In Oklahoma, there is a 4-year-old boy named Jack Mickey who adores turtles. He carries around a stuffed turtle that he has had since birth. He has turtle stickers, turtle coloring books and turtle fact-books. For Halloween, he went as a turtle, of course.
So last week, before Jack underwent his 22nd surgery to treat a rare spinal disease called early onset progressive infantile scoliosis, his mother pulled up Twitter and asked if fellow users might be willing to tweet a few images, videos or facts about turtles that she could share with her son to cheer him up.
Were they ever.
Western box turtles “like to live in prairie dog holes and eat cactus and other plants!” one user responded, with photos. Spiny soft-shell turtles, another wrote, “look a little like a pancake!”
The responses poured in by the hundreds, showcasing the sunnier side of a social media app that’s often faulted for hosting far more toxic exchanges. And they buoyed Jack’s spirits after his surgery on Friday — a time when he’s normally whining, crying or begging to leave his hospital bed, said his mother, Sandy Mickey.
He was particularly fond of a video featuring several turtles attempting to climb a spinning log that won’t hold still — a determined struggle that you might say is a bit like Jack’s own.
Jack has had to wear a full torso cast since he was 9 months old. It coaxes his spine to grow straight and keeps his ribs from growing into his heart and lungs, a complication that can make his condition fatal if untreated.
“We call his cast his ‘shell’,” Sandy said. “He was really upset the day he found out that he couldn’t pull his head inside.”
But he recovered soon enough. Sea turtles can’t withdraw into their shells either, Jack reasoned. So he would just pretend to be a sea turtle, with certain limitations.
“He has fallen in love with a turtle that spends all of its time in the water, and yet, that’s one thing Jack can’t do,” Sandy said. “He can’t swim. He can’t take baths. He can’t go to the splash pad. He can’t play in the snow.”
Water is plaster’s arch nemesis, after all.
But perhaps the worst part of living your life in a vest of plaster and fiberglass is that Jack’s shell must be cut off and reconstructed every six to eight weeks so that it can be adjusted for his growth. And each time, Jack and his family must drive from their home near Lawton, Okla., to South Carolina, where the boy receives specialized care at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville.
This means two 10-hour days on the road, followed by an entire day of pre-op testing and consultations, and then a multi-hour procedure so delicate and complicated that Jack must undergo full anesthesia.
“After he’s done with surgery, he’s gotten to the point where he just doesn’t want anyone to touch him anymore,” said Sandy. “He’s just kind of done.”
And that’s where the turtles came in.
It was as if Sandy had replaced the Bat Signal with a Turtle Signal.
People sent images of alligator snapping turtles, desert tortoises, diamondback terrapins, satellite-tagged loggerheads, and even hand-drawn turtles complete with Sandy’s hashtag, #Turtles4Jack. Jack’s preschool in Oklahoma also got in on the action, with all the kids drawing enough turtles to fill up a book. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spent all day Thursday tweeting out turtle facts for Jack.
“Gosh, we’ve had tweets about turtles from Spain and Australia and Peru and Costa Rica and Hawaii,” said Sandy.
When Jack woke up from surgery, he sat mesmerized as his mother scrolled through the treasure trove of turtledom.
According to Sandy, Jack sat calm and mesmerized, which allowed the hospital staff to perform necessary post-op duties, such as monitoring his heart rate and breathing capacity, trimming the cast down to size, and applying medical tape and moleskin to avoid sores.
Jack thought the logrolling video “was the most awesome thing ever,” Sandy said.
Jack wasn’t the only one helped by the parade of turtles.
“I made that post on Monday night in the hope that we’d have a few pictures from some scientist friends to show Jack,” Sandy said. “And over the last few days, I’ve barely done anything but respond to this. The support has meant so much to me and my husband. … I’ll tear up if I talk about it too much.”
The Mickeys’ older son, 9-year old Preston, has also been getting shout-outs from scientists after Sandy tweeted that on Giving Tuesday he’d donated all the money in his piggy bank to Panthera, an organization dedicated to saving the world’s big cats. His favorite animals are cheetahs and jaguars.
The Mickeys may be more into nature and biology than many families. Sandy is a former park ranger with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Refuges System and Jay is a wildland firefighter. And one of the tough things about Jack’s condition is the way it’s altered their relationship with the outdoors.
If Jack’s cast were damaged, he couldn’t just go to the local doctor and get a new one. Even an unplanned splash in a mud puddle could derail his recovery and send him on a journey back to Greenville. The cast’s weight, usually around three to four pounds, also causes him to overheat quickly, so his parents and teachers strap an ice-pack-laden vest on him anytime the temperature goes above 75 degrees.
Suffice it to say, the Mickeys look forward to a day when Jack’s “cast life,” as Sandy calls it, is behind them. But it’s uncertain when that will come.
So far, the casts have reduced his spine’s curve and rotation from 79 degrees when he was initially diagnosed to 37 degrees in February. An X-ray taken last week revealed that they had been reduced to just 30 degrees. That means there’s still a chance Jack can avoid more invasive procedures, which could include surgically attaching rods to the ribs or spine and extending them every six months to accommodate growth.
“It’s a terrible disease that has a terrible outcome untreated,” said Pete Stasikelis, Jack’s orthopedic surgeon at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, S.C. “I think that the treatments are universally effective, whether they result in cure or just a delay in the need for growing rods. And somehow the kids seem to stand up to it all and do great.”
That said, Stasikelis acknowledged that the whole situation puts an enormous amount of stress on a family and that something like #Turtles4Jack can be vital for keeping spirits up.
“I think it can be lifesaving,” said Stasikelis.
As for Jack’s mom, she said she prefers to envision Jack’s post-cast life.
“We will be planning the most epic, water-based vacation you can possibly imagine,” she said. Part of that will include taking some Internet friends up on their many offers to let Jack and his family accompany them on turtle fieldwork or to visit turtle exhibits at zoos and museums. But there’s also another idea.
“We have all 21 casts,” said Sandy. “When we cut them off, we keep them.”
The plaster shells have protected Jack for all these years. But when he no longer needs them, the Mickeys plan to gather up all his old casts, throw them in water, and let them dissolve.
By that day, he’ll have moved beyond being a child with a rare spinal disease. By that day, perhaps he can just be another little boy who loves turtles.