Story of One Fatherís Fight against Leukemia
Randy York's N-Sider
Avery Harriman, a kindergartner at Lincoln’s Zeman Elementary School, is a lucky kid. He gets to celebrate his 7th birthday twice in the next couple months – first on February 15th and then again on March 20th. Why? Because his dad, Chris Harriman, an assistant basketball coach on Tim Miles’ Nebraska staff, thinks his courageous little boy – who is already a “redshirt” grade-wise because of two different diagnoses of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia – deserves a double celebration. His first “birthday” will celebrate the one-year anniversary of Avery’s bone marrow transplant nearly a year ago in Omaha. The second celebration is his real birthday, one that was in jeopardy until the Harriman family found a 10-rated bone marrow match that saved Avery’s life.
In honor of and respect for the amazing process that produced that medical miracle, the Harriman family and the Nebraska Athletic family are teaming up with the American Cancer Society to sponsor a Bone Marrow Donation Awareness Day on Sunday when the Huskers host the Minnesota Gophers in a 5 p.m. Big Ten Conference game at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Bone Marrow Awareness initiative is piggybacking off the annual National Association of Basketball Coaches’ (NABC) Suits and Sneakers Weekend coordinated by the Coaches vs. Cancer Program, a nationwide collaboration that has helped raise more than $85 million in the last 20 years for the society’s life-saving work.
Harriman believes Nebraska is the nation’s only school enabling fans to learn how to sign up and become a part of a national bone marrow registry. Volunteers will be on hand Sunday to collect information throughout Pinnacle Bank Arena. Fans also will be able to complete a quick cotton swab test that will determine their potential to be a bone marrow donor.
From 4,000 Possible Matches, Only One 10 Available
“It’s a big deal for us,” Harriman said. “When you go through an experience like our family did, you get a great appreciation for all the things that go in it. I’m not sure my son would be alive today if he had not had a bone marrow transplant. I don’t know if we’ll ever find out the name of the donor who saved Avery’s life, but I do know this: Out of 4,000 possibilities, we got down to three that were considered a 10 out of 10 match. One was out of town and the other was sick. That took us down to one and thank God that person was willing to do it for Avery.”
The Harriman family may learn the donor’s name someday, but for them, it’s more important to know how the process works. “It defines the chances of the body rejecting the transplant.” Harriman said. “My biggest goal is to help expand the registry and increase the list of possibilities for other kids with cancer. We want to help make that registry as big as humanly possible. It’s really a very simple test where you just put a cheek swab in your mouth. That’s all it is. Taking the test does not commit anyone to go into a hospital and become an immediate donor. It just puts your name in a registry and increases the possibilities to save a life. I want every child to have a 10 out of 10-chance match like Avery had. Taking that test doesn’t mean you agree to be a donor. It simply means you may someday be asked to be one.”
Avery was first diagnosed with leukemia at age 2 when his dad was an assistant basketball coach at St. Louis University. The second diagnosis came after the family moved to Lincoln, and the experience they’ve had over the past year-and-a-half has convinced a hard-working, family-oriented native Australian coach/recruiter why he and his wife, Cheryl, strongly believe that there really is no place like Nebraska. Please join the conversation we had this week with a father who’s doing his level best to fight leukemia at the same time he’s helping the Huskers fight their way through a rugged Big Ten Conference:
Q: What factors determine an 8, 9 or 10 out of 10 donor?
A: Screening is technical and uses qualifiers like age or gender or if you’ve had the flu over a certain period of time. There aren’t many 10 of 10s. That’s why we need more possibilities to choose from. The bigger the registry is, the better the chances kids will get a great match. My goal is to drive more chances and more possibilities.
Q: Sunday is Bone Marrow Donor Awareness Day. Who came up with the idea?
A: Kristin Eichorst, Shawn’s wife, and Marc Boehm, who oversees our basketball program. It was their idea. They came to me saying ‘this is what we think. What are you thinking?’ I was downright floored when they asked. I hope we have great success Sunday because I’d like to see bone marrow awareness in 50 arenas next year and not just in ours. I think this is something that could grow every year and match up well with Coaches vs. Cancer. I know how much impact this can have on a family because we’ve been living it. Our little boy’s life hinged on the right donor and we were fortunate enough to get a transplant. Right now he’s leukemia free and we take one day at a time.
Q: So many people have supported you and your family. Can you elaborate?
A: Janelle Boehm, Marc’s wife, has been a big part of this, too. Cheryl and I spent 48 days in the hospital and Janelle has babysat our daughter Kacee so much, that she’s almost part of the family. Avery was in the Medical Center in Omaha for 55 days. With all the lights and beepers that go off, it’s insane and you’ll lose your mind if you don’t switch out. Janelle and Darcy Smith (wife of fellow NU assistant Craig) were taking turns picking Kacee up at school and keeping her overnight. We have had so many people bring food over to the house and ask what they can do to help, and it’s not just all part of our basketball family. Billie Papuchis, Carrie Manning and Nancy Osborne are among those who have reached out and helped.
Q: Were you surprised by the outpouring?
A: Yes. When we moved here, we knew nothing about Nebraska, and we knew nothing about Lincoln. We had heard several good things from people I called and reached out to before I accepted the offer to coach here, but you don’t truly realize what they’re talking about until you’re living here. We had heard there is no place like Nebraska, but this was the ultimate verification for us. The way Nebraska people reach out and support you is phenomenal. This is an incredible place full of bighearted people. We feel so very blessed to be living here. I don’t know how it is in other cities with different schools, but I can’t imagine anyone making you feel more comfortable than we feel. We thank God every day that we’re in Lincoln, Nebraska, during this time of our life. We feel so lucky to be here. We were perfectly happy in our four years in St. Louis. I was not looking for a job. My wife and I kind of made an agreement that we were not going to pursue anything until Avery finished his first chemo treatment, and we did not move here until everything was clear.”
Q: How would you describe your overall approach to dealing with leukemia?
A: My wife and I made a decision a long time ago when we were going through all of this. We couldn’t think too far ahead. Avery went into successful chemo treatment before he relapsed. You have no control over cancer. We still don’t because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. That’s why we try to make sure we have a great day every day no matter what. With this disease, you can only live one day at a time.
Q: October 17, 2012 was the day Avery relapsed. What do you remember?
A: We went to Children’s Hospital in Omaha for a routine appointment and to have the port taken out of Avery’s chest. While we were driving back and just getting to Lincoln, the doctor called, and I could tell by my wife’s face that it was important. I didn’t know what she was hearing, but I knew it wasn’t good. She just shrunk in her seat and burst into tears. The doctor told us Avery’s leukemia was back. He was in relapse and we needed to come back to the hospital as quickly as possible. We were just pulling into the practice facility and I was in no frame to drive. I called Coach Miles once we got home. We figured out a preschool schedule for Kacee, then called the hospital back and said we’d be there first thing in the morning.
Q: That day had to be a jolt? Describe what was going through your mind.
A: I immediately reminded myself how lucky I was and what an amazing wife I had. When everything happened in St. Louis, my original thought was to quit coaching. I just didn’t think I could do it anymore, plus go on the road to recruit. My wife is a supportive, encouraging, positive person. She’s always told me she thought I was pretty good at what I do. She wanted me to be with her to support the family but she also wanted me to keep doing what I do best and work our way through it all. We both agreed that we can’t just stop life. You have to keep working and keep doing things and try to be as normal as you can. It’s all been such a blur. It’s been tough, really tough. In the first three or four months after the relapse, I found it very hard to concentrate, whether I was scouting, recruiting, whatever. You’re in a constant state of just thinking and worrying, but my wife kept assuring me that I was doing the right thing. I was staying with it and trying to do the best I could for Tim. The reason I was able to get through it all was because Tim was unbelievably supportive since day one. Anytime I ever needed anything, he was there. He told me I’d be able to tell what days I could get through and when there were days I couldn’t, I needed to go straight to the hospital and spend the day there. Tim’s been incredible and flexible for everything I’ve ever needed.
Q: How well did you know Tim before he offered you a job and you accepted?
A: I didn’t meet Tim until he interviewed me for the job. I didn’t know him until I came here to Lincoln and started working for him. You become pretty close pretty quickly with Tim and the staff he picked. It’s a very close staff. Once you go through something like this, you need people to talk to. Tim Wilson is our strength coach for basketball, and we sit down daily and talk about all kinds of different things. From Marc Boehm to Coach Miles and to everyone else on the staff, we just keep talking and encouraging and staying positive. It’s been tough…the toughest 18 months of my life and my wife’s life and her family’s life. It’s never ending, but I think we all feel it’s heading in a good direction.
Q: Your wife delivered baby daughter Elsie and 10 days later, she’s inside Pinnacle Bank Arena cheering the Huskers on to an upset of Ohio State. What was that like?
A: She came to the game to see the first half. Dominique Kelley (former Husker and now a graduate assistant manager on Connie Yori’s women’s staff) was happy to babysit for awhile that night. My wife was thrilled with the way we played. She’s the most positive person I know. We left a great situation in St. Louis, a place we put a lot of hard work into. When you build something up for the better part of three years, you like to see the fruits of your labor. When we made a joint decision to come here, it wasn’t easy, but it was right. Cheryl knew how much harder it was going to be, but she was supportive. She’s a Husker through and through and wants us to be the best we can be. She loves it here.
Q: How about Avery? Did he get to stay up and watch the big upset?
A: He did and was really jacked when we won. He walked into his kindergarten class the next morning and told his teacher: “Guess what? The Huskers won last night!” Avery gets pretty excited watching every game. We’re an emotional family. We wear our emotions on our sleeves. For Avery, whether it’s men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football, whatever, he really gets into it. His mom let him stay up late to watch the Ohio State game. It was a special occasion. He watched the whole game and he had a great time.
Q: Did ‘Nique (Kelley) spark his interest in women’s basketball?
A: She’s been a close friend of the family and comes over a lot. She’s been great, just like everybody else. She’s always looking out for us, and I’m pretty sure Avery was sitting in her lap watching when we beat Ohio State.
Q: Your family has been through a lot. What do you take away from all the adversity?
A: One of the biggest things I tell everybody who’s gone through this is it gives you great perspective on life. I consider myself a hard-working man. I give my best effort at all times. I’m committed to Nebraska and doing everything I can to get this program where it needs to go. But experiencing what I’ve experienced gives you perspective you might not otherwise have, whether you’re talking about losing a recruit or losing a big game. Life goes on and you have to pick yourself up and keep working hard. The amount of people who have called me and asked about my family and offered to help really is just unbelievable.
Q: What was your most surprising call?
A: When (Creighton Coach) Greg McDermott found out about Avery, he called and told me his wife has been through cancer. I mean, he’s our bitter rival. We may hate each other on the floor, but he was one of the first guys to call and say: ‘Hey, listen…I’m in Omaha. I know all the medical people here. Who can I call? What do you need? Is there any way I can help you?’”
Q: This story is beginning to sound like a Hallmark movie. Am I wrong?
A: With so many people reaching out and offering to help, it really does feel like a movie. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. There have been incredible highs and incredible lows and really, really tough times that you don’t want to go through again. No one would want that, but if something happens, there’s no place I’d rather be than here. Cheryl and I both went to college in Augusta, Georgia, but we’re both Huskers now.
Q: Given the heartfelt experiences you’ve had, what about Sunday’s game against Minnesota and the opportunity to help a cause that means so much to you?
A: I’m looking forward to Sunday night because they involve the two things I love most – my family and basketball. We’re trying to do the best we can to help Avery and all of the many charitable causes for kids just like him. When you talk about cancer hitting our youngest generation, you want to do something. There’s nobody more important than our youngest kids. Pediatric cancer is not fair. They deserve to live their lives, and we need to do everything we can to help. When I was in St. Louis, I took players to the hospital to see courageous kids, and I’ve done the same thing here. When you see kids go through the wars they go through, it breaks your heart. You want to do whatever you can. Avery’s lived in a bubble for the better part of four years of his life. It hasn’t always been normal to go to a park or a basketball game or just to be to able to drive your son to school. I don’t take those things for granted anymore. We have to keep battling through this without worrying about the frustration. Basketball has some parallels to life. We’re going through tough times, but we can’t give up. Coach Miles has been through tough circumstances everywhere he’s been, but he stays strong and stays the course. That’s what we’re doing as a family and that’s what we’re doing as a team. We’re staying together and trying our best to make everything work out.
Watch Sunday's BTN Profile of the Harrimans' Courage
The Big Ten Network has produced a feature profiling Nebraska Assistant Coach Chris Harriman, who has helped rebuild Husker Hoops at the same time his 6-year-old son has been battling leukemia. The feature will be part of BTN's Journey program scheduled to air before Nebraska's nationally televised game against Minnesota at 5 p.m. Sunday. Journey has the 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. time slots before the game and will rerun at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. after the game. On Monday, Jan. 27, Journey will air at 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m., 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. CT. Samantha Eisenberg spent two days with the the Harrimans and told The-Sider that Chris and Cheryl "have done whatever they can to keep their son alive." The BTN associate producer said her feature is a story of a "very strong and dedicated family" and a son who is "doing better than expected". She shared an anecdote from Cheryl, who said: "I think every parent cries on the first day your kid goes to kindergarten, but I think still to this day we tear up just seeing Avery in line. When he looks back and says 'I love you' he knows he's going to have a good day and that's the greatest thing to see, that he's so happy now."
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