Jett Marshall, 6, is a sick little boy.
One afternoon last week, Jett was curled up in a ball on a couch in his parents' Birchwood home, his hairless head sticking up through a blanket as he watched the Disney Channel.
A year ago, Jett was just like his name, prepared for takeoff.
"Everything was perfect," his mother, Dee Marshall, said as she held Jett's hand on the couch. "He was a typical 100-miles-per-hour 6-year-old."
Then one day last fall, a terse letter came home from school. Jett had a week to get his kindergarten physical, the letter said, or he would be suspended from Snow Hill Elementary.
In the bustle of preparing for a new school year, Jett's parents, Dee, a real estate agent, and Lee, a UPS driver, had simply forgotten the ritual back-to-school visit to the pediatrician. Their blended family has three other older children, but it had been a decade since anybody had needed a pre-K physical.
Jett's pediatrician was booked solid for a few days, so the Marshalls took him to a clinic in Ooltewah for a quick checkup in mid-November.
As the Marshalls were leaving -- they were virtually out the door -- the nurse practitioner, Casey Kepner, asked to listen to his heart one more time. The nurse heard a murmur and said she would feel better if the family followed up with a cardiologist.
Still not worried because of their towheaded son's lack of symptoms and his boundless energy, the Marshalls made an appointment for January and Jett remained in school.
Fatefully, Jan. 18, 2011, became a red-letter day in Jett Marshall's life. His visit to a cardiologist at Children's Hospital at Erlanger escalated quickly from X-rays to an ultrasound to a CT scan.
At precisely 2:10 p.m. that day, the doctor delivered some withering news to Jett's parents.
"She said he had a grapefruit-sized tumor on his heart," Dee said.
Immediately, his mother felt waves of disbelief. How could a happy, apparently healthy kid be carrying around a chest tumor twice the size of his father's fist?
Later, an oncologist would identify the tumor as T-cell lymphoma; a treatable cancer with a 95 percent survival rate. And thus began Jett's journey, a two-year barrage of chemotherapy to rid his body of cancer cells. Every Tuesday, Jett and his mother go to Children's Hospital here for a round of chemo that leaves him drained and nauseated. He's also had nine spinal taps this year.
Once, last winter, Jett went into septic shock and almost died, his parents said. The experience has left him weak. He still needs a walker to get around.
Still, in a few months, the chemo will taper down to a maintenance regimen that will allow Jett to regain his strength and, hopefully, return to school, his mother said.
Interestingly, the Marshalls' predominant emotion these days is not self-pity; it's gratefulness.
Had Jett not gotten his kindergarten physical and had nurse Kepner not asked for a second listen to his heart that day last November, Jett might not be here now, his parents believe. Unchecked, the tumor could have caused cardiac arrest or lung failure, his parents say they were told by physicians.
What the nurse heard was the tumor rubbing against his heart.
The tumor is gone now, replaced by a heart full of hope.
"It's definitely a miracle," said Jett's father, Lee.
"The nurse saved his life," said Jett's mother, Dee. "We want to tell people to take that one day to get your child checked."
The night after the interview, I went home and hugged my little 5-year-old son extra tightly.
"What's wrong, Daddy," he said.
"Nothing's wrong, Bob-a-doo," I said, as we sat together on the couch watching the Disney Channel.
His first day of kindergarten is later this month.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...