Most people don’t know about the big scar on the abdomen of Gatlin Engles. After all, he was only 2 years old when diagnosed with a brutal form of cancer, stage 4 neuroblastoma, and surprisingly well on his way to recovery by the time he was in first grade.
But the scar remains after surgery to remove what his surgeon called the largest tumor he had ever seen for a child his age. It serves as a reminder of all that he’s been through at a young age and as an inspiration for what the future holds for the 16 year old from Keller.
As he entered elementary school, other kids began asking Gatlin about his scar that goes all the way to his upper back. For him, it’s never been something to be embarrassed about. Just the opposite.
“It means I’m different somehow,” Gatlin said. “It means I’m special that I survived something like that.”
The scar also makes Gatlin believe that God may have a bigger purpose for him. When you look at his story it’s easy to see why.
When he was 2 years old, Gatlin and his dad, David, went to see James Wheeler, M.D., a Cook Children’s pediatrician. Gatlin had the kind of cough where parents bring their child to see a doctor, but nothing to cause too much concern. Dr. Wheeler examined Gatlin, prescribed him some medication and sent the family on their way.
Call it doctor’s intuition, but Dr. Wheeler stopped the Engles before they could get out the door. He wanted to run an X-ray. That X-ray showed the tumor that would lead them to Cook Children’s.
“I remember Gatlin lying limply on his father’s shoulder,” Dr. Wheeler said. “Occasionally, he would let out a barky cough very reminiscent of the common illness known as croup. His exam and history were otherwise unremarkable. I was about to let the father and son leave with a treatment plan for croup in place, when Gatlin’s poor energy level and lack of other cold symptoms made me want to get a chest X-ray. Nothing could have prepared me for the radiology report that detailed a huge mass filling almost half his chest.”
Gatlin’s mother, Kortnee, credits that early catch by Dr. Wheeler for saving her son’s life. “Thank God for Dr. Wheeler,” she said.
“I always tell my patients that the joy of my job is that, as a general rule, kids are healthy or get better, with me providing the occasional medicine or simple reassurance for anxious parents, but I have to always be on the lookout for the exceptions to this,” Dr. Wheeler said. “I am so thankful for Gatlin’s miraculous story and the small part I got to play in it.”
A nearly 10-hour surgery at Cook Children’s surgeon removed the massive tumor that spread throughout Gatlin’s abdomen and chest, followed by 4 months of chemotherapy treatment at Cook Children’s. Even 14 years later, it’s hard for Kortnee to recall that scary time.
“Just thinking about it, it brings it all right back to me,” Kortnee said. “The treatment. Gatlin losing weight. How lethargic he was. I remember giving him a bath and his hair falling right into my hand because of the chemo. That’s when it really began to sink in for me. I had to compose myself. My husband though, went right down and shaved his head so they could both have a ‘cool haircut.’ We never told Gatlin he was sick. We didn’t want him to have the mentality that he was sick or different, or that anything was wrong. But the fear never really goes away.”
The fears have been somewhat lightened by what are now annual trips to W. Paul Bowman, M.D., senior hematologist and oncologist at Cook Children’s. Gatlin said Dr. Bowman has helped him in many ways on his way to recovery and supported him as long as he can remember. Much like Dr. Wheeler, Kortnee Engles looks at Dr. Bowman as a “godsend. “I didn’t know his reputation and how great he is. As a mom, I said put me with the best oncologist there is. I’m so thankful we found Dr. Bowman. We go back to Cook Children’s once a year. I always say, “I can’t talk to anyone else, but Dr. Bowman. He calls me afterward and tells me everything’s OK.”
“Gatlin’s story emphasizes the care of children with cancer is a long-term commitment,” Dr. Bowman said. “You go through several phases with a child who has cancer. First, is the shock of the diagnosis. Then you seek the appropriate treatment and the necessary resources, to bring your child to the other side and hopefully, recovery. But even if it is a success and you are free of the disease, it’s not over. The child has gone through surgery and chemotherapy. He has battle scars. We have to attend to those. We can’t pat ourselves on the back, our treatment is not over. It’s a thrill for me to be able to see these kids, like Gatlin, over the long haul and reach their full potential.”
Kortnee’s faith in her physicians at Cook Children’s has paid off and it is helped give the family a positive attitude that carries through to this day. But Dr. Bowman returns the credit to Gatlin’s family for helping him be the boy he is today.
“Gatlin has a huge scar and there were some concerns early on in childhood,” Dr. Bowman said. “Dr. Miller cut through his ribs and there was concern about disfigurement and body image. This was Gatlin’s new normal. But it wouldn’t impede his activities and it was nothing to be ashamed of. We not only had to monitor his basis organ functions, but his school performance and his psychological adaption. But in the end, this didn’t stop Gatlin from being a happy and productive citizen. His family addressed this from the beginning and Gatlin has done extremely well. It’s a credit to what a cohesive and loving family unit Gatlin has grown up in. Gatlin is proof, there are no excuses because of cancer. He still stands tall on his own as a cancer survivor and is a normal person.”
Because of the size of the tumor, the surgery involved removing parts of the upper abdomen and lower chest. The concern was the surgery might impact the expansion of Gatlin’s lungs and might impair him from competing in sports where he would have to assert a lot of injury. That’s certainly not been the case.
Even after he was told he would never be able to play sports again, Gatlin competed in basketball at around 6 years old and continued to do so until his freshman year. Shortly after ending basketball, Gatlin shifted his focus to the wrestling team at Timber Creek High School. He wrestled varsity last year as a sophomore and has excelled in martial arts. He will have his blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and won the state championship in the 165-pound weight class for his Peak Performance team.
Gatlin believes that wrestling and martial artists play to his strengths. And although he’s too modest to put it quite like this – he’s smart. He wants to be a lawyer when he grows up, with an emphasis on business law. He enjoys public speaking because as he jokingly puts it, “I like to argue.” He is a member of the Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America. He won regionals for public speaking and competed at the state level.
“I’m extremely grateful. I don’t want to be held back,” Gatlin said. “Really, everything I’ve gone through pushed me to be a better person and not hold me back.”