- Courtesy Of Shane Mcfalls
- Still of Soren McFalls in "The Most Bravest People I Know"
It's the kind of whiplash every parent fears. "He just had a weird rash," Shane McFalls said in a phone interview, speaking about his then-2-year-old son, Soren. Shane, 35, thought it probably was nothing. Kids get rashes. Shane's wife, Allie, also 35, decided to take Soren to the pediatrician just to be sure. "They were like, 'Nope, you have to go to Dartmouth now,'" Shane recalled, referring to Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center.
That was a Friday; on Monday, Soren received his first dose of chemo.
Soren McFalls was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in June 2020. He's been cancer-free since August, but the story doesn't end there. He'll continue receiving intermittent chemotherapy treatments until November 2023.
Shane, a professional videographer, has documented the story in an eight-and-a-half-minute short film titled "The Most Bravest People I Know." It's the chronicle of one family's struggle at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and how their community was still able to rally and support them despite the hardship and isolation. Shane hopes families in similar situations might benefit from seeing his film, which is on Vimeo.
The first wave of chemotherapy is the most intense, Shane learned. Soren was immediately admitted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock for two weeks. For several months after that, Shane and Allie were driving their son the 90 minutes from their home in Newfane to the hospital as often as five days a week.
Shane is a filmmaker by trade and by passion. "I've done video production pretty much since high school," he said, chuckling at the trajectory of his career. "I did ski movies for a long time, and that transitioned into bank commercials."
When he's not working on assignments for his job, Shane makes time for personal films. His Vimeo page is an assortment of ski videos, house projects and family trips edited with visual finesse and paired with lively musical accompaniment — "elevated home movies," as he calls them.
When Soren was diagnosed, Shane said, "The storyteller in me saw something really big was happening." He started shooting video. Shane's days were occupied with work, trips to the hospital or parenting Teagan, Soren's 5-year-old sister. At night he reviewed and edited what he had shot during the day. And he'd process the heartache he and his family were experiencing.
"The Most Bravest People I Know" captures the ups and downs of Soren's and his family's journey. Some moments are truly wrenching, such as a sequence in which Allie, trying mightily to hold back tears, trims the few hairs left on Soren's head after chemo has taken its toll. The moment is juxtaposed in split screen with an earlier time of Soren playing with bubbles, his head plentiful with flaxen curls.
Teagan narrates the film. In conversation with her dad, she defines being brave as doing "something that you're kind of scared of, but you do it anyways because you know it's important, like going into [a] cave and not knowing what's going to happen."
In voice-over, she introduces an early section of the film: "This is a dream my dad had when Soren was in the hospital." The screen goes black before the sunny interiors of the McFalls home are replaced by a turbulent sea of paper and cloth.
A small doll, bespectacled like Soren, navigates roiling waves in a small dinghy, with a miniature version of his cat, Fleetwood, by his side. Through the stormy night, a helicopter swoops in overhead and drops a shower of glowing, gold liquid into the troubled waters. The storm clears, the waters calm and shooting stars pass in the now-serene night sky.
Shane thinks about this dream often. Some elements are recognizably literal: Soren's room was located next to the helipad at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. The liquid the helicopter unloads bears a strong resemblance to what Shane fondly referred to as "the lifesaving poison" that the doctors infused into Soren's body. But, over time, Shane has developed a metaphorical read on his dream: that the gold showered before Soren on this dangerous route is the compassion the nurses and oncologists showed him in their care.
- Zachary P. Stephens
- Shane and Allie McFalls with their children, Teagan and Soren
The McFalls family hasn't been alone in their trial. Even as COVID-19 forced physical distance, friends and relatives found ways to lend support. Shane's father held a fundraiser in which people wagered on how many miles he could ride his bike in 24 hours (final tally: 152.58). Others offered food, presents and even lawn care. Shane's sister set up a GoFundMe campaign. As of this writing, it has raised $93,835.
Fortunately, Soren's medical bills — which Shane described as "freakish" — are covered by Vermont's Dr. Dynasaur program through Green Mountain Care. But the expenses pile up regardless. Allie quit her job immediately when Soren was diagnosed, but the couple's mortgage and other bills did not take a similar hiatus. Plus, there were the attendant costs of traveling to the hospital with such frequency.
Shane and Allie said they are "floored" by the amount of support people have shown them. Even though they're still managing their own crisis, the couple is determined to give back.
"I had not donated to GoFundMe's, especially for people I don't know, ever, before this," Shane said. "But now, I can't not donate if I see any sort of kid's cancer or anything like that."
A crucial takeaway for Shane is the importance of blood donation. He described Soren's transfusions as "magical moments" — strangers giving of themselves so his son might survive. "Seeing that during a time when people are so polarized and there's so much tension in the world," he said, "it was a really nice reminder of humanity."
Shane, too, is a blood donor now, and he's scheduled to give bone marrow and platelets, as well. If Soren's story can inspire anything in the larger community, he hopes it is this: "Putting into that system is super important."