Charlie Hays died on January 30, 1997. He was 12 years old. On his first day of first grade, he was diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer. It turns out he was born with this rare mutation. After the initial diagnosis, doctors gave 7-year-old Charlie only six months to live. They told his mother his windpipe would close because of the tumors between the esophagus and the trachea.
“Charlie lived five and a half more years,” his mother, Susan, said. “His first goal was to live until he could be baptized, which he accomplished. He was so excited on that day. At his baptism, the entire room at the church was filled to capacity. After Charlie was immersed in the water, the audience clapped because it was made up mostly of children. We all giggled because you usually don’t hear clapping in church. But the children were so happy Charlie had reached his goal. Then he went for the tougher goal, and that was to live long enough to become a deacon and to be able to pass the sacrament.”
About nine months before Charlie died, he and his mother, Susan Addington, and younger brother Perry, then 10, moved to Malibu, California. “Charlie loved the ocean and wanted to be there to spend his last days.” When Charlie could, he went to his new ward, the Pacific Palisades Ward. It was there he met Cameron Carr, who was a few months younger and not yet a deacon.
“Charlie was a great friend,” Cameron says. “Something I remember most is how kind he was and how fun he was to be around. I would go over to his house after school a lot and on weekends too. We’d play games, listen to music, and just goof off. I remember the day Charlie was ordained a deacon and passed the sacrament. I sat in the aisle seat so that he’d pass to me. He did a great job. Two months later, I was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, and we were able to pass the sacrament together. That is something I will always remember.”
Charlie’s mother remembers vividly the day Charlie first passed the sacrament. “When he actually turned 12, and I saw him walk up on the stand and give the sacrament to the bishop, I just burst into tears. It was unbelievable. The priesthood was so important to him. He wanted to be a deacon. He loved the organization of it and was such an organized person anyway. He loved the way it was so reverent, and there was a pattern that determined which aisles to do first and how to alternate rows. That fascinated him for years. He wanted to wear a tie and a white shirt. He wanted to be there and see others fold their hands and bow their heads. He was in awe of the reverence of the sacrament ever since he was a small child.”
Brother Kearl was Charlie’s deacons quorum leader. When Charlie became too weak to come to church, Brother Kearl would go with Cameron and other members of the quorum to visit Charlie and give him the sacrament at home. “Charlie knew about the sacrament,” says Brother Kearl. “Even though he was in a lot of pain and somewhat embarrassed by his deteriorating physical condition, Charlie was alert and eager to take the sacrament. When he could, he would weakly pass it to the visitors who had come to his home for the ordinance.”
During Charlie’s five-year struggle to reach the age to become a deacon, he became a hero in another way, in the unselfish help he gave doctors doing research about his disease, even though he would not directly benefit. In the year before and after Charlie died, he was in the spotlight. He was featured on the news show 20/20 and was named by the ABC television network as one of its heroes of the year. His story of sacrifice also became the plot for a television show. Charlie found out that if he let doctors study his body, they might be able to discover a cure for other children who have this rare form of cancer. Charlie traveled to the University of Michigan, where a specialist in medullary thyroid cancer was working at the time. He went through a series of studies and new tests. He gave blood many times for future research. The doctors continued to ask for more blood from Charlie because the research from Charlie’s mutation was proving significant and became the link to solving many unanswered questions about this disease. In June 1996, the mysterious mutant gene was discovered. “Charlie was excited about that,” his mother says, “but he also understood that he would not be alive when the cure for this disease would be found.”
“Because of Charlie,” his mother explains, “it will be easier in the future to detect this type of cancer. It will now be possible to detect it early enough to stop the cancer from spreading. Charlie helped save other children’s lives. That’s an incredible gift he left behind. But to me, the second gift he left behind is just as incredible. He outlived his life expectancy by many years. He set an impossible goal for himself, to become a deacon. Charlie weighed less than 35 pounds when he died. He should have died months or years before. But he wanted to live to pass the sacrament. And he did. That is a miracle. He wanted to be a true follower of Christ. That’s why Charlie is my hero.”