April 20, 2016
Shortly after the birth of their son, Brian James Dwyer and his wife Danielle were hit with devastating news.
At just six months, Waldo was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare – only 200 cases a year, Dwyer said – and aggressive form of eye cancer.
"There was this weird reflection in his eyes that we had been noticing," Dwyer said on Wednesday morning.
That reflection turned out to be a tumor in Waldo's right eye.
Doctors told the Dwyers that they didn't have many options: begin chemotherapy immediately for Waldo, or risk losing his sight, or even his life.
"We were devastated, obviously," said Dwyer, adding that loss of sight is fairly typical for children hit with the disease.
Many locals might remember Dwyer, 31, as one of the founders of the world's first pizza museum and restaurant, Pizza Brain, in Fishtown. He has since left the business to focus on his family, especially in the wake of Waldo's illness.
After their son's diagnosis, the Dwyers began chemotherapy for their son and the young boy endured the procedures – along with the many prescription drugs that came along with it.
"I thought maybe it would help his nausea. But within an hour he had stopped crying. Within four hours, he was crawling, even laughing... He didn't puke once after we started giving it to him." – Brian James Dwyer, father of Waldo, 2
But Waldo, who just turned two years old this week, seemed to get sicker.
"If hospitals are supposed to help people, why do they pump kids full of these chemicals?" he asked. "It's just a waterfall of drugs that don't help the symptoms."
Writing about his son's illness online, Dwyer described Waldo as being "violently sick," losing weight, appetite and hair, having no energy and and vomiting and crying all the time.
At a dinner with family friends – "Waldo's uncles Gary and Mike" – Dwyer said he learned there might be another option for his son.
"It was a very sad dinner," he said, about telling his friends about Waldo's diagnosis.
But at that dinner Dwyer said he learned about a three-year-old boy named Landon Riddle, who suffers from acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The boy was given just three months to live, Dwyer said. But once his mother started giving Landon medical marijuana, his condition reportedly improved dramatically.
Dwyer then traveled across the country and met with Dr. Dina, the woman who inspired the cable show "Weeds," while his son was involved in chemotherapy treatments. He returned home with cannabis oil.
With Waldo still sick and constantly crying and vomiting, Dwyer put a drop of the oil on a grain of rice and broke the law.
He gave his infant son marijuana.
"I thought maybe it would help his nausea," said Dwyer. "But within an hour he had stopped crying. Within four hours, he was crawling, even laughing... He didn't puke once after we started giving it to him."
Dwyer said he felt like the oil gave his son his life back.
"The chemo makes you sick... This thing acted like a shield," he said.
They saw a dramatic improvement in Waldo's condition.
The Dwyers continued chemotherapy – and cannabis oil – and stopped the prescription medication altogether.
The toddler is now tumor-free.
Dwyer was quick to note that it wasn't the oil alone that may have helped fight the growing cancer in his body, but he believes it significantly improved his son's chances at survival.
"I've got to be honest, if my son has a lifelong fight with cancer, we've got to do this. I don't want to do this, but the reality is, I can't wait any longer [for legal marijuana in Pennsylvania]." – Brian James Dwyer
"In tandem with chemotherapy, it was wonderful. It was like a one-two punch," he said.
Dwyer pointed out that the oil he gives his son has barely any THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main chemical in pot that induces euphoria, or a high. Instead the oil's primary ingredient is CBD, or cannabidiol, a chemical compound that doesn't get users high. The CBD, Dwyer said, helps promote healthy cell growth and has restored Waldo's appetite. And it helps the boy bypass the awful side effects of the prescription medication that comes with chemotherapy.
"That's why it's safe for kids. It doesn't get them high. It makes them feel like themselves," said Dwyer.
Still, Dwyer said, he's aware of the stigma associated with using marijuana, let alone giving the drug – even an oil made from the drug – to children.
Some people in his life, Dwyer said, began to treat him differently when they learned he was giving his son marijuana. And he's worried about what Child Protective Services might say.
Because of the illegality of the drug in Pennsylvania, and to make sure he can protect his son, the Dwyers are planning to leave Philadelphia for Oregon, where weed is legal.
"I've got to be honest, if my son has a lifelong fight with cancer, we've got to do this," he said. "I don't want to do this, but the reality is, I can't wait any longer [for legal marijuana in Pennsylvania]."
Asked about Pennsylvania's recently signed medical marijuana bill, Dwyer – who has traveled to Harrisburg to fight for marijuana decriminalization – said the bill is a start, but he has issues with it. Among his concerns: the bill doesn't include any access to plant forms of the drug, only pill, oil and ointment forms; it is only available for people who suffer from 17 specific illnesses; and only a certain amount of people will be able to access it.
"You can't put a number on who has access to it and who doesn't," Dwyer said. "I've seen the effects of how this medicine changes people's lives."
Now Dwyer is compiling a documentary he's calling "Waldo on Weed: A Documentary," using footage he's shot throughout his son's harrowing experience.
The idea, he said, started simply.
He was just filming the earliest days of his first child's life – he called it "dad cam" – as any proud father would. But when a friend mentioned he might have enough for a documentary, he jumped at the idea, hoping Waldo's story could help other parents struggling with similar concerns for their children.
"It's kind of like a documentary, but it's like a home movie, too," he said. "It's not like what we went through was so terrible. It's that other people might be going through this who can't get the help they need."
UPDATE: Watch a trailer for a documentary on Waldo's journey here:
Dwyer is seeking help to bring the film to life. To learn more abut the documentary or to donate to help the film get made, visit here.