IOWA CITY — Though few around University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics have heard Jacob Flesher’s voice, many have been touched by him.
The shy 7-year-old is battling Wilm’s tumor — a rare kidney cancer that primarily occurs in children — but you’d never know it judging by the smile that constantly stretches across his face. What’s more, Jacob has collected toys to brighten other kids’ hospital stays.
“He was a very healthy boy,” said his mother, Elizabeth Flesher, as she sat beside his bed. “He had never been on antibiotics or anything. No ear infections, no strep throat. I think I had even remarked to someone he’s only thrown up twice in his life, so he was, like, the epitome of healthy.”
Jacob was first diagnosed with Wilm’s tumor in December 2010, just one week before Christmas, when his mother discovered a large, rock-hard lump on his side while dressing him. One surgery, 11 days of radiation and 32 weeks of chemotherapy later, Jacob went into remission in August 2011.
That’s when the Manchester native decided to collect toys for other children at the hospital.
“Just being here ourselves, we know how any little thing can help a child,” Flesher said, gazing at her son. “Just, when they’re sick like this and in bed, any little stuff, like a coloring book, will keep them from being too bored. So from our perspective, I just know when Jacob gets something like that it lifts his spirits, and I think that’s what he wanted to do for the other kids, because it was not my idea.”
With the help of a family member who runs a consignment shop in Manchester, Jacob collected roughly 150 toys for patients at UI Hospitals and Clinics in just a few short weeks, delivering them when he came back for checkups.
After six months of remission, Jacob returned to the hospital in March to find out that the cancer was back, in his lungs. He has since been re-admitted for more chemotherapy and will likely begin receiving a stem-cell transplant this week.
Being sick doesn’t appear to faze the little boy who loves to bake and garden with his mother, though.
Emily Dungan, a 19-year-old UI student and Dance Marathon volunteer who sometimes visits Jacob and sends him letters, said his illness hasn’t slowed him down. She recalls a visit near Easter time.
“I went in, and he didn’t say a word to me, but we went to the activities and we were making stained-glass Easter eggs, and he always wants to make things for other people. So he made one for his sister and brother,” said Dungan. “He’s one of the most humble kids. … That’s the biggest thing about Jacob, he is always thinking of other people.”
Last week, as he sat smiling sheepishly behind a Toy Story blanket, his mother asked Jacob why he wanted to collect toys for other children. Jacob grinned and quickly diverted attention to a band of Star Wars figurines on his bedside table before shrugging his shoulders.
“He is just such a giving boy,” Flesher said. “I mean, he is so happy, so caring. Even when it comes to the hospital, they’ll give him presents or something, and he’ll look at them and say, ‘I’m going to save this for Becca or Joe’ — which are his sister and brother. So he’s always thinking of other people.”
Others have noticed that, too.
Donna Kuhlman, a volunteer with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Dubuque, nominated Jacob for the Inspirational Award after hearing about his toy drive. He won the award.
“Just for someone his age, after all he’s been through, to be able to think of other people before himself is amazing,” Kuhlman said. “He’s just a wonderful kid, and he’s always looking to make sure he’s giving away more than he’s given.”
Though Jacob wasn’t sure whether he would be holding another toy drive after this treatment, his mother said he is looking forward to spending a day at the waterpark with his brother and sister after he finishes.
“He’s been doing really well, and hopefully this is the last journey,” Flesher said. “This is typically the end of treatment for a lot of children.”