When Aaron Coon, 14, began suffering headaches in summer 2021, his parents scheduled him an eye examination.
“He would call me from school and say his head hurt so bad he was going to throw up,” Rachel Coon, his mom, said. “My motherly instincts said there was something going on.”
She and her husband, Ed Coon, expected it would pan out like any typical eye exam—quick and easy.
But shortly after Aaron went into the exam room, something felt off.
“I kept thinking, ‘He’s back there a lot longer than when I had my eyes checked,’” Rachel said.
The ophthalmologist diagnosed Aaron with severe papilledema around his optical nerves, and instructed Rachel and Ed to take him directly to the nearest emergency department, without stopping along the way for any reason.
A CT scan would show a tumor on Aaron’s brain. Doctors immediately transferred him to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where they diagnosed him with grade 4 glioblastoma.
“It all happened so fast,” Rachel said. “We knew within a day that Aaron would need surgery. And it was scheduled right away.”
The surgery took nine hours, with a tumor the size of a softball removed from his head.
“Doctors told us that it had been there so long it started to change the shape of his skull,” Rachel said.
He began physical therapy right away.
Therapists were amazed that Aaron had all his dexterity after surgery.
The family soon met with Rebecca Loret de Mola, DO, pediatric oncologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Under Dr. Loret de Mola’s care, Aaron would begin radiation therapy. He and his parents would travel from Muskegon to Grand Rapids five days a week for the next six weeks.
‘An extremely talented artist’
Fast forward a few months.
For one full day, every other week, you’ll find Aaron in the 10th-floor infusion clinic at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, a backpack full of sketchbooks and sharpies always on hand.
He’s now on a regimen of chemotherapy.
The good news: He said he has little to no side effects from treatment.
During his visits to the children’s hospital, Aaron has found great inspiration in art. He’s assembled a dozen different sketchbooks. The pages are rich with drawings of old cars and trucks, and creative interpretations of classic cartoon characters such as Donald Duck, Sponge Bob and Mickey Mouse.
“He uses all sorts of stuff for his drawings,” Rachel said. “Colored pencils, chalk, ink, and even white out.”
She joked that the family should have stock in Sharpie, as they spend hundreds of dollars on markers to keep up with Aaron’s new hobby.
One of his most recent creations: a caricature of Mary Waskerwitz Freyer, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the pediatric hematology and oncology clinic at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“I’ve been doing this for 46 years, and Aaron hits the top of the cool chart,” Waskerwitz Freyer said. “He’s an extremely talented artist.”
Child Life specialist Erica Tooker agreed.
“That sketch looks like nurse Mary’s bitmoji,” Tooker said. “We need to have you host a show on Blue Glass TV to teach all the kids in the hospital how to draw.”
Aaron’s favorite drawing? Donald Duck with an attitude. He’s also quick to sketch Tom, from Tom & Jerry, only with bloodshot eyes.
“That’s me on a Monday morning, waking up and realizing I have to go to school,” Aaron said.
“His art always makes me wonder what is going through his head,” Rachel said, laughing.
Cars at heart
Aaron and his dad are car buffs, too. They spend weekends at classic car shows, where they show off Aaron’s pride and joy—a bright yellow 1966 Dodge Dart GT.
Aaron signed a contract with his dad. If he keeps his grades up, the car will be his when he gets his license.
“I told him he has to try his best, but he doesn’t need to be perfect,” Ed said.
And he’s acing most of his classes.
The Coons and a handful of other families have formed a local car club that goes on weekly drives together. He and his dad restore antique tractors, too. Their crowning achievement is a bright red 1946 Farmall BN tractor.
“The first time I test drove it, I popped a wheelie,” Aaron said.
The tractor is a two-seater, so he and his dad can ride together.
“Mom wanted a seat on a tractor,” Aaron said. “I said I would put a cart on back with a recliner for her.”
Aaron loves to share his talents with others. He and his dad meet all sorts of incredible people at car shows, where Aaron often draws the cars and gives the artwork to the owners.
He once drew a 1936 Oldsmobile and gave the sketch to a couple who owned the vehicle. He handed it to them just as they were readying to leave.
“They were shocked I did it so quickly and kept saying how awesome it was,” he said.
Most days, Aaron is a joker at heart.
On a recent weekday in the infusion clinic at the children’s hospital, he shuffled a deck of cards and looked around.
“Do you want my business card?” he asked a nurse, handing her the joker.
Overall, Aaron is doing well, Dr. Loret de Mola said.
“He recently had an MRI that continued to show no recurrent disease, which is very good news,” she said. “This is an incredibly difficult tumor to cure and the therapy that he has had so far—surgery, radiation, chemotherapy—all seem to be keeping it under control.”
The field of neuro-oncology treatment is evolving rapidly, she said.
That could steer Aaron’s treatment moving forward.
“We have more molecularly targeted agents available for tumors like this than we have ever had before,” she said. “I’m very hopeful. Aaron has had such a positive attitude throughout his entire course, even with the complications and challenges he has faced.”
His parents have been amazing advocates and caregivers, and there’s no doubt the love and support Aaron receives at home has contributed to his success, Dr. Loret de Mola said.
“Despite all that he has gone through, he continues to always think of others first,” she said. “He is a truly exceptional person.”
And one thing is certain: Aaron’s creative gears never stop turning. He always seems to have his hands on a new project—in art or in automobiles.
He’s currently working to land a job as a car detailer, so he can clean and detail vehicles.
It won’t be just a job to him, either. It’s something he’s looking forward to.
When he gets older, he’s thinking he’ll probably work on cars.
“It runs in the family,” he said. “And I think it would be a nice job for me.”