By Jen Bakken
LORETTO, MN Brave, loving, courageous, and funny are all words family and friends use to describe 7-year-old Joe Lang of Loretto, a first grader at Delano Elementary School.
This active boy was riding a bicycle at 3 years old, ice skating a year later, and playing hockey by 5 years old.
Though Joe is a typical little guy who loves sports and Legos, his life completely changed in one night.
While his father, Tony Lang, was reading him a bedtime story, Joe complained of back pain.
“They were just reading a story,” remembered Joe’s mom, Lori Lang. “He said his back hurt a little, but it wasn’t anything we thought about going to the doctor for.”
Then, at 4:30 a.m., Joe awoke with severe back pain and was unable to feel his legs.
Tony rushed Joe to North Memorial Hospital while Lori, about seven months pregnant at the time, stayed home with Joe’s 8-year-old sister, Leah.
From there Joe was taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital, where an MRI revealed a mass putting pressure on his spinal cord. Emergency surgery was performed to remove the mass and decompress his spinal cord.
The mass was a spinal cord Areteriovenous Malformation (AVM), a big word to describe what happened to a little boy.
According to www.mayoclinc.org, AVM is difficult to diagnose, and surgery to remove them requires great skill. The conditions are so rare that many physicians will only see a few patients with an AVM in their entire careers.
In Joe’s case, this AVM had ruptured and leaked blood into his spinal column, which put pressure on his spinal cord.
“It’s a birth defect,” said Lori. “They don’t know why it ruptured, and there just weren’t any signs. He’s always been an active and healthy boy.”
For the Lang family, Jan. 14 was not only the day their lives were forever changed, but also when they shifted their focus on Joe getting stronger every day.
And stronger he is. After two weeks at Children’s Hospital, followed by a month of rehabilitation at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, Joe came home Feb. 27.
Although Joe doesn’t have use of his legs yet and uses a wheelchair, with therapy sessions, he is making progress and his family remains optimistic.
“We are trying to take one day at a time,” explained Lori. “It’s important to make sure Joe keeps his personality, is happy, and that’s our main focus. We are still hopeful for the future. No one has ever said he will never walk again, and we still have hope.”
While Joe was in the hospital, his friends and classmates at Delano Elementary School sent him cards and letters. There was so much concern from teachers and other parents in the district that a fundraiser was put together.
“We felt, as teachers, we wanted to do something to help,” said Molly Jensen, Joe’s first grade teacher. “The kids and parents were asking, too. We thought the best way to help was to incorporate our reading program in a way to support his family.”
During I Love to Read Month, students were asked to meet a reading goal and each teacher donated $1 to the Stronger Every Day with Joe Lang Minutes That Matter Reading Challenge.
Families were invited to support the effort as well by donating 1 cent for every minute read.
The students, teachers, and families raised a much needed $1,753.45. Youth As Resources (YAR) also contributed $1,000 towards the effort.
Cherie Kuechle was the parent volunteer for the group of students who applied for funds from YAR, which included Leah Lang, Duncan Lee, Chloe Kuechle, and Haley Kuechle.
The funds will be used to help purchase a special exercise bike and a rehabilitation glider for Joe.
“He is just a wonderful boy with one of those sparkling personalities,” said Jensen. “You are just drawn to him. The kids enjoy being around him.”
The Lang family welcomed a baby girl into the family March 9, and Lori, a 1987 Orono High School graduate, continues to be a stay-at-home mom while Tony runs his trucking business.
The Langs continue to have help and support from family, friends, and neighbors including Lori’s father and step-mother, Steve and Jane Thiese, of Greenfield.
A benefit for Joe is being planned for sometime in October. For more information on Joe or the upcoming benefit, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/joelang.
Though their lives changed overnight and the future is uncertain, one thing is very clear there is hope, because little Joe is getting stronger every day.