SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It’s scary when anyone gets a cancer diagnosis and it can be especially hard when that person is a child. From surgeries to treatment, it can be a long journey for kids and their families. That’s why a rehabilitation specialist at Sanford Children’s Hospital is doing everything he can to be a positive, encouraging force in each of his young patients’ lives.
When little Evan Henning was diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock to his mom and dad.
“Very jarring. There was definitely a lot of tears. We let him cut his hair off himself. I gave him a scissors and let him go to town on his hair,” Tricia said.
Evan and his mom Tricia basically lived at Sanford Children’s Hospital for seven terrifying months during treatment.
“He did not want to get out of bed. He hurt and everything was scary and all the tubes and the wires and the cords but he still needed to move. It’s very, very important to move,” Tricia said.
One of the first people Evan met was Dan Steventon. The father of four is a Pediatric Cancer Rehabilitation Specialist at the castle. It doesn’t take long to see why he fits his physical therapy job perfectly.
“I will do literally almost anything I can think of to surprise them, to make their day but then also to remind them that the world’s not all about the sickness that they have right now. They can rebuild, restore and reclaim their world,” Steventon said.
In Evan’s case, Steventon found out they shared an interest in ninjas. Evan is a huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan.
“We’ll just be ninjas during therapy. We got to work on endurance and strengthening and balance. It’s all the stuff that ninjas have to do anyway,” Steventon said.
Steventon even came to the sessions dressed up in full ninja garb.
Steve: What did you say?
Evan: It was weird.
Steve: It was weird (laughs).
Weird, but Evan was all about it and the effort did the trick.
“He could get this kid to move. Walk down the hall. Go on treasure hunts and play the turtle game,” Tricia said.
“The highlight of Evan’s day, every day in the hospital was Ninja Dan coming to visit us. We renamed him Ninja Dan. Evan’s cancer slogan was ‘fighting cancer ninja style,'” Tricia said.
You’ll be happy to know Evan is now cancer free, a year this past July, and is in kindergarten at Robert Frost.
While it seems like a lot of effort to interact this way with every patient, Steventon doesn’t think twice if it puts a smile on a child’s face.
“If a kid with cancer invites you into their world, you should brighten that world. My attempt at being Fred Rogers to kids with cancer involved, this time, dressing up like a ninja for a couple months for a kid during treatment,” Steventon said.
So why does Steventon feel a calling to help? He’s paying it forward.
“I’ve been given great hope and I want to share that with these kids that I get to work with,” Steventon said.
On top of being a man of faith, years ago an inner-ear issue was causing him a lot of pain and even Vertigo. When a doctor and physical therapist found a way to get rid of it, it changed his life by making it “normal” again. That’s what he tries to do for kids.
“Treatment is long. You get scary surgeries. You get a lot of long chemo regimens and that sort of thing. Radiation stuff if it comes up. So all of these things, none of it is really normal for a kid that age. What I realized is that as a PT, I get the wonderful opportunity to bring some of that normal back,” Steventon said.
He does this through energetic, in-person sessions… and that’s not all.
“I have a made for kids YouTube Channel that I started because I wanted to have somebody talking to them about the good things to look forward to,” Steventon said.
It’s also a great way to explain complicated procedures like a rotationplasty with someone who has experience.
“You could also see this person does whatever they want. They’re not limited. The world opens up whenever you’re able to brighten theirs a little bit,” Steventon said.
If he’s not making videos for patients, he’s finding different ways to inspire them to move forward without parts of themselves they’re used to having.
“I’m going to play sports. I’m going to do interesting physical things throughout your life. Now I’m going to lose part of my body that helps me do that. That’s hard to accept and scary on the front end of it,” Steventon said.
Recently, a patient came up with a pushup fundraiser.
“Okay, this is how you can compete. This is the way you can return to the competitive physical world. I hope it’s brightened his world. It’s certainly brightened mine. I love it,” Steventon said.
Bringing some light into what can feel like a dark place.
“He was there saying, yes this is normal. And he was always there to reassure. He goes it’s going to get better. It’s going to get better. He was a great resource to have,” Steve said.
“From day one, I tell kids, I’m in your corner no matter what. I just love the chance that I have to be PT Dan, the Kids Cancer PT,” Steventon said.
Steventon is special in a number of ways but he’s also one of the region’s only Board Certified Specialists in Oncology Physical Therapy.