Choosing Hope Through a Year of Trial
On March 3, 2020, about a week before the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, Jen and Dustin Muncy learned that their 6-year-old son, Cooper, had acute myeloid leukemia. The news set the Muncy family on a difficult and at times exhausting journey as Cooper underwent intensive chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, countless blood transfusions, and about a dozen bone marrow biopsies.
“It was almost like a nonstop dose of parental adrenaline,” said Dustin, who graduated from Fredericksburg Christian School in 2003.
As they prepared to mark the one-year anniversary of Cooper’s diagnosis, Dustin and Jen said the challenges of past year have left them with a stronger, more resilient faith. They have learned that it is possible to get through dark times by choosing to focus on hope and light every step of the way.
“We just decided that whatever comes, we are just going to choose joy, we are going to choose hope, and we are going to share His message,” said Jen.
The journey started when Dustin and Jen began noticing bruises on Cooper, a vibrant 6-year-old boy with a mop of blond hair who loves Lego and the Avengers.
Like any parent would, they asked Cooper questions about what had been happening, or if anybody had hurt him. Jen said she felt God had been preparing her for a cancer diagnosis in her house—she never for a moment thought it would be in her son. But as she put Cooper to bed one night, she felt a sense of urgency to make a doctor’s appointment the next day.
Dustin took Cooper to his pediatrician the next day and the doctor sent Cooper and Dustin to the emergency room at Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center for further testing. Jen then received a call from the pediatrician warning her that what they had seen so far looked like leukemia.
Jen rushed to the ER, where doctors confirmed that they were seeing cancer cells. An ambulance transported Cooper to Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond. Jen and Dustin packed an overnight bag and rushed down, not knowing at the time that Cooper would not come home for 43 days.
VCU confirmed the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and found that Cooper was fighting cancer cells that had the FLT3 gene mutation. This mutation occurs in 20 to 30% of people with AML and makes the disease far more aggressive.
The day after Cooper’s diagnosis, Dustin and Jen called into a scheduled staff meeting at Lifepoint Church, where they both work. Lifepoint Pastor Daniel Floyd, joined by the entire church staff and a group of 50 pastors he happened to be hosting at the time, led the group in prayer for Cooper. At this moment and throughout their journey, Dustin and Jen said they saw the power of prayer.
“Our pastor prayed that moment for peace from the Holy Spirit, for us to sleep and rest in His presence. Through the worst, gut-punch news, there has always been this solid absolute peace deep inside us,” Dustin said. “Yes, in your human mind you worry and wonder if things will be okay, but it’s a fleeting moment, and the Spirit comes back and affirms, ‘I am here with you. I am in charge.’”
Cooper began intensive chemotherapy, trying to rid his body of cancer so that he could proceed to the next step of treatment—a bone marrow transplant. He had to learn to swallow huge pills of cancer-killing drugs made for adults. He had to stay in the hospital for weeks on end with no contact with friends, his 3-year-old sister, Olivia, or other family, because his immune system was so weak. He said goodbye to his wavy blond hair, and struggled through bouts of sickness brought on by the cancer drugs.
Jen said his strength was an inspiration.
“Even with the diagnosis and the long hospital stays, he never stopped smiling, even in the hardest of times, he found joy in something,” she said.
At this point, Jen and Dustin began to see the first of many miracles that would strengthen their faith as Cooper’s fight continued.
Transplant doctors warned the couple that it would likely take several rounds of chemotherapy before Cooper was in remission and eligible for a marrow transplant.
“By the end of his first round of chemotherapy, Cooper was cancer-free and that was unheard-of,” Jen said. “They had told us that is one in a million, that this doesn’t happen.”
The next hurdle was finding a bone marrow donor whose marrow was a match for Cooper’s.
This was April 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down much of the world, including flights that give patients access to an international registry of bone marrow donors. Cooper would need a domestic donor, decreasing the odds of finding a match. Yet he ended up with two perfect matches.
These developments and constant prayer and worship helped Dustin and Jen stay hopeful.
“It is hard not to have the level of hope that we have when we have seen so many miracles right in front of us,” she said. “He really is just a miracle boy.”
However, more trials were ahead.
Because Dustin and Jen were the only two relatives on the list of approved visitors under tightened COVID-19 hospital visitation policies, they made the difficult decision to send Olivia to stay with Jen’s parents in California, allowing them to alternate 48-hour shifts with Cooper.
On Memorial Day, Jen was preparing to relieve Dustin after a five-day shift in the hospital when her mother called. They were taking Olivia to the emergency room with what would turn out to be a burst appendix. She boarded a plane to California just as her daughter was being wheeled to the operating room for emergency surgery.
Jen stayed with Olivia as she spent six days in the hospital recovering.
In August, Cooper was able to come home from VCU. Olivia was still in California, and Dustin and Jen were now in charge of administering 22 medications. Cooper spent his 7th birthday back in the hospital when a bacterial infection on his Hickman line—a mechanism for administering medicines directly into his veins–became serious.
Through this constant barrage of new challenges, Dustin and Jen were aggressive about keeping their focus on hope and faith in God.
They created playlists of worship music that they played on the hour-long drive to and from VCU. They tuned into Lifepoint’s virtual worship services with Cooper throughout his hospital stays.
“We battled with worship,” Jen said. “People would send us songs, people would voice text us prayers. We made sure we listened to every single one of them.”
On February, 19, Cooper received his final dose of chemotherapy at VCU. Dustin said that morning that the family planned to celebrate with plenty of treats for the kids, and a drive-by parade from their family at Lifepoint Church over the weekend.
“I have seen God do actual miracles in front of me,” Dustin said of his experience over the past year. “Our faith is stronger now. It’s more resilient.”