A familiar hum heard in the halls of Herndon High School for the last four years was silenced Sunday night.
Only four months shy of his graduation and just weeks short of his 19th birthday, Jason Elkins, who strode the school's tiled halls in his familiar black electric wheelchair, died over the weekend, after a long battle with muscular dystrophy.
Surrounded by family in the intensive care unit at Reston Hospital, Elkins, 18, decided, on his own terms, it was his time to go, his mom, Joanne Elkins, said.
On Saturday, despite his fighting nature, Jason Elkins couldn't fight any longer. His lungs had gotten especially weak, his heart was straining and he wasn't able to breathe easily. The end was near and Jason Elkins knew it.
"I was surprised he wanted to give up, but he was tired. I think he wanted to give me hints the end was nearing," his mom said, "but I didn't want to hear them."
He had had enough for himself, and more importantly, he thought his family had had enough, his mom said.
On Tuesday, Feb. 4, Jason Elkins checked into the hospital one last time. His body was retaining fluid and he was severely dehydrated, at the same time. He seemed to know this trip might be his last, his mom sensed.
His diaphragm muscles had weakened and he was having trouble taking in air. His carbon dioxide levels had raised, and on Saturday doctors took the husky 18-year-old off the ventilator.
It was then that Elkins' fate was sealed. The doctor informed him he would have to have a tube inserted into his throat, permanently. Because of his worsened condition, he learned he would require 24-hour care and he would have to leave Herndon High, four months short of graduation, to be home schooled. For Elkins, that was a deal breaker.
"He worried about me," Joanne Elkins said. "He always worried about other people before himself, but he never wanted to be a burden on me and the rest of the family."
In a final handwritten note to his mom, Jason Elkins put aside his pain, and urged his family to "live a long life and have fun."
"He didn't want people to feel sorry for him."
On Sunday, Elkins decided it was time. "Mom, I need to die, I need to do it now," she remembers him saying to her. They proceeded to call a myriad of family members, many of whom were able to make it to his bedside before his last breaths.
At 8:54 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 8, Jason Elkins died. "We felt a real good sense of peace for him and we stopped crying," his mom said. "We had a great sense that his struggles were over. He slipped into my life on a Sunday 18 years ago and he slipped out on a Sunday."
<b>TUESDAY MORNING</b>, two days after his death, Jason Elkins' wheelchair, complete with its Dale Earnhardt's "3" stickers on the side, sat empty and motionless in the dining area of his Herndon townhouse where he lived with his mom and sister. His dog, Max, periodically looked up at the empty seat and whimpered. "He knows something is up," Joanne Elkins said. "He slept on Jason's bed every night, he is going to miss him. We all will."
Looking over to his chair, Joanne Elkins admitted there were a few blessings to his disease. "With that wheel chair, I always knew where he was," she said. "I never worried that he was out driving."
When Jason Elkins was six-years-old, he was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Doctors said he would probably live until he was 20. As the years went by, the disease began to take its toll. There were no more soccer games or bicycle rides. In 1995, Elkins began using his signature wheel chair, which was donated to him by the Herndon Moose Lodge. Three years later, in 1998, metal rods were placed in the young man's back. Despite the hardships, his mother said he was "remarkably even keeled."
"He was so full of life," she said. "I probably got him to push harder than maybe he should have."
At 6-foot-1-inch and weighing 240 pounds, Elkins commanded a presence despite being confined to a wheelchair. "Yes, he was a big lovable guy, but it was his personality and sense of humor, more than anything that defined him. He was such a practical joker," his mom said, in an interview on Tuesday. "But, I guess I am a little biased."
<b>JASON ELKINS LOVED</b> discussing the Washington Redskins, cop shows and America's Funniest Home Videos, his friends and family said. Born in Prince William County, Jason Elkins and his family moved to Herndon before his second birthday. He attended Herndon Elementary, Aldrin Elementary and Herndon Middle schools before coming to Herndon High as a member of the class of 2003.
"He was really looking forward to graduating," his mom said. He kept asking his mom about her plans for his graduation party, she said.
From his first day at Herndon until his last, Gladys Frye was by his side. Frye, a public health assistant provided by Fairfax County, never missed a day of school. She was there to greet him when he got off the bus in the morning and she was there to put him back on each afternoon. "We were together all day and he was always so lovable and so polite," Frye said. "I loved him like he was one of my kids; he's such a beautiful person. I didn't want him to ever have to ask for help from anyone else."
In an e-mail to faculty and staff at Herndon High, principal Jan Leslie broke the news to her colleagues on Monday morning. "I'm sure you will all remember Jason. He was a handsome, gentle giant of a guy," she said. In an interview on Tuesday, Leslie praised her former student for his courage and sacrifice. "He was a senior and he was all set to graduate. It is just heartbreaking."
Chris Pascarella, who runs the special education department at Herndon, echoed Leslie's sentiments. "Everyone is going to really miss him, especially the teachers," Pascarella said. "They all adored him."
Terrel Sims was one of those teachers. Elkins was in two of Sims' classes, biology and active physics. "He was one of those kids you liked right off the bat," said Sims, who is a football coach at Herndon. "He loved talking football and video games. He was such a hard worker, too. Even when he would be out for a few days because of his disability, he would always look to make up the work he missed."
On Sunday, Joanne Elkins called Frye to let her know that her son was passing. Frye went to the hospital, but her Jason Elkins was sleeping. By the time he woke up, he was in intensive care and only family was permitted inside. "It haunts me that I wasn't able to say good-bye," she said.
<b>"I AM GOING TO MISS</b> those big expressive blue eyes, his smile, his infectious laughter and the way he yelled "Mom" in the middle of the night," Joanne Elkins said, wiping away tears. "There isn't anything I am not going to miss about Jason."
From the day she first heard his diagnosis, Joanne Elkins' world changed. "Getting the initial news was pretty rough," she recalled, "and the day-to-day struggles, we all underwent, were tough."
Lori Elkins, 16, his sister, also had to cope with her brother's disease and its effect on the entire family. It made their bond extremely close, their mom said. "She certainly had to grow up pretty fast and I know she was hurting right along with him."
Like many parents in similarly difficult situations, Joanne Elkins learned as much or more from her son, than she could possibly have taught him. "Oh boy, he taught me patience," she said. "I also learned to love someone on a much deeper level," she said. "He taught me how strong I am. What didn't he teach me?"
Joanne Elkins admired her son's perspective on life. Jason learned how to put things in perspective, his mom said. "He had to."
When Dale Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500, his mom assumed her son, who idolized the NASCAR legend, would be crushed. Instead, he turned to her and said: "Well, Mom, I guess he finished what he was supposed to do."
Joanne Elkins said parents with children with special needs are "geared" a little different than everyone else. "He was definitely a priority," she said. "We would tear down walls for him, literally. We got rid of furniture, we remodeled bathrooms."
But no matter the aggravation or heartache, Joanne Elkins wouldn't have traded her son for anything. Before he died, she made sure he knew that. "I hated that disease, but it made him who he is," she said. "I always told him that I was glad he picked me as his mom."