"Team Angel Fish:" Remembering Jeff Balch

Author: Debbie Rinella, The Balch Family
Published On: 11/12/2023

If you attend an #NFStrong walk in Kansas City, MO, you’ll meet a dynamic team that’s been attending since it’s inception. Team Angel Fish participated in the initial walk just months after their son Jeff’s death and every year since. His mission throughout his life was to make more people aware of NF.  His sister took up his cause and organized their first team and a team every year thereafter. She reached out to family and friends for a team name and decided on the one submitted by Jeff’s Godson. His thoughts for the name were “Jeff was now an Angel and he loved to fish”, so Angel Fish was born.  Their team captain also participated with the advocacy delegation traveling to Washington DC. The following article on Jeff was from the St. Francis Hospital's newsletter and written following his first tumor treatment. It will give you some insight as to the kind of person he was from the inception of his NF diagnosis.

Jeff's Story

'I couldn't see very well and I was getting a lot of headaches," said fourth grader Jeff Balch. That was last fall, just before doctors discovered that a malignant optic nerve tumor was affecting Jeff's vision. "They told me if it got bigger it could destroy this eye," said Jeff, pointing to his right eye and sounding much older than his nine years. "I was a little nervous when I found out about the tumor, but not too scared." 

Following surgery Jeff began a treatment program on November 30 at St. Francis Hospital's Capital Region Radiotherapy Center. Five days a week for the next six weeks Jeff came to St. Francis to lie beneath the 20 million volt linear accelerator while beams of radiation penetrated the tumor.

Blue lines marked the area on Jeff's shaved head where radiation beams were directed. "They told me that the radiotherapy would be just like an x-ray," said Jeff. "X-rays don't hurt so I knew this wouldn't either. I lay down on the table and the machine turns and the tumor gets smaller."

Rhoda Facher, R.N., saw Jeff every day during his treatment period. "After he warmed up to us," said Rhoda, "he was very trusting, friendly. and very secure. It was important for Jeff to walk back to the treatment area by himself. It gave him the feeling that he was independent."

Like most of the patients in the Radiotherapy Center, Jeff formed some special relationships with other staff and patients, including one 63-year-old man who was being treated for prostate cancer. "He's Jeff's buddy," said Jeff's father Dan. "They're always talking and kidding one another. Jeff looks forward to seeing him."

The day Jeff thrust his comic book doll, Buzz Off, at Rhoda and told her to "buzz off" was the start of a lively and warm friendship. "We used to tell each other to 'buzz off' all the time. We had a good relationship. I was impressed with the young man and his family, too. You don't grow up like that in a vacuum."

One day Jeff brought something unusual to the Cancer Center-a doll that squirted water. "He went around squirting everyone in the Center," laughed Rhoda. "He was very well liked by the whole department."

Jeff was unable to attend school following surgery and throughout his treatment period, but a teacher worked with Jeff for an hour and a half each day at home. "My classmates heard about the tumor," said Jeff. "And they kinda missed me. The first time I went back to visit - they wanted to know did it hurt? I showed them my x-rays. They didn't treat me any different."

Not being different is important to Jeff. Despite a lifetime of doctors' visits (Jeff has NF a rare condition that involves the production of tumors within the nerves), he thinks of himself as just one of the guys. He reads Boys Life, he has a dog named Red, and his favorite part about coming to treatment is grabbing a snack from the candy machine before he leaves.

"He was a delightful child to treat. His understanding and cooperativeness were exceptional," said Jeff's doctor, Russell Greene, M.D.

On his last day of treatment Jeff had everyone sign his autograph book and he remembered a special friend with a gift. "He gave me my own Buzz Off doll!" said Rhoda. "It was neat.'

Today Jeff is back in school. "Doctors say that treatment for this kind of tumor has a high success rate," says Dan Balch. "We think that he's going to be OK. At least we're hoping that. We'll just have to wait and see."

Thank you to Dan, Pam and Elissa and the rest of the Balch’s for being a part of our NF Network family. May Jeff rest in peace.

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