Growing faith, shrinking tumor helps 8-year-old defy death

News 12 at 11 / Monday, November 4, 2013

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW) – He's only eight years old, but he's defying all the odds. Last October, Richard Culliver was diagnosed with a rare and inoperable brain tumor and given less than a year to live. Now, more than a year later, Richard is alive and well.

The craziest part, his mom says he started getting better after his medical treatment ended.

It's a case of growing faith and a shrinking tumor, and as his mom says, learning what can happen when you finally let go.

“I thought by now I'd be trying to find my place in the world, broken,” cried mother Stephanie McMillan.

Instead, today McMillan's heart is full of love for one very tough eight year old boy.

“I love you,” she smiled as she grabbed her son in a hug.

Last October, Richard Culliver was diagnosed with an inoperable and aggressive brain tumor. Doctors thought he had less than a year to live.

“Fifty percent of children like Richard are going to be dead in six months,” explained Dr. Ron Neuberg, Director of Pediatric Hematology Oncology at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.

“It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It changes who you are. It changes your priorities for everything in an instant,” McMillan told News 12.

The diagnosis came in October. By November, he could barely walk.

Video from around that time shows a struggling Richard trying to utter a inaudible ‘I love you’ to his mom.

“He couldn't even hold his head up any longer. A lot changed very, very fast,” McMillan remembered.

The days only got darker as Richard's condition worsened.

“I think they were preparing that it was going to be Richard’s last Christmas,” Dr. Neuberg said.

It got so bad, McMillan admits she had already planned Richard’s funeral, plans a parent should never have to make.

“I met someone here who runs a funeral home. I had already planned his service,” she admitted. “You know as a parent, you spend your life dreaming about what your child is going to be like when they grow up and what your wants and wishes are for them, and in an instant that all goes away.”

That's not the only thing that went away. After several months of constant worry, McMillan decided it was time to let go.

“Finally one day I just gave up and I prayed and I surrendered it all,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “No medicines, no ongoing trips to the doctor. At that moment everything changed.”

The family had no doctors visits, no medication from January to September.

“We stopped worrying and we started living,” McMillan said.

Instead of trips to the doctor, they took trips to the zoo and the police academy where Richard became an honorary Sheriff's Deputy. They even took a trip in a jet. And instead of getting worse, Richard started getting better.

His brain scan from January shows a giant black spot at the base of his brain. The black spot is the tumor. The scan from this past September shows something very different. That same black spot is nearly gone.

“This is in the range of miracles,” Dr. Neuberg smiled. “It's probably a combination of the radiation, and the effect of the radiation after the radiation was over. And, God had more things for Richard to do,” guessed Dr. Neuberg.

“To see the amount of shrinkage and him doing so well this far afterwards, it is a miracle because it doesn't happen to these kids,” McMillan emphasized.

Through it all, Richard's light never faded, never missing an opportunity to make someone laugh.

“You try to figure out how to navigate through these moments,” McMillan started to say when Richard interjected, “Quit your whining!” It left them both laughing.

“He's got a great sense of humor. He's got a great sense of what a present the present is,” Dr. Neuberg said.

While cancer is unpredictable and could always come back, for now the future is bright. Perhaps laughter is the best medicine, after all.

Two weeks ago, Richard graduated from hospice care because he was "too well." Now he's doing occupational and speech therapy to regain his strength and speech.

His mom says the next step is getting him back in school.

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