Bella English

Despite tumor, teen helps others

By Bella English
April 4, 2010

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Declan Finn was a precocious kid. By age 4, he was doing 24-piece jigsaw puzzles; he also insisted on taking the training wheels off his bike so he could join his older brothers on a two-wheeler.

But something shifted. In preschool, he’d hide under his desk. In kindergarten, he’d act out and tell his teacher: “I can’t be here. ’’ Eventually, he was expelled for misbehavior; the school said he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

His mother, Beth, disagreed: “I have ADHD and I know what it looks like.’’ While Declan was home-tutored, Beth Finn went to doctor after doctor in a vain attempt to get a diagnosis. Here’s what she heard: He’s bipolar. He’s developmentally delayed. He’s got ADHD (again). He’s autistic. Could be some sort of allergy. Maybe mom should work on her parenting skills.

Two years passed. Declan’s behavior had deteriorated, and he was beginning to drag his right leg. Beth Finn told doctors she suspected either a brain tumor or a stroke. Finally, she hounded a neurologist into doing a CT scan. The computerized tomography scan indicated — and a biopsy confirmed — that he had an inoperable tumor in the center of the brain.

At age 8, Declan began chemotherapy, which dissolved the tumor. But he was paralyzed on his right side: His winsome smile was now lopsided, he had difficulty communicating, he’d drool or choke when he swallowed — and he was in terrible pain. He had little impulse control, and his behavior was, as his mother puts it, “cuckoo pants.’’

Kids were cruel as only kids can be. They teased and excluded him; one even chased him with a baseball bat. He’d ask his parents: “When am I going to get my body back? When is my thinking going to get better?’’

Four years ago, his life began to look up when he enrolled in the May Center for Education and Neurorehabilitation in Brockton, one of a handful of schools nationally that serve students with brain injuries.

At the May Center, Declan has exceeded goals. In addition to academics, he also sees speech, occupational, and physical therapists nearly every day. His social skills are improving. Every Friday, he volunteers at a soup kitchen in Brockton.

“Declan always felt worthless, that everyone had to take care of him and he had nothing to offer,’’ says his mother. “His ability to volunteer helped on so many levels. It has fed his spirit and soul.’’

He also helps deliver Meals on Wheels to elderly shut-ins. “It felt good to help people who can’t help themselves,’’ he says. Though he speaks slowly, it can be difficult to understand him.

The Finn family, which includes four boys in all, lives in a Weymouth apartment over a jewelry store, with a cat, Meow, a turtle named Myrtle, and fish.

The United First Parish Church in Quincy — also known as the Church of the Presidents because John Adams and John Quincy Adams and their wives are buried there — has also helped. The family attends the Unitarian-Universalist church regularly, and Declan has found a community there.

A few weeks ago, the youth group conducted the Sunday service; the theme was about community service. Declan spoke about his work with the homeless. “They didn’t choose to be homeless,’’ he told congregants. “It’s a hard life to have. People should help them.’’

The Rev. Sheldon Bennett, the senior minister, says congregants felt inspired by Declan. “He’s not allowing his disability to get him down,’’ says Bennett. “He really wants to serve and help out to the best of his ability. He’s a remarkable young man.’’

Every Tuesday, Declan works out at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy with a middle-aged guy who had a stroke and was told he’d never get out of his wheelchair. “We help each other,’’ says Declan, who is 14.

His mom knows the motivation behind it: “He doesn’t want to be defined as disabled. He doesn’t want to be known as that kid with a brain tumor.’’ His major goal is to be rid of the plastic brace he wears on his right leg.

Two years ago, Beth Finn noticed a change in his behavior. The school was also calling, saying he was aggressive and seemed overwhelmed.

The tumor was back, and chemo-resistant. Declan underwent brain and spinal radiation five days a week for six weeks at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The tumor has shrunk.

Over the years, Beth Finn has done a lot of complementary healing with Declan: aromatherapy, massage, accupressure, and reiki. She’s a reiki practitioner now, and is about to graduate from massage therapy school.

“I said if he can go through all that pain and come out on the other side, then I could go back to school and get through it,’’ she says. “He inspired me to go after my dream. He is the most driven person I know.’’

More than anything, Declan wants to be a regular kid, to fit in. At the May Center and his church, he has been able to do so.

As Declan puts it, in understatement: “I feel I came a long way. I don’t want to give up. I want to keep my body and my mind strong.’’

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at