Published May 21, 2021
Pennsylvania teacher Barb Heim went out of her way to help her first grade student Harrison Conner who battled leukemia during the pandemic; she tutored him at his home every day after a full day of school teaching other students.
“Oh, he’s an amazing little guy,” Heim said. “He is so much fun in class. You could have 100 of him in a classroom, and you would still take more because he has that sense about him. He wants to learn. He loves to learn new things.”
Toward the end of 2019, the teacher noticed that Harrison was suddenly withdrawn at school and seemed to look pale. She notified the nurse who called Harrison’s mother. After holiday break, she learned of the little guy’s heartbreaking diagnosis. Leukemia.
Before the pandemic, the class would call Harrison on Zoom to say hello and Harrison would read out loud to them. When the pandemic began, Heim took action and started going to the Conner family home to take extra care that Harrison would not fall behind.
“It goes far beyond her just coming here for school,” Harrison’s mother Suzanne Conner said. “Ever since the minute he was diagnosed … she has been absolutely amazing. She has kept Harrison such a part of the kids’ lives in school and making sure that he feels remembered.”
“It’s not like a teacher is coming from school to teach, she’s like an aunt who is coming over to hang out, and she brings goodies, and she is always bringing a smile,” she said. “My kids will meet her at the front door with all the latest news and it’s incredibly, incredibly, special.”
Harrison is currently in remission, but he will continue treatment for a year and a half.
Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost 1 out of 3 cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
The most common types of leukemia in children is acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which starts in the bone marrow, specifically in the lymphocytes.
Acute myelogenous leukemia is the second most common type, but there are many other types of this disease “which starts from cells that form the other white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets.”
Leukemias are cancers that start in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. When these cells become leukemic, they stop maturing properly and grow out of control. Eventually, they spill into the bloodstream. Because they are essentially abnormal white blood cells, they prevent your blood from doing normal things like fighting infections, keeping your energy up and preventing excessive bleeding.
Leukemia specialist Dr. Nicole Lamanna, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SurvivorNet how these cancers affect the blood.
“Blood cancers in general affect different parts of the white blood cell count, which we need in a very basic way to help fight this infection,” she explains. “Your blood elements do lots of things. One is to keep energy. One is to fight infection. Two are to help with clotting or to prevent patients from bleeding.”
So leukemias in general “impair your normal blood elements’ ability to do all the things they’re supposed to do.”
For children almost all leukemia is acute. According to the American Cancer Society, acute leukemias can progress quickly, so immediate treatment is needed.