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Jonny's Journey: Brave 5-year-old boy battles with brain cancer after teacher notices eye problem

Posted at 9:14 PM, Oct 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-29 23:30:10-04

Jenn Everhart keeps a watchful eye on all of her students. Last school year, the preschool teacher became concerned when she noticed 5-year-old Jonny Milburn tripping when he ran, and sometimes as he walked.

As she continued to watch the boy at United Methodist Preschool near Salem in Columbiana County, she spotted something else. His left eye kept turning in towards his nose.

"I'm very observant for a lot of different things and that was just something that caught my eye," Everhart said.

The teacher notified administrators at the school who contacted Jonny's mother, Angela Milburn, to describe the wandering eye.

"We hadn't noticed when she pointed it out. I mean, we see him every day, but she had really paid attention," Milburn said.

Thinking Jonny may need glasses, the Milburn family took him to an eye doctor who recommended an MRI, which the family scheduled at Akron Children's Hospital in the Mahoning Valley.

The results were alarming. Doctors told Angela there was a tumor, possibly as big as a softball, on Jonny's brain stem.

The news, delivered to Angela by her son's primary care physician, is forever embedded in her mind.

"She got on the phone and said, 'Angela, I have to tell you something, okay? It's a tumor,' And everything stopped."

The boy was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit on the main campus of Akron's Children's Hospital to prepare for surgery.

The family was introduced to pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Gwyneth Hughes and pediatric neuro-oncologist Dr. Sarah Rush.

"It's actually very serious and the reason for that is because there's fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord and this tumor is actually blocking the flow of that which increases the pressure in the brain," Dr. Rush explained.

"That was pretty urgent," Dr. Hughes added. "That's something that we take care of as soon as we can."

Dr. Hughes and a second surgeon were able to remove 99.9 percent of the tumor, but a tiny sliver on his cranial nerve could not be taken out.

The pathology report came back malignant with a rare diagnosis of posterior fossa medulloblastoma brain tumor.

"We're probably looking at 400 to 500 kids a year in the United States that are diagnosed with something like this," Dr. Rush said.

"How did this happen?" Angela Milburn said. "And there's no good reason for that."

Back at Jonny's preschool, the news tore his teacher apart.

"Still even I cry," Everhart said. "Everybody that found out that works here cried about it."

Since the surgery, Jonny underwent 30 radiation treatments and is on his third of nine chemotherapy cycles.

He learned to walk and talk again and continues to show remarkable progress.

During physical therapy sessions, Jonny runs down hallways, pushes an exercise ball downstairs and plays games.

"Considering we didn't know if he would ever speak or walk or swallow on his own again, absolutely he's a miracle," his mother said. "He's inspirational."

His doctors are also moved by Jonny's determination.

"I think he's amazing," Dr. Hughes said. "I think he has done awesome."

Jonny now has a great prognosis, an 85 percent chance of survival.

"Honestly, he's alive and while he hasn't completely beaten this yet, he's doing really well," Milburn told News 5.

She also said the family will be forever grateful to "Miss Jenn" whose keen observations got Jonny where he needed to be.

Everhart said don't call her a hero, just a teacher with a simple wish for Jonny's future.

"To live his life and be happy," Everhart said. "He's the greatest little boy ever."

As Jonny continued his journey, he did something else amazing. He was given a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He told his mom he wanted a sister. Not long after that, Angela Milburn learned she is pregnant and due in March.

"As it turns out, God was listening," Milburn said.