Slade Caltrider came home from a summer canoeing trip with his troop with his legs covered in mosquito bites. Over the next five months, the itching and discomfort never went away.
It was definitely odd. What the 16-year-old didn’t know was that he had mediastinal b-cell lymphoma, a cancer that was attacking his lymphatic system. The rashes that never disappeared — that a dermatologist diagnosed as “an extreme case of eczema” — were actually the result of crystals forming under the skin from uric acid that wasn’t being filtered out of his blood. The lymphoma was shutting down his kidneys, lymph nodes and eventually, his lungs.
In December 2018, he felt exhausted after walking a flight of stairs. Something was wrong. He told his family over dinner that he thought his lung had collapsed. After his mother took him to a clinic, a chest X-ray confirmed that his left lung had collapsed. He went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and that’s where he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Everything practically stopped as he spent the next two months in the hospital, receiving chemotherapy. Everything, that is, except for his drive to continue Scouting.
One of Slade’s favorite movies when he was younger was Up, a Disney-Pixar film about a curmudgeonly man Carl and a young Wilderness Explorer Russell and their adventure to South America in Carl’s house, lifted thanks to helium balloons.
“I admired Russell so much and wanted to join Scouts because of him, but we had no idea where to start,” Slade says.
At a community pool one summer, den leader Ray Cardillo talked to Slade’s father about Cub Scouting and invited the family to join Pack 706 in Reisterstown, Md. Slade joined that fall as a Webelos and later crossed over into Troop 143. He went to every meeting and every campout. For his Eagle Scout project, he rebuilt an amphitheater at a county park, replacing bench tops, upgrading the fire pit and leveling a staircase.
“I chose this project because the site was often used to teach outdoor classes as well as hang out, act out skits and eat s’mores,” Slade says. “I was worried all the work would be done by me, my brother and my dad, and I wasn’t feeling great at this time. But when the day came, almost my whole troop came to help me complete my project.”
Not feeling great was an understatement. The itching after the canoe trek had gotten so bad, Slade had a hard time sleeping. He left troop meetings and campouts early because he was so uncomfortable. He tried lotions, coconut oil, epsom salt soaks and even emu oil. His skin sometimes looked glittery, which he later found out was the crystals from the uric acid.
After learning his lung had collapsed, Slade was taken to Johns Hopkins. He figured that he’d be there for a few days to recover.
“In the emergency room, a man walked into my room, and the atmosphere instantly became somber and gray,” Slade says. “He told us in a very serious and sullen tone that my lung collapsed because of a large tumor in the middle of my chest. My mom said, this is serious, but the tumor could be benign. The doctor corrected her. It was definitely malignant.”
After another tough night trying to sleep, doctors took a sample of his tumor the next day.
“The surgeons were awesome and asked if I wanted to listen to any music,” he says. “So while I was on the table, completely awake with mild numbing agents in my body, the surgeons and I rocked out to Pink Floyd.”
Slade stayed upbeat, and he had good reason to as he was finally getting answers to why he had been hurting. The sample helped doctors figure out why he had been so itchy and why his lung collapsed. He got medicine that almost instantly stopped his itching, fluid from the tumor was drained from his lung and he started chemotherapy.
Cancer can’t stop him
Slade stayed in the hospital for treatments, primarily because of complications.
“The biggest reason I had to stay in the hospital was due to my collapsed lung and the difficulty of getting the fluid out,” Slade says. “The first chest tube entered the biggest cavity of fluid and sucked out a gallon of fluid.”
The chemotherapy also drained his energy, and he “slept like a hibernating bear,” he says. After three weeks, he began regaining his strength and the nurses urged him to get up and walk to avoid his muscles going into atrophy. He’d walk the halls, connected to tubes and wires and a medical briefcase that collected fluid that was being drained. He eventually was able to walk a mile a day.
He turned 17 while in the hospital and wasn’t sure he’d be able to earn the Eagle Scout Award. With the support of his troop, Slade continued working on earning Eagle. He completed the requirements in October 2019, and had his court of honor right before he turned 18. Slade, now 19, is attending college and is feeling much better.
“I’m still on some minor medications, but I have been camping, hiking, canoeing, climbing and loving the outdoors once again,” he says. “Being an Eagle Scout has helped me understand how to be a great person, communicate and lead a group. On top of this, it helped me get a job at my college on the Student Leadership for Environmental Action Fund.”