CINCINNATI — It started as a way to laugh through tough times.
Ethan Kadish struggled with sleep when he finally got home after a months-long hospitalization. A lightning strike in 2013 left him gravely injured. He moaned in pain and always seemed to feel hot. A good night’s sleep was rare.
Stephanie Johnstone Wagner became Ethan’s third-shift nurse in early 2014 and told him if he was going to stay up anyway, they might as well go to a casino.
“Him being awake all night long, burning the candle at both ends, just partying,” she said, smiling. “So it was like, yeah, we’re gonna go party it up.”
When Wagner became Ethan’s daytime nurse, she kept telling him she would take him to a casino as soon as he was old enough.
On July 19, he finally was.
That’s how Ethan Kadish came to celebrate his 21st birthday at Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati with his parents, some close friends and — of course — Wagner.
“We just want to provide him a Hard Rock moment and support him,” George Goldhoff, president of Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati, said before the Kadishes arrived. “This was a wonderful opportunity for us to really support Ethan and his family and his caregivers.”
Hard Rock staff members treated Ethan like a VIP, greeting him with signs and balloons, giving his group a guided tour of the casino’s memorabilia and treating them to lunch and a chocolate birthday cake. Wagner made sure Ethan got a taste.
Goldhoff then presented Ethan’s parents, Scott and Alexia Kadish, with a birthday check in the shape of a guitar. It was for $2,100 made out to the fund that helps pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars of ongoing medical care for Ethan that isn’t covered by insurance.
“We were completely FLOORED by their generosity over and over again,” Alexia Kadish texted WCPO after the celebration. “In Hebrew, there’s a phrase called ‘dayenu,’ which translates to, ‘it would have been enough.’ Hard Rock kept reaching higher and higher and higher this entire afternoon.”
As much as Ethan seemed to enjoy all of the VIP treatment, though, he appeared to be all about the games.
A celebration years in the making
He smiled wide when Wagner pushed his wheelchair past the slot machines during the tour and whispered in his ear.
“What were we playing last week?” she asked Ethan as he grinned. “We downloaded something, and we were playing it, weren’t we? Ooooh – that’s my favorite!”
Monday’s celebration was years in the making.
It was uncertain Ethan would even survive his injury all those years ago.
Lightning struck him June 29, 2013, while he was at a Jewish summer camp near Indianapolis. The powerful strike stopped his heart. His brain went without an adequate supply of oxygen or blood for many minutes as camp staff used CPR and defibrillators working to revive him.
Every day since then, Ethan has fought to recover and remake connections in his brain where it was injured. He can’t talk or walk. He breathes on his own, but he still eats through a feeding tube in his abdomen.
Wagner spends each weekday with him. She takes him to school when it’s in session. And before the COVID-19 pandemic, she took Ethan out routinely — to the movies, the roller rink and to her sons’ wrestling matches, football games and baseball tournaments. They’re starting to go out again now that Ethan is fully vaccinated and restrictions have eased.
“There is no saying ‘No, we can’t do that’ in her vocabulary,” Alexia Kadish said. “She makes it happen.”
“She’s got no boundaries,” Scott Kadish said, “which is the best part.”
Wagner made Ethan a blackjack dealer costume for Halloween four years ago and got him scratch-off tickets for his 18th birthday.
As Ethan’s 21st birthday approached, Wagner and his mom downloaded casino games on their phones and played them with him to help him recognize the sounds.
Ethan’s parents were excited about the milestone, they said the week before Ethan’s big day. But they couldn’t help but feel sad, too.
‘Must be your lucky day’
“It is difficult, to be honest,” Scott Kadish said. “It takes a lot of mental energy to reframe these milestones into something that is halfway positive and that you can go through the event with a smile and enjoy it. To be real honest, it, at least for me, it takes a lot of mental energy to, to accept it.”
Of course, laughing and smiling, he said, are better than “to be curled up in the corner and upset.”
“There’s random acts of awfulness that happen every day,” Scott Kadish said. “It just brings all that back.”
When the Kadishes finally got to the casino, the smiles seemed to come a bit easier.
“We try to grasp onto whatever can bring a glimmer of joy into all of our lives, yet it is in a sea of heartache,” Alexia Kadish said after having lunch and birthday cake.
“Sometimes we try to reach for the buoy and hold on — and hold on to those moments and create those memories,” she said. “Because in the end, it’s all about creating memories — both the good and the bad.”
More good memories came soon after.
Scott and Alexia Kadish wheeled Ethan over to a Tarzan-themed slot machine and inserted money to begin.
A few pushes of the button later, the words “FANTASTIC WIN” appeared in bold, gold letters.
“Oh, 'must be your lucky day,' is what it says,” Alexia Kadish told her smiling son.
“It’s your birthday, buddy!” Scott Kadish exclaimed.
Wagner rushed over to join the celebration.
By the end of the afternoon, Ethan had $26 to show for the $20 he gambled.
It wasn’t a jackpot by any means.
But when it comes to the love Ethan gets from his family and friends like Wagner, he’s already won that.
To help fund the hundreds of thousands of dollars of ongoing medical care for Ethan that isn’t covered by insurance, go to http://www.jointeamethan.org.
WCPO reporter Lucy May has been following the progress of Ethan Kadish as he continues to recover from being struck by lightning on June 29, 2013.