Stronger than your average superhero.
That’s what the T-shirt worn by 6-year-old Harry Grammer claims in newly released video presentations produced for the Riley Children’s Foundation.
Such a message might not be taken seriously if worn by another first grader. But for Harry, a cancer patient and the son of Tom and Ashley Grammer, of Columbus, it might just be an understatement.
The foundation, which raises funds for Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, will be airing commercials featuring Harry, a Rockcreek Elementary first-grader, throughout the holiday season.
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As the face of Riley’s annual “Gift of Hope Happens Here” campaign, foundation officials anticipate Harry and his childhood cancer journey will become well-known to many Hoosiers.
Tom and Ashley Grammer drove their ailing and lethargic 5-year-old son from their home in the Mineral Springs subdivision to Columbus Regional Hospital on Nov. 18, 2016.
Following the discovery of a tumor in the boy’s abdomen, Harry underwent a series of tests that determined he had cancerous cells called neuroblastomas, said Trisha Shepherd, a Riley Children’s Foundation representative who has closely followed Harry’s progress.
Starting in early form within the developing nerve cells of embryos, neuroblastomas occur most often in infants and young children, according to the American Cancer Society.
About two out of three of these cancerous cells already have spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body by the time the disease is diagnosed, the society’s website states.
That explains why it wasn’t long ago that the diagnosis meant a likelihood of death for a child like Harry, said Dr. Kent Robertson, leader of Riley’s stem cell transplant program.
“We just didn’t know how he was going to respond,” said pediatric oncologist Dr. Alex Lion, who emphasized the treatment is considered one of the most intense therapies given to children with cancer.
Last November, the Columbus couple initially was told not to expect a great outcome, Harry’s mother said.
“As soon as we found out, we put the word out for everyone to pray,” Ashley Grammer said.
What the parents didn’t know last November was how much progress medical science has made recently in treatment. Clinical trials for the treatment eventually utilized on Harry just ended two years ago, Lion said.
But what diagnosing physicians didn’t know a year ago, but Lion now clearly acknowledges, is that Harry is a fighter.
When Harry underwent his first stem cell transplant, the boy was at the Indianapolis hospital for four weeks, Ashley Grammer said. The second transplant required five weeks of hospitalization, she said.
“Some of it was painful, but there’s risk with everything he’s done,” she said.
Along with the stem cell transplants, Harry has undergone five rounds of induction chemotherapy, as well as 20 rounds of a separate radiation treatment, his mother said.
“But Harry made it through all that with his own superhero strength,” Shepherd said.
“He actually breezed through it,” Ashley Grammer said.
A key element of the new treatment is an intravenous antibody treatment injected through a vein in the stomach, Lion said.
Despite the lengthy recuperation after both transplants, the most recent procedure lasted just five minutes, Shepherd said.
Most patients request frequent breaks, but there was no sign Harry needed the normal respites, she said.
“He was such a champ that everyone in the room applauded him after the transplant,” Shepherd said.
After radiation and chemotherapy treatments, most cancer patients feel weak, complaining of nausea and other discomforts.
But the first-grader from Columbus was an exception, Shepherd said.
In light of all he’s endured, the amount of spunk and personality displayed by the boy is nothing short of amazing, she said.
“When we start asking him medical questions, Harry just wants to crash toy cars or throw a football,” Shepherd said. “You really have to remind yourself that this kid has a serious illness.”
And while he temporarily lost his hair, Harry has not lost his sense of humor, Shepherd said.
“The first time he’s introduced to staff, he’ll say: ‘Hello. My name is Harrison. I go by Harry _ but I don’t have any’,” Shepherd said.
Lion, who said the boy enjoyed hiding from him whenever he entered the room, said Harry’s youth and innocence has helped to maintain his optimistic outlook.
Since a 6-year-old hasn’t been exposed to the fear of cancer most adults possess from personal experiences and cinematic depictions, Harry doesn’t think of his situation as life-threatening, Lion said.
So what’s ahead after the commercials go off the air at the end of the holiday season?
After spending far more time at Riley than his own home for the past year, Harry’s last in-patient day will be in early January, Ashley Grammer said.
That means Harry, his parents and siblings Charlie, 9, and Gwen, 2, can resume a more normal family life in 2018, the mother said.
Although he will still have to undergo regular checkups for the next 10 years, physicians at Riley now believe Harry has a 60 percent chance of long-term survival, Shepherd said.
“Its very promising, especially with the way Harry has responded to treatment,” she said.
The 1921 Eubie Blake song “I’m Just Wild About Harry” certainly applies to a lot of people at Riley, Shepherd said.
But just like in the song, the feelings are mutual. It’s the physicians and staff at the children’s hospital that deserve the greatest kudos, Ashley Grammer said.
“The amount of support they give, not only physically but mentally, is amazing,” the mother said. “There have been organizations through Riley that have helped us as well with gas and paying some medical bills.”
In Columbus, individuals, organizations and companies also have stepped forward with similar assistance for the family, Ashley Grammer said.
For example, a 5K walk/run fundraiser was held by Sandy Hook United Methodist Church in September to help the family, she said.
And even when a new employer meant a switch in health insurance coverage in June, the new insurer was just as helpful as the former company, Ashley Grammer said.
“So many have been so helpful, and we are just so grateful,” she said.
Donations to the Riley Children’s Foundation may be made online at rileykids.org or mailed to:
Riley Children’s Foundation
30 South Meridian St., Suite 200
Indianapolis, IN 46204-3509