ATLANTA -- In every way, Chip Madren was a 13-year-old boy, unafraid of risk, obsessed with sports, hunting and the outdoors. He was adored by his parents and two younger brothers Jack and Brett. But what Chip and his family didn't know, was that before he turned 14 he would be fighting for his life, a struggling shadow of the vivacious boy he'd been before.
"Chip is a hilarious kid. He's like a little man," says his mother Lea Madren."
"He's a great, great kid. He loves all things man. He could be a man today."
"Looking back it's more clear."
Ken and Lea say there were signs. The boy who was a natural athlete began to struggle.
"There were subtle changes in his gait."
"He was more listless not as engaging as he was."
Their pediatricians ran batteries of tests and finally recommended an MRI.
"What's abnormal is this stuff right here. It's not supposed to be here and that's his tumor."
Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Neurosurgeon Doctor William Boydston met Ken and Lea in the hospital emergency room. Boydston showed them the tumor in their son's brain, a tumor that had invaded his brain stem and spread down his spine, metastatic anaplastic medulloblastoma.
A 10 hour surgery removed most, but not all of the tumor.
Ken says, "This didn't come from God or a good place. This came from a bad place. The difficult part is really how devastated it has left him in the interim."
Six months after the surgery Chip is, as his father says, still in the belly of the beast. The treatments to save his life, the radiation, the chemotherapy, incapacitate him.
Hardest for his parents, hardest for Chip, is that he cannot tell anyone what he wants or how he feels, because for now Chip is mute, a side effect of the surgery, one expected to improve.
"We just learned how to nod this week," Lea says, sitting next to Chip's bed, where she spends most of her time. "Chip, can you nod?" After a few seconds, Chip nods his head. Lea beams. "That is huge!"
Chip cannot do anything for himself, cannot swallow, cannot sit up. But Chip Madren understands everything.
Ken says, "He's aware of everything going on. Everything."
So Chip works to regain his voice, using a beloved duck call for motivation. His therapist tells him, "Big deep breath and push. Aah! Great! Nice."
And he works to regain his strength. Lea says, "The thing about chip that's amazing is when his therapist comes in and says we're doing to do 10 leg lifts, he's tired after three, but he does 11, because he knows that that's how he's going to get better. He will dig; you can't believe it."
Today's physical therapy is painful. It takes a team to help Chip stand and reach for his walker, an overwhelming task that leaves him in tears.
"I'm usually in here with him when he's doing physical therapy."
While Chip works, his brothers and his friends watch from the bed, cheering him on. Chip's 12-year-old brother Jack says, "Just watching him go through this, it's really hard." From across the room, Chip hears what Jack says and begins to cry.
At the edge of the scene, out of sight, but not far away, is Chip's Nation, a term given to the community that has embraced this family in an amazing way. There were 400 people waiting in Chip's front yard the day he came home from the hospital. Ken says, "You couldn't get in the neighborhood for all the cars."
There are the fundraisers, the little girl who held a hula-hoop-a-thon for $1,700, the school friend who organized a fun run for $1,100, the baseball fundraiser with former Braves player Bruce Benedict that raised $1,200, the Poker Night that raised $50,000. There are the classmates who shaved their heads in a show of support, the friends who visit, doing anything to get a reaction from Chip, like the time one mother and her kids faced off to see who could withstand the biggest shock from a dog collar; Mom won. And in a family filled with laughter, Dad Ken is not going to be left out, finding a new use for the ever present hospital rubber gloves. The Nation has become a day-to-day foundation for this family, allowing Ken and Lea to be by Chip's bed around the clock.
Lea says, "On Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meals show up." But they say food shows up pretty much every day. "Somebody mows our lawn." Ken chimes in, "The community paid for a cleaning lady."
And the band bracelets that say 'I'm in Chip's Nation', sold at $5 a piece, have raised thousands of dollars, spreading aross the country.
Ken says they've been seen as far away as San Francisco, but have spread around the South to "Aalabama, Tennesse, South Carolina, Oregon.
Lea says, "Yes we have a sick kid and that's really bad, but we feel a little spoiled rotten in that we're so taken care of."
So Ken and Lea are making a plea for people to give, to help others who don't have the support they do. "Do what you can can because some people think 'oh well they don't want my $5.' Well you know what, they do. Or 'they don't want my five minutes.' You know what, they do."
Trapped within himself, completely present yet unable to speak, Chip has an understanding ally in the 11Alive family.
"Early on I couldn't take, couldn't communicate." Fred Kalil, a 10-year brain tumor survivor, is a friend of the Madrens.
"I looked at him and I said 'Buddy, I know you know what we're saying and you know everything that's going on right now. But you know. I know that you know.' And he acknowledged it. He did."
And where most boys have sports heroes, Chip has heroes, but they're an unlikely group. They are the outdoorsmen, the stars of the Outdoor Channel, hunters and fishermen, and many of them have personally written Chip and sent him gifts. To see Chip's room is to understand -- the deer head mounted on the wall, the camouflage bedspread, the poster of the cuts of meat. This is a boy who had a most unusual Christmas request.
Lea says, "When he was 10, he asked for a side of beef because he really likes to cook."
We learned that David Blanton was one of Chip's favorites, a real superstar in the hunting world. We told him about Chip and he came from LaGrange to surprise Chip and his Dad.
"What in the world? How are you doing?" Ken is shocked when he answers the knock on the door. Afterall, he's a fan too, a sportsman who passed his love of hunting on to his son. Blanton enters the Madrens's house and walks over to Chip with a huge smile on his face. Chip, alert and wide-eyed, receives Blanton's shocking offer.
"Before long, when you get over this, we're going to Montana to hunt deer together." Someone asks Chip if he wants to go. Chip gives an enthusiastic nod. Blanton laughs, "Awesome!"
Blanton presents Chip with the gift of a deer head he killed in Texas. What shocked Chip's parents was seeing their son reach out and grab the antlers, a huge milestone in the presence of an idol.
During Blanton's hour long visit, he told how Chip's story had touched him as the father of three boys. "To have a son the same age as Chip really hit home with me, really hit home with me."
The family shared their story, gave Blanton the tour of Chip's room and that famous poster with all the meat. Laughing, Blanton says, "This is hilarious. That is fantastic. That is classic." And Blanton became a member of the Nation, putting a band around his wrist.
Chip, who'd never been able to sit up for more than 15 minutes in his wheelchair, was upright and engaged for almost two hours, and when asked by his mother if he wanted to lay down, he shooed her hand away, a very hopeful teenaged boy reaction.
A visit like this is a brief respite in the middle of a brutal, exhausting journey that has broken many children, but Dr. Boydston says Chip is doing well.
"He's responding very well to his treatment. Actually you look on the scans now, and the tumor that used to be there on the brainstem and down the spine has melted away." Boydston says Chip's Nation has been a powerful lesson, even for him.
"This particular family has just taken it to another universe. It's a story of strength and grace. And he's impacted a lot of people."
And the odds are in Chip's favor to recover, to regain his voice, to regain his health. He has a long way to go, but it wasn't that long ago he was a vibrant boy. The future, his life, was all in front of him.
There is an entire Nation working to give it back.