one-armed Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen.

While most of Nelson’s patients request children’s songs, Jason always had something a little bit different in mind.

One time before surgery, Nelson composed the song “Pour Some Stem Cells in Me,” a reference to his favorite song, “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Jason spent his time in the hospital belting out the lyrics of his favorite artists, which included Miley Cyrus and her TV character, Hannah Montana, Lady Gaga, and Pink. And if he wasn’t singing along, Jason listened to their songs on his pink iPod — his favorite color.

“He was pretty shy,” said father Steve Eckrich. “But put a mike in his hand, he was just a ham.”

His love for Cyrus was strong: In one video, Jason wears his Hannah Montana wig, a staple of his musical performances. During a hospital stay, a local radio station let him sing a Cyrus song on air.

And at last year’s Dance Marathon, he dedicated her song “The Climb” to his mother; the same song played at his funeral.

While Jason was popular among many of the hospital volunteers, he developed a strong bond with UI freshman Sara Stewart, who was a high-school volunteer at the hospital when she met Jason.

“She walked in the door, and there was just instant chemistry between the two of them,” Jacki Eckrich said.

The pair became fast friends, Eckrish said, and Jason would whisk Stewart up to his room to perform a concert for her, bouncing around on his bed as she kneeled on the floor in devout attention.

“I don’t think he knew he was that sick,” Stewart said.

Before Jason’s diagnosis, he had always been a healthy kid, Jacki Eckrich said. When Jason began suffering from bruises and found it difficult to walk up the stairs, doctors thought it was pneumonia.

They drew some blood, and on Dec. 23, 2008, discovered it wasn’t pneumonia. It was leukemia.

“It felt like a death sentence,” Steve Eckrich said.

During his time in the hospital, Jason underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant. Despite undergoing numerous treatments to fight his leukemia, Jason’s positivity never faltered.

“I’ve never been sick,” Jacki Eckrich recalls her son saying one night at the hospital. “I’m just resting.”

That optimism, coupled with a strong prognosis from doctors, kept his family hopeful. So when a fever struck a few days after his Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World, it wasn’t abnormal.

But that turned into an infection that his body couldn’t handle. Not long after, Jason died while in a medically induced coma.

“The minute [the infection] went right to his lungs, he didn’t have a chance,” Jacki Eckrich said.
For his family, reality didn’t set in until after his funeral.

“A month later, everybody’s life goes back to normal, and you’re just … you’re not normal,” Jacki Eckrish said, her voice breaking slightly.

Less than a year since Jason’s death, his presence still remains in the Eckrichs’ North Liberty home.

Over the fireplace sits a black-and-white photo collage of Jason in silly poses taken at Dance Marathon last year.

Scattered along the wall hang old pictures of baby Jason in a Cubs outfit, he and his big brother smiling for the camera. On the floor sits the multicolored rug he picked out himself at Menards. By the front door, his Cat in the Hat baseball cap rests beside the others. The tricycle he rode down the hospital halls rests in the garage.

Looking back, Jacki Eckrich said she’s amazed at how much help the Dance Marathon organization provided her family and how much joy the volunteers gave both her family and her son, whether he was in or out of the hospital.

“It’s so amazing to see the kids and the families and to see them be kids,” said Stewart, who will be an assistant morale captain at this year’s event.

This weekend’s Dance Marathon will be the Eckrichs’ second but the first without Jason. While Jacki said it might feel “too soon,” she’ll take the stage on Saturday before hundreds of dancers to share Jason’s story. Jason’s brother Joe will be there, too, as an assistant morale captain.

Though Jason won’t dance at this year’s Big Event, those who knew him said they’ll never forget Jason and his love of music.

“Hopefully, he’s still singing up there in heaven,” Stewart said. “I know he is.”

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