Honoring Harlan’s fight

Young athletes take part in a past tournament to raise money for a child in need. Photo courtesy of Dawn Van Dyke

Young athletes take part in a past tournament to raise money for a child in need. Photo courtesy of Dawn Van Dyke

Harlan Sullins might not have superpowers or a cool suit, but the 3-year-old is a hero in the eyes of many.

Harlan has been inspiring others through his resilience and positive spirit since he was diagnosed with ependymoma, a form of brain cancer, in February 2013.

“He’s definitely a little fighter, no doubt about it,” Jacki Sullins, Harlan’s mom, said. “From Day 1, he’s been a trooper.”

Communities in two states have supported the Catawba, South Carolina, family for nearly a year and a half. The Mecklenburg community will  join those who have rallied around Harlan this weekend when the Matthews Athletic & Recreation Association, or MARA, hosts its third annual DVD Charity Baseball Tournament to support Harlan’s fight.

The tournament will take place Saturday and Sunday, June 14 and 15, at MARA, 1200 S. Trade St. Games start at 9 a.m. both days and are expected to run all day, event organizer Robbie McDougall said. An 8:45 a.m. opening ceremony will precede the games on Saturday. The tournament will feature about 30 local age-specific baseball teams, with players 6 to 11 years old, and the teams will play to an all-star format.

“I’m a huge fan of youth baseball,” McDougall said. “It’s a lot of fun when you have such a good cause. We try to go out and make a difference, and that’s what counts.”

MARA hosted the first tournament in 2012 to support then-8-year-old athlete, Drew Van Dyke, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The event was such a success that the organization hosted a second tournament in 2013 for Waxhaw girl Kate Zidanic, who was diagnosed with lymphoma.

MARA chose Harlan as the recipient of the third annual tournament at the recommendation of Dawn Van Dyke, Drew’s mom, and Dr. Christine Bolen, who has been both Drew and Harlan’s oncologist. Bolen said she’s been inspired by Harlan ever since she began treating him.

“He wakes up every day and finds a reason to fight,” Bolen said. “Some days I see him in the office and can tell deep inside he just feels terrible, and yet he doesn’t show you that irritability … he’s been so brave.”

Harlan began showing symptoms of what the doctors originally believed to be gastrological issues in early 2013. Tests discovered something far more ominous – a plum-sized tumor near his brain stem. In the months following, Harlan endured surgery, 33 radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Nine months after being diagnosed, Harlan relapsed and had a second brain surgery and an additional 33 radiation treatments, this time targeting the full brain and spine.

“In total, he has had two major brain operations, 66 radiation treatments and four cycles of chemo to date,” Jacki Sullins said. Harlan also has been on heavy steroids – which have rendered him unable to walk – to help his brain heal from the radiation treatments. He’s currently receiving infusions of a drug called Avastin to help him continue healing. “It’s not chemo, so it’s not killing any white blood cells … It goes in and helps to clean up any of the damage done by the radiation to healthy tissue.”

Harlan currently has about 12 small tumors that aren’t in an operable position, but Sullins said the doctors don’t believe they’re currently causing any issues. She said the Avastin also helps reduce the growth of fast-growing blood vessels, which fuel tumors.

“(Tumors) have got to have a high volume of blood to procreate – that’s the idea, for them to be stopped,” Sullins said.

Sullins currently isn’t working so she can stay home and care for Harlan, and because the family had to travel to Indiana for Harlan’s radiation treatments, the cancer has put a dent in their wallets in addition to the emotional toll it’s taken on her and her husband, Jonathan. That’s why she’s grateful for the support from the DVD Charity Baseball Tournament.

“The kindness of (those in) the community who are willing to reach out to a family that they’ve never met is just really wonderful,” she said, adding the funds will help with everything from gas when traveling to and from doctor’s appointments, parking costs, treatment costs and more.

And she’s looking forward to giving her little hero a chance to shine. “He’s 3. He doesn’t understand what ‘give up’ means … I always tell our family and friends he’s not giving up, so we’re not going to throw in the towel (either).”

People can attend the tournament for $5, and donations beyond the entry fee are welcome. Find more information about the tournament at www.marasports.org.

Read more about Harlan and learn how to support the 3-year-old at his Facebook page, “Harlan the Hero,” or www.caringbridge.org/visit/harlansullins.

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