Remembering Riley

Patti Elliot smiles, seeing the excitement on her son’s face. Normally, 18-year-old Riley Pfannenstiel, who is struggling with a malignant brain tumor, has to lay on the couch, conserving his energy. But tonight, December 24, he sits on the edge of the hearth, his eyes shining, his coat zipped. He has already double-checked to make sure the gifts are organized; a pile for each of the struggling families he will visit. Tonight is a dream come true for Riley, delivered by the Elves of Christmas Present, a chance to give back to others in a very big way.

Even as a child, Riley had always been drawn to helping others. He was a quiet boy, dedicated to being of service and doing the right thing. Patti had once told her priest: “Riley is an old soul, wise beyond his years.” Her son had a compassionate heart and he always befriended those in need.

When he was still in elementary school, he told his mom, “We just don’t know what other people are going through.” Besides his caring, he was smart. He wanted to be a doctor and spent hours volunteering at a local hospital. He had a gift for technology and helped several churches build their websites.

As Patti gazes at her son, her thoughts stray back to his 17th birthday, November 23. Has it only been a little more than one year since their lives have been up-ended?

That evening, when she returned from her work as a nurse educator at Stormont Vail Health, Riley was waiting at the kitchen table.

He said, “Mom, look at my eye. Something’s wrong.”

His pupil was huge and she was concerned. They drove to the emergency room. The doctor thought Riley’s new acne medication might have caused the issue and sent them home. But Patti was still concerned. At a visit to Riley’s pediatrician, Riley revealed he’d been having trouble walking straight and his vision was blurred. Patti insisted on a CT scan. When the doctor showed Patti the results, she couldn’t believe what she was looking at: a large tumor that had invaded Riley’s brain.

“Before the scan, Riley had been driving to school and functioning well at all his activities,” Patti says. “From that moment on, he was sick.”

The following days were a whirlwind. He was transferred to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo, for treatment. He had massive amounts of fluid backed up in his brain and had to have a shunt installed to drain it.

“He woke up from that surgery with severe tremors and his left side dramatically weakened,” Patti says. “It was as if someone flipped a switch and almost instantly he went from well to ill.”

Suddenly the fiercely independent teen needed help with showering, brushing his teeth, and many other daily functions. Despite these abrupt changes, including a grueling regime of physical, occupational, and speech therapy, Riley never complained or grew angry. He endured his chemotherapy and radiation like a trooper and maintained a hopeful and positive attitude. With Patti and his older sister, also a nurse, caring for him, he worked hard to overcome the physical challenges and was able to return to school part-time by the following fall.

Patti brushes away these difficult memories and walks over to stand near her son and warm herself by the fire. It is a bitterly cold and icy Christmas Eve, and Patti worries that Riley might fall as he makes his Santa rounds. Then the doorbell rings. Riley stands, beaming, and Patti’s concerns melt away. This is a night for celebration.

The Elves of Christmas Present have arrived. They present Riley with a green elf cap, embroidered with the words Team Leader. The Elves and Riley’s family begin carrying presents to the cars. Patti grins as she lugs gifts from the house into their truck, thinking of the surprise phone call from Chief Elf, just weeks earlier. The Chief told Patti he wanted to do something special for Riley for Christmas. When Riley learned the Elves had found three families in Topeka with children who were going through major illnesses, including a two-year-old with a brain tumor, Patti saw the glowing look in his eyes that meant he was excited. The Elves funded the shopping and Patti and her daughter set out to buy gifts for the families. Riley was too fatigued to accompany them, but gave them ideas as to what to buy. Later, he watched as they lovingly hand-wrapped every gift.

Patti’s feet are numb with cold by the time all the presents are loaded into the vehicles. The Chief has arranged for a local newspaper reporter to accompany them and document parts of the journey. The Elves brief Riley on the families he will be visiting. Then they are off on their giving adventure.

That evening, Riley embodies the true spirit of Christmas. He rises above the exhaustion that so often paralyzes him and strides into each household, smiling and warmly greeting each person. Each household has its own deep struggles and challenges. At the first stop, a single mom with three kids, including a baby with cystic fibrosis, smiles as her children whoop with happiness at their new toys. When Riley hands her a small stocking with $1000.00, she gasps, then wipes her eyes, and hugs Riley.

The second house is heart-wrenching. The mother is besieged with health issues and one of the children is on a feeding tube. Some gifts are much needed household items, such as blankets, towels, and even food. When Riley gives the mom the stocking, she breaks down and can’t believe the generous gift.

At the the third household, Riley meets the little boy with the brain tumor.

“They were so inspired by Riley’s story and so touched by the gifts,” Patti says.

Riley is inspired as well. He sees how financially and emotionally exhausted the families are and he sees the impact of his visit. It is a truly meaningful and memorable evening for him.

Later that night, the Chief Elf calls Riley, as he always calls the team leaders, to thank them.

“Thank you,” Riley says. “Thank you so much. I got to do what I really wanted to do. Help others.”

The Chief hears the authentic joy in Riley’s voice and he smiles as he hangs up the phone. He picks up Riley’s hospital file and reads the statement that has been on his mind since he’d first heard of Riley. A statement Riley had made to one of the hospital staff. “Riley wants to be remembered as ‘always helping people no matter what.’”

Chief thinks about the article and photos that will appear in the morning newspaper. Thousands of people will read about Riley, and celebrate and remember his generous spirit. Chief scratches his whiskered chin, smiles wryly, and places the file down on his desk.

Mission accomplished.