Ashley & Craig Dismuke with their children: Lindsey (9), Madison (10), and Ingram (5)
Several years ago, the Dismuke family had settled into a comfortable routine. Craig Dismuke, a 39-year-old economist at Vining Sparks, would commute to his office from Germantown while his wife, Ashley, tended their three young children. They toasted weekends with cookouts and trips to Shelby Farms. Life was easy, even good — until cancer stopped this young family in their tracks.
It was April 2012 when the couple learned that their 3-year-old son, Ingram, had a rare form of childhood brain cancer, anaplastic ependymoma. Life changed overnight. Their days filled with tests and appointments, before Ingram was admitted to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital where he underwent surgery to remove an egg-sized tumor in his brain. Now, Craig headed to work after the girls left for school, and Ashley stayed at her son’s side as he adjusted to radiation treatments at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
For 10-year-old Madison, learning her little brother had cancer “was the worst day of my life.” Later, when Ingram came home sad and tired, it was Madison who held him as he watched his favorite movies, and patiently played board games in hopes of raising his spirits. But the sixth-grader wondered if there was something more she could do to help her family.
Before cancer, her father had nicknamed Madison, The Compassionate, in honor of her concern for others. Yet even he could not have predicted how Madison would support her brother and other St. Jude patients.
Building an army of supporters
The Germantown family was well-acquainted with St. Jude’s mission. After her parents ran in the 2011 St. Jude Memphis Half-Marathon, Madison set up her own fundraising team. “I started thinking about fundraising in March 2012. Then in April, Ingram was diagnosed with cancer. That set a higher boost for our team because he was going to St. Jude,” says the Houston Middle School student.
Madison began a crusade that involved herself, her younger sister, Lindsey, and 30 of their friends and classmates. “It was really crazy at first,” she recalls. “In the first few days after Ingram was diagnosed, I started crying in school. My friends knew what was wrong. I asked them if they wanted to join our team, and most said they could. A lot of my friends had lemonade and cookie stands for the team.” Loyal friends sought donations from their relatives for Team Ingram, too.
Then the honor roll student sat down with her dad for a talk. She wanted to know how to raise big money for Team Ingram. “We had to talk her down from her original $1 million goal,” says 38-year-old Ashley. Madison figured she and Lindsey could each raise $100,000 for St. Jude.
So while their brother endured radiation and chemo treatments, Team Ingram powered up. Craig suggested Madison and Lindsey visit local businesses to ask for support; he even developed a presentation they soon memorized. Madison began to speak in company boardrooms, with 9-year-old Lindsey by her side. Even when the family traveled, the sisters kept up the pace, speaking before their grandfather’s co-workers in Texas and to members of Tri Delta sorority. Eventually, Madison even presented before 1,500 members of the A.L.S.A.C. team.
Then Madison had a bigger idea. Why not ask Apple Inc. for support? She learned the company required a video from groups seeking funding. “With a video, we could show more people what we were doing and ask for more help,” says Madison. “We sent it to people all over the country and all over the world.” Though Apple didn’t bite, the poignant video touched many others.
Heart problem brings family together
Ironically, Ingram’s health crisis wasn’t the family’s first battle with serious illness. In 2007, Craig had been diagnosed with a severely enlarged heart, a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, which required open-heart surgery. He was only expected to live two more years. That’s when Craig came up with nicknames describing the qualities he cherished in his children. He called Lindsey, The Artisan. “With Craig’s heart problems, we decided to make changes and focus more on our family rather than try to do sports and everything under the sun,” says Ashley.
Several years later, when facing their son’s trial, they leaned on many friends in the community. “Hundreds of people from school, church, and the neighborhood brought meals and took Madison and Lindsey to their after-school activities. At the end of the day, we didn’t have to figure out, ‘How are we going to make tomorrow happen?’” says Ashley, still grateful.
Yet worry and stress shadowed the couple. “Craig didn’t know what I needed emotionally, and I didn’t know if I could give him everything he needed.”
At the hospital, a child life specialist spent time with the girls, giving them a chance to share their fears and concerns. In the next months, prayer, exercise, and their community ties strengthened them. Even on Ingram’s bad days, the Dismukes exercised together to relieve stress.
Finally, a reason to celebrate
After six months of treatments for Ingram, the family at last had reason to celebrate. In October 2012 came the No Mo’ Chemo party. Though still weak, Ingram tossed confetti as Dr. Gajjar, nurses, and his family sang. His dad called him
The Conqueror, the right nickname for a boy who bravely fought cancer.
Another celebration followed last year, during the 2012 St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend in December. Madison ran the 5K, hard, never stopping, her friends and sister by her side. Crossing the finish line, she marveled that with help of 300 donors, her team raised more than $230,000. “Madison has already been guaranteed a job in fundraising with A.L.S.A.C.,” her mom proudly says.
The real high point of the day turned out to be Ingram’s race adventure. He had just finished treatment, but he joined his dad and ran a quarter-mile.
Says Madison, now 11, “Dad says that not many 10-year-olds can do what I did. But I couldn’t have done it without Lindsey. I had help from people all over the country, and my friends asked relatives for help. That helped majorly and kept up my confidence. We’re trying [this year] to raise as much money, or more, than we did last year.” The 2013 Team Ingram video, online at ingramdismuke.com, stars the three siblings and captures their gratitude for the care received at St. Jude.
At bedtime, the children still pray together. “They thank God for taking the cancer away and ask, ‘Please don’t let it come back,’” Ashley says. The good news is that both their brother and dad’s prognosis have changed for the better. Now 5, Ingram gets brain and spine scans every three months, and “At age 10, they’ll declare him free of cancer,” says Ashley.
The Dismukes savor the spontaneity of life once again. They’ll slip into their pajamas, and delay bedtime by dashing out for ice cream. Craig launches Tickle Monster games that send the kids racing through the house. And Ingram, who is thriving as a pre-school student at Germantown Baptist Church, brags on his big sis, Madison, the No. 00 team goalie on her soccer team, claiming, “She is my bestest nothing ever.”