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Through a lens, bravely

Seventh-grader Dylan Crane turned his struggle with disease into a documentary, My Cancer Miracle.

Published May 22, 2005

[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
On the way into surgery to have his left femur removed, Dylan films his ride using an angle he calls “stretcher cam.” He shot most of the scenes for his documentary, handing the camera over to his dad only when he was too sick to hold it steady.
View a portion of Dylan Crane’s documentary, My Cancer Miracle:
Click for video

Dylan Crane waves to his classmates in February minutes before they surprised him by dropping 1,000 paper cranes — a Japanese symbol of good luck — from the second floor of John Hopkins Middle School. His father, Simon, records the event.
Related story:
Hope rides in cranes' creases (2/16/05)

photoDylan’s mom seldom leaves his side. For the past month, she has slept in a chair by his hospital bed. “He’s an old soul,” Carole Crane says. “The first time he told me he wanted to change the world, he was 3.”

For his 13th birthday in April, Dylan’s mom persuaded his doctors to let him come home from the hospital, if only for a day. More than a dozen of his friends filled the living room for a surprise party.

ST. PETERSBURG - Scene 1, "In the Beginning"

The film opens with a closeup: a boy with thick, sandy hair lying on his side, his right arm draped around his head like a halo. Behind him, the metal bars of a hospital bed gleam under fluorescent lights.

The boy's pale, round face is turned toward the camera, but his eyes are focused higher. He's here, but somehow removed from all this.

"I had to go in, get emergency surgery, a biopsy," the boy says slowly. His voice is strong and steady, the low alto of an almost-adolescent. "And I was at school. And it kind of came as a shock to me." He forces a laugh, looks - just for a second - into the camera.

"And on the biopsy," he pauses, turns away again. "It's not looking too good."

As the film fades to black, the boy's voice fades with it. "But I'm going to get through it." The screen goes blank. "Today is Sept. 27, 2004. And I'm 12 years old."

* * *

That day, the day he got his diagnosis, Dylan Crane's mom had picked him up early from school. He had made her stop by their house on the way to the hospital to get his video camera.

For years, Dylan had sung and danced in Perkins Elementary stage productions. But now, after just six weeks in Mr. Yeazell's video production class at John Hopkins Middle School, he found he loved being on the other side of the lens. He had decided to become a movie director. "That way, I can make more of a difference," he told his mom.

So on that muggy afternoon in late summer, while his friends traded Yu-Gi-Oh! ! cards and watched cartoons, Dylan carried his hand-me-down camera into All Children's Hospital and propped it on his bedside table.

"I'm making this documentary to chronicle my struggle with - and survival of - cancer," he says in the opening scene.

He called his documentary My Cancer Miracle. He planned to make three parts.

* * *

Dylan grew up on a shady street near downtown St. Petersburg in an old two-story house with a wide covered porch and tall windows. His mom, Carole, is a nurse at Bayfront Medical Center. His dad, Simon, manages a Chili's restaurant in Clearwater. His little sister, Samantha, is 7.

Dylan's room is upstairs. He has Harry Potter sheets.

Before he got sick, Dylan spent afternoons practicing piano, listening to Sting CDs, plowing through mounds of homework for his gifted classes. He went swimming, performed with his church's puppet ministry, spent hours IM-ing his friends from drama club.

Outgoing and motivated, Dylan can be coerced into silliness, then sink into deep bouts of seriousness. He loves Broadway musicals and computer games where you construct new worlds, like RollerCoaster Tycoon. Except for a hernia and an occasional sore throat, he was seldom sick as a child.

About this time last year, Dylan's left leg started cramping. Bad. He was in England, visiting his grandparents for summer vacation, and everyone thought the pain was from too much walking.

But when Dylan flew back to Florida and woke up screaming, grabbing his leg, his mom took him to the doctor.

Three months passed; he lost 15 pounds before they found out what was wrong.

* * *

Scene 2, "This is My Cancer"

Dylan is bald. His eyebrows and eyelashes are gone too, making him look slightly spooked.

Wearing a black T-shirt, standing beside an IV pole that towers over him, he smiles, close-lipped, and stares into the camera. "I have recently been diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a type of bone cancer found mostly in boys ages 10 to 16," he narrates, his voice as neutral as a newscaster's.

"My journey is not going to be a short one," Dylan says from his railed bed. "One year of chemotherapy to stop the spread of cancer cells. Surgery to remove the primary tumor. And stem-cell transplant to make sure they've killed all the cancer from my bones."

The screen shifts. The next shot zooms in on him exhausted, his head sunk into the Harry Potter pillowcase his mom brought from home.

"In this documentary, I hope to show you a new world. A world where you don't go to school. You can't," says Dylan. For this shot, he's propped up in his hospital bed; algebra and history books are piled around his legs. "A world where you're in the hospital three weeks out of every month."

Crayon-colored mosaics spelling out "All Children's Hospital" flash across the film. As the image recedes, Dylan's voice fills the blackness, "I hope that you see the miracle unfolding."

* * *

At first, he was making this movie for himself. A video diary, he called it. A way to chronicle what was happening so he could see how far he'd come.

But it came to mean much more.

By Christmas, when doctors started harvesting his stem cells, Dylan's camera was his only connection to his classmates. The film became his yearlong project, a reason to e-mail his teacher, something to show his friends so they wouldn't forget him.

While other student teams were making movies about a debate competition and a cartoon teenager getting stuck in cyberspace, Dylan was interviewing his doctors, videotaping his surgeries and explaining the side effects of chemo. He taped whenever he wasn't throwing up. Behind the lens, he could distance himself just enough to deal.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm working on a movie about someone else," Dylan said one afternoon, going through footage on his laptop. "I guess that helps. Sometimes."

But at night, when the camera was turned off and he lay there listening to the beeps and gurgles of the oncology ward, there was nothing to distract him from what was happening. And though his mom always was by his side, he felt alone.

"Sometimes at night the pain gets real bad, and I cry. I try to do it into my pillow, so Mom can't hear," Dylan said when his mom went to warm his heating pad. "But sometimes I'm just so tired of this all." He stopped, as if he had said too much. He took a sip of Gatorade, shook his head.

"No one understands what's happening to me. None of my friends get it," he said. "I met this one kid, Billy, who has the same kind of cancer. So I keep calling him to ask, "How much does it hurt? What does the second round of chemo make you feel like? How long till you can stand up again?' It would've helped me if someone had made a video I could've seen."

When people at the hospital found out about the movie, they asked Dylan if they could show it during the annual telethon. The seventh-grader hadn't even finished shooting the first part of his trilogy, and already he had a booking.

Between surgeries, Dylan cranked up the back of his hospital bed and asked his mom to plug in his computer. He read the 90-page manual for Pinnacle, the video-editing software his aunt sent him, and taught himself a semester's worth of commands in one week. Soon, he was making spiral transitions between scenes and experimenting with checkerboard fades. He learned how to split audio and video streams and add voiceovers and music. He wrote Sting for permission to use his song, Fragile. Sting e-mailed back his agreement.

In January, Dylan sent the first few scenes of his film to Mr. Yeazell. He still had so much to do: He needed to shoot more, then edit two hours of footage into under seven minutes.

And he had to finish soon. Mr. Yeazell needed his movie in two weeks. He wanted to enter it in the county competition for student media awards.

* * *

Scene 5, "Accessing"

"What's that do?" Dylan asks. The camera pans from a jolly male nurse wearing a Hawaiian shirt to an IV pole. Zoom in on the clear bag with yellow warning labels.

"It destroys cancer cells," the nurse says from offscreen. "When the cells are reproducing, it hits them, stops them from growing. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, hair loss, low blood counts." The nurse's voice trails off. Closeup on the label. The small letters at the bottom grow large enough to read: "Less common: blood in the urine, metal taste in the mouth, hormonal changes, heart changes."

The focus moves to Dylan. He's lying on his side, his glassy eyes locked on the camera. He's part of this now, no longer trying to play the detached narrator.

"And the chemo continues," he says.

The camera pans back from Dylan's room and the shot shifts to outside, across the hospital parking lot. Wide angle on the horizon. Sting's song starts as a whisper, grows into a lullaby. "On and on, the rain will fall, like tears from a star. . . ."

The camera tips up, scans the sky. Over the music, Dylan's weak voice narrates, "But this is only the beginning. . . ."

He already was mapping out the sequel: Surgery.

* * *

A few days after Dylan finished his video, his friends dropped the cranes.

One of his classmates had read about a Japanese girl who started folding paper into cranes for good luck after she got leukemia. So Dylan's friend enlisted the whole school, and soon paper cranes piled up along the halls.

On a Tuesday in February, Dylan stopped by to give Mr. Yeazell the documentary and tell his friends goodbye. That Friday, doctors were going to remove his left femur in hopes of getting rid of the rest of the cancer. They would replace the upper part of Dylan's leg with a titanium rod, then bombard his body with more chemo. Eventually, the doctors planned to replant Dylan's stem cells they had taken in December.

Surgery would be "risky. Very risky," Dylan said. His parents let him make the decision. "The doctor said it would double my chance of survival," Dylan said. "That's what convinced me. Months of not feeling good to double my chances of having the rest of my life? That seemed like the only thing to do."

He was facing months of recovery. He wouldn't be able to return to school until fall.

He sat in the courtyard of his middle school that Tuesday, on a bench beside his little sister and his parents. His dad had shaved his head to match. The principal welcomed Dylan. Then everyone looked up into the sun. A thousand paper cranes were floating over them.

On surgery day, Dylan filmed himself having his blood pressure checked, talking to his anesthesiologist, receiving relaxation therapy in pre-op. "Inside your treehouse you're safe," the therapist whispered. "You're safe there, remember. Hold onto that picture of your treehouse."

Then a nurse plugged a pump into the port on Dylan's chest and his mom bent down to kiss his bald head.

An orderly began to wheel Dylan away, and his dad chased after him calling, "I'm proud of you, Son!"

The camera was still rolling. Dylan turned it from his dad to himself and tried to smile. Stretcher cam. Who cares if you're scared?

As his gurney banged open the double doors of the operating room, the 12-year-old director chose a tighter shot. He focused on his left cheek, on that silver drop just below his eye. Closeup on the tear.

* * *

Dylan turned 13 on April 6. His doctors let him leave the hospital after more than a month. His friends from drama and video class came to his house and ate cake.

The next day, he learned that My Cancer Miracle had been chosen one of the county's top three middle school documentaries. He had won a trophy, he just didn't know what place.

It was raining the night of the Educational Media Awards. Dylan's parents debated whether to let him go, then decided they couldn't keep him away. From the stage at Largo High, a student in a black tuxedo announced the winners. "In third place, for middle school documentary, My First Day of Middle School. In second place, The Making of the Music Man."

When the emcee announced Dylan as the winner, whispers flew through the audience. Heads turned. The crowd of students parted as a tall, bald man pushed a wheelchair with a thin, bald boy toward the stage.

Dylan was wearing his Harvard T-shirt and his favorite ball cap. A surgical mask blanketed his nose and mouth. He pumped his right fist high, smiled his first real smile all spring.

As a woman handed him his green-and-gold trophy, Dylan's dad spun him to face the crowd. Everyone in the auditorium stood up, clapping, while he wheeled up the aisle. "Wow!" the tuxedoed announcer said. Then he said it again, softer. "Wow."

Two days later, Dylan was back in the hospital with a high fever. His mom sent out an urgent e-mail: "Please send prayers."

* * *

He hasn't been able to hold his camera for more than a month now. Every day, his mom massages lotion into his hands, to keep them working. He's under heavy sedation in intensive care, his bruised body threaded with tubes. Machines feed him, help him breathe, do what his organs no longer can.

The chemo that was supposed to kill Dylan's cancer is making his liver shut down. His stomach is swollen with fluid, which is crushing his lungs. His mom says, "His brain is marinating in ammonia."

One night, writhing in his sleep, Dylan's eyes fluttered and he opened his mouth. His mom leaned in, anxious for a word after so long. Above the blips and drips of the ICU, the boy's cry was clear: "I don't want to play anymore."

* * *

They gave him a whole page in the middle school yearbook. "Dylan Crane: The Bravest Director." The drama club still drops off dinner for his family every Friday, as they have all year. His sister's elementary school is selling "Expect a Miracle" wristbands in lime green, his favorite color.

Just before school let out for summer, Mr. Yeazell got the call he had been hoping for. Dylan's film won first place in the region. This fall, it will go on to Orlando, to compete for a state award.

"I told him the good news about his documentary," wrote his mom, who still spends every day by his side in intensive care. He's holding on, she says, but it's like walking a tightrope. "Hopefully," she wrote in a recent update, the possibility of a state award "will help him forget these many days. "

In the camera that sits unused by his bed, Dylan has 20 hours of unedited images: prepping for surgery, treehouse therapy, the closeup of his tear.

The rest of the trilogy awaits. He still has to finish Surgery. Then move on to Recovery.

- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or

* * *

To view a portion of Dylan Crane's documentary, My Cancer Miracle, go to:

To read the story about Dylan's classmates dropping paper cranes for him, go to:

Dylan's documentary will be shown during the All Children's Hospital telethon. It will air on WFLA-Channel 8 at 10 p.m. June 4 and again at 4:30 p.m. June 5.

[Last modified May 20, 2005, 09:57:36]

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