Sweet Jackrabbit Joe

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If you’ve been to a South Dakota State athletic event, you’ve probably run into four-year-old Joe Merriam. We introduced you to “Little Jackrabbit Joe” back in 2014.

Back then, the 10-month old SDSU fan had to wear a monitor at night because he would periodically stop breathing. After trips to the emergency room and several hospital stays over the years, the Merriam family is still searching for answers. 

Just like many South Dakota parents, Tyler and Jill Merriam love packing up their son, backing out of the driveway and going to the Children’s Museum in Brookings for a day of fun. 

It’s easy to see why. Four-year-old Joe is full of joy, running the halls and jumping from room to room. 

“If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know because he’s so active and silly,” Jill said. 

This typical, silly boy comes with some serious questions. We first introduced you to Joe almost four years ago.  

“My biggest fear is losing him. Hands down. I pray every day and every night that I get to keep him for another day,” Jill said.

At the time, Joe would have episodes where he just stopped breathing. His longest event, was two minutes. He had to wear a monitor in his crib to alert his parents when there was trouble.

“There’s just a constant, in the back of your mind, of what could go wrong?” Tyler said. 

Fast forward to 2018, the breathing problem has now graduated to physical, shaking seizures in addition to other issues.

“We still live in constant worry. It’s always there. Joseph has been diagnosed with autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, on top of the epilepsy. So it’s a whole gamut of neurologic things. It bothers him every day. He fights it, deals with it, manages it every day,” Jill said. 

This past February, a few days before Tyler was getting ready to do the play-by-play for SDSU basketball games at the Summit League Tournament, Joe had 12 seizures in nine hours. 

“We went to the ER and we were rushed to Sioux Falls by ambulance where he had three in the ambulance and more in the hospital. They couldn’t get it to stop. He ended up in the peds ICU. There were times we thought we lost him. It’s extremely stressful and you never know when that’s going to happen again,” Jill said. 

“There’s not a more helpless feeling in the world,” Tyler said. “Not a worse feeling in the world for a parent than watching that.” 

Thankfully, “Sweet Jackrabbit Joe” pulled through. Unfortunately he has a severe oral aversion and doesn’t like eating food or taking medicine that can help prevent seizures. That led to a surgery to put in a gastrostomy tube.

“The g-tube allows us to give him 100-percent of the medication 100-percent of the time so we know it’s well controlled,” Jill said.   

A trained nurse, Jill can’t help but think her profession has come in handy when it comes to taking care of her son. 

Jill: Somehow God has blessed me to stay calm in the moment and then I just manage myself afterwards and just thank God I get to see him every morning.

Matt Holsen: It’s interesting too, there’s a reason why he came to you. A reason why you’re his mom?

Jill: Absolutely. I firmly believe that. There’s nothing special about me. I love the kid and it will never stop. 

Recently, the family received some good news. They are going to start seeing doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester this summer and are hoping a fresh set of eyes can provide some new pieces to the neurologic puzzle. 

“And if we can even get a couple of them answered on top of all the great work we’ve had from the castle and the folks around here, then certainly it’s a positive,” Tyler said. 

While they wait for answers, Jill is hoping to spread autism awareness. She’s even raised money for the cause. When he was three, Joe tested at a five-year-old level academically but a two-year-old level socially. 

“The more research and the more acceptance there is to autism, the better. They can grow up to be normal, healthy adults and they can function just like you and I,” Jill said.

As for the future, this family takes things one day at a time. 

“Rather than try and look 10-15 years down the road, and certainly you think about that some. Just trying to get him a day, a week at a time, get him a little better and make sure that he’s on the right track. If we can do that then I think we consider it a win,” Tyler said. 

In the meantime, you can catch them in the stands at Jackrabbit games. 

“We go to the football games, the basketball games. We’d love to go to baseball but the weather hasn’t cooperated. It’s really fun,” Jill said. 

Joe will start junior kindergarten in the fall. His mother Jill educates his daycare and school providers on what to do if he has an episode in their care. 


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