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Castle Heights twin tackles brain tumor

Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:05 PM

It started with a headache Easter morning.

Six-year-old Bobby Harris was never one to complain, said his father, John Harris.

Bobby, a rambunctious kindergartner – and media darling – from Castle Heights Elementary, definitely wasn’t one to complain about headaches.

So when the headache didn’t go away and he started getting sick to his stomach, John and Bobby’s mother, Letty, took him to the doctor.

“They thought it might be sinuses at first,” said John.

But in the following week, the headache and nausea kept coming back.

“We thought, ‘maybe it’s the stomach virus that’s going on,’” said John.

And Bobby seemed to be feeling a bit better; he’d at least started eating and drinking again.

But when Bobby started seeing double, John and Letty suspected something else was going on, so they took him back to the doctor on April 6.

“[The doctor] said, ‘this is not making sense; let’s get him to Vandy right away,’” said John.

The doctor called ahead to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where doctors immediately sent Bobby for an MRI.

“[After the MRI], they came in very gently into the room, and I knew it was not good,” said John.

The MRI showed a mass in Bobby’s brain, just above the cerebellum.

“When I asked when we would need to come back for the surgery, they said, ‘he’s not leaving,’” said John. “That just kicked me even harder.”

By April 10, doctors operated on Bobby, removing a tumor just larger than a racquetball.

“It was a very close call to losing Bobby,” said John.

Pathology revealed the tumor was a stage-four medulla blastoma.

“It is an aggressive malignant tumor,” said John.

He also said while there’s no way to tell for sure, doctors believe the tumor was likely not there two months ago. it had already started to spread to his spine in that time.

Despite the aggressiveness of the cancer, a medulla blastoma is also the most treatable of brain cancers.

John said Bobby is recovering and getting ready to begin chemotherapy treatments with oncologists.

“We’re looking at about a year [of treatments], maybe less,” said John. “We at least are now in a position where we have a fighting chance to keep our boy with us.”

And John said Bobby is a born fighter. He explained Bobby and his identical twin, Johnny, suffered from Twin-to-Twin Transfer Syndrome, a condition in which placental nutrients are shared disproportionately in utero.

“There’s only a 7 percent chance of having two viable babies [with TTTS],” said John.

And at times during Letty’s pregnancy, doctors weren’t sure Bobby would survive.

“Bobby had to fight every day of his life to come into this world…for [placental] fluid, for room, for food,” said John. “The doctors told us that would translate into their personalities as they got older. And it has.”

That fighting spirit is now put to the test.

John said Bobby has handled his ordeal “remarkably well.”

“He’s a little trooper,” said John. “You tell him what he needs to do, and he tries his best.”

John also said Bobby is charming the hospital’s staff every day.

“He just touches everybody’s heart,” said John. “It’s infectious with him.”

He said after Bobby’s surgery, he noticed a particular doctor checking on Bobby regularly. John knew he had already met most of the Bobby’s surgical team, but he didn’t recognize this man. So, finally he asked the doctor what role he’d played on the team.

“He told me, ‘I’m not on your surgical team; I’m on an adjacent team…We heard about Bobby, and we want to keep tabs on his situation,’” said John.

He said doctors will likely release Bobby from the hospital soon, but the ordeal is really just beginning.

“There’s no guarantees,” said John. “We may still lose Bobby.”

But they’re definitely going to put up a fight, and John realizes they’ll need as much help as they can get – particularly regarding expenses.

John, who was in the construction industry, is no longer working, and Letty works part time at a home improvement store with limited health benefits.

“We’re really blessed,” said John. “We’ve got a lot of people who are mobilizing [to raise money for Bobby’s treatment].”

He said plans for a motorcycle benefit are under way.

Additionally, donations are being accepted at gofundme.com/bobby Harris, as well as the Bobby Harris Donation Fund at Wells Fargo Bank.

“The outpouring of support has been just incredible,” said John.

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