Life-threatening illness gives GC student Braxton Walker a unique outlook on life

Drew Oldham, Contributing Writer

Braxton Walker, senior environmental science major, will be graduating from GC in December 2023. While any student graduating from GC is an incredible accomplishment and should be celebrated as such, the adversity that Walker faced to get to this point is both remarkable and inspirational.

When Walker was just nine years old, he was diagnosed with Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), a rare disorder which attacks tissue in every part of the body, and it can cause lesions to form in one or many areas of the body. These lesions, which are areas of the body that undergo extensive physiological change to their structure as a result of damage or injury, cause disruptions in the function of any organ in the body. This can at times result in the death of the person diagnosed.Those who are diagnosed with this disorder have an immune system that operates in a way that is counteractive to its attempt to maximize the health of a person. Unlike what one would see in someone with a normally functioning immune system, the immune cells (called histiocytes) in people with LCH respond to potentially harmful foreign agents that have managed to enter the body, but they also attack certain parts of one’s own body. This is detrimental to the body of an afflicted individual, as the body’s most well equipped protector essentially tears the body down from its foundation. The destruction of the body of a person diagnosed with LCH can come in a variety of ways including a decline in respiratory function, degradation of liver functioning and inflammation in the bones which can be fatal in children.

Upon his LCH diagnosis, Walker was immediately transferred to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. Doctors discovered that a large tumor-like lesion had formed on the front of his spine, very close to his heart. They feared that his life would be in imminent danger without aggressive medical intervention. Walker was hospitalized indefinitely while medical professionals devised a plan of attack for his newly discovered LCH. Things seemed bleak for Walker and his family at the time, and he was unable to participate in physical activity which he felt was an important release and coping mechanism for him that he could no longer take advantage of. His parents were uncertain of what their son’s life would be like from this point on, and they spent every moment at his side at the hospital, even sleeping there on a tiny couch.

Braxton highlights the integral role his parents had in helping him get through this difficult time in his life, both through their physical presence at his side and the emotional support they provided. “They made sure that I was as comfortable as possible and felt loved and supported throughout the entire process,” Walker said. “Without them, I can only imagine how traumatic the whole experience would have been.”Support for Walker was not just limited to his family. Walker recalls the “garbage bags” full of get well soon cards that came to him while he was hospitalized. He felt extremely encouraged in this difficult time by the response of his family and friends to this unexpected setback.

With an out pour of fortuitous wishes from the community around him, Walker underwent major surgery which included a biopsy where the tumor in his spine was removed along with a dozen lymph nodes that were so swollen they were roughly the size of grapes. Upon the successful completion of the surgery, Walker remained in the hospital for a few more months getting what he called “every check-up in the book” which included blood work, testing, and scans. The results of these tests were incredible. The tumor was showing no signs of regeneration, he could go home.

After 4 long months in the hospital, the ordeal that Braxton and his family endured was largely over. Today, he enjoys life with no major symptoms or setbacks from LCH except for a higher risk of spinal injury. However, this does not stop him from pursuing his passions which include skating, surfing, and wake boarding. In retrospect, Walker views this experience positively, as it has given him a perspective on his life that he would not have gained otherwise. He says that this experience has escalated the level at which he appreciates his life and inspired him to go out of his comfort zone and attempt to experience life in its fullest form.Part of this remarkable change in perspective has resulted from a more intimate view of some of the more morbid aspects of life with childhood disease, including the disheartening fact that many children afflicted by the things are not as lucky as Walker.

“I still remember the worst part of being hospitalized was when I would see other kids who had it way worse than me and likely would not make it,” Walker said. “It gave me a very positive outlook on life, and made me feel like pessimism would be disrespectful to anyone like those kids who do not have anything besides hope to hold on to. I feel like I have been a much less anxious person since then, and have learned to take advantage of any new experience that offers itself to me.”

Walker looks to take this newfound perspective with him to graduation next Winter and beyond. He and his friends started a Wakeboarding/Ski Club at GC, and they want to open their own surf shop in the future. His successful surgery has given him an opportunity to display his skills and meet amazing people which he acknowledges would not have been possible without the successful treatment of his LCH.