By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
For the better part of a month, Jeff Zanger has been in a St. Louis hospital looking on as his 2 1/2-year-old son, Easton, fights for his life and doctors try to figure out what is wrong with him.
Zanger's wife, Shannon, hasn't left Easton's side since his latest round of medical problems started on Nov. 1. The family doesn't know when -- or if -- Easton will return home.
"There is nothing we can do any more," Jeff Zanger said. "It's totally in the hands of the big guy upstairs right now."
"The big guy upstairs" came calling on Easton a week before Thanksgiving. On Nov. 15, Easton's heart stopped beating. It took CPR to revive him.
"That was the lowest of the lows," Jeff Zanger said.
Still, Easton wasn't done fighting, which isn't surprising considering everything he's gone through in his young life.
Easton, the youngest of Shannon and Jeff Zanger's four children, first landed in the hospital a month shy of his 1st birthday in April 2011. He suffered a seizure that lasted 24 hours and was airlifted to St. Louis Children's Hospital. He was in the pediatric intensive care unit for a month. He eventually got better, but doctors never truly diagnosed what was wrong with Easton. They thought the seizure might have been brought on by a virus but couldn't come up with anything definitive.
Fast forward to Nov. 1. Noticing that Easton's hands were starting to swell, Shannon, who is a nurse, took him to St. Louis. Easton was kept over for observation that weekend. Jeff Zanger said his son was playing normally and was active throughout their stay. However, on Sunday, Easton suffered another seizure. It didn't last as long as the one in spring of 2011 but has been just as baffling to doctors.
"He's a square peg in a round hole," Cindy Linderer, who is Easton's grandmother, said. "I think he has the medical field baffled. He really does."
Easton's illness has separated the family. Jeff, who is the principal at Payson Elementary School, was home just twice in November. Shannon hasn't been back home since Nov. 1. Family members have helped care for Easton's siblings -- Logan, 9, Addison, 7, and Morgan, 5.
The family had their biggest test two weeks ago when they rushed to St. Louis on the day Easton's heart stopped.
"I knew it was bad, but didn't realize how bad it was until I got there," Linderer said. "I didn't think he would make it.
"I don't know where this little boy gets it. He just keeps on going. I don't know how he does it."
Lending a helping hand
The family has been able to make it through the tough times thanks to overwhelming support on the home front. Easton's plight as turned into a bit of an Internet sensation. Facebook is filled with people who are using symbols associated with Easton as their avatars on the social media site. Many are using a red "E", which is put over a yellow diamond and blue square background. Others are using a Superman-inspired caricature of Easton, who has been referred to SuperEMan.
A Facebook group dedicated to Easton's fight has more than 1,000 followers. Shannon Zanger is an active member, often posting updates on Easton's progress -- the good and the bad. Some of Shannon Zanger's posts contain her raw emotions as she tries to figure out what is wrong with her son.
"Thankful to be fighting another day," Zanger posted on Nov. 22.
"I'm sitting right next to him, holding his hand, but I miss him so terribly that I ache inside," she wrote on Nov. 19.
Many people post that they're praying for the family through the group page. The Easton Express has picked up steam in the schools. A few weeks ago, students at Payson Elementary, St. Francis Solanus, which is where Easton's siblings go to school, and St. Dominic were given Easton coloring pages to take home. Now the hallways at St. Francis and St. Dominic are plastered with the colorful drawings. The multipurpose room at Payson Elementary also has its own Easton wall. The Easton posters have spread all the way to Springfield, Ill., to students at Christ the King School.
"They are everywhere. Parents and teachers have also colored them," said Dawn Peters, a family friend who is a teachers aide and librarian at St. Francis. "It's amazing."
Many families also included monetary donations when they returned their drawings.
A new T-shirt for Easton has been developed with the proceeds of the sale going to the family. More than 700 shirts were ordered over the last few weeks. On Sunday, the owners of the Park View Restaurant in Payson will hold Super Easton Sunday with proceeds going to the Zangers.
"Just to see the outpouring of love and support is amazing," Jeff Zanger said. "I've been home twice in 28 days. It's very tough. It has been made so much better by the support of family and the community with gift cards, gas cards, and money for hotels so that we can all be together.
"Our kids have been able to come down when they're off school. We haven't had to use a dollar of our own money because of all the support."
During the last month, Easton has been in and out of medically-induced comas. Over the last few days, he has been able to open his eyes slightly. Jeff Zanger said the family can tell when Easton is awake and when he's asleep. Still, Easton has a long way to go to recover.
Jeff Zanger said some genetic testing has been done, but the results won't be back for two to three months.
"They think that it was possibly another virus that caused (the latest hospital stay)," he said. "They are just looking at that connection. Maybe it's that because of his immune system that it just hits him harder than it does other children."
No one knows what lies ahead for Easton.
"(Doctors) can't predict right now," Jeff Zanger said. "It's definitely one day at a time. We're just trying to get through today and see what tomorrow is going to bring."
Until then, people will track Easton on Facebook, color pictures for him, wear their T-shirts proudly and keep on praying.
"My prayers are different now that they were two weeks ago," Linderer said. "My wishes are for him to get better and come home, but I don't want him to suffer any more."