FAIRBORN — To anyone who knows his story, Thomas Harris is a little fighter.
The 18-month old loves everything that a toddler his age normally does, like playtime, nap time, and reading. The son of Fairborn City Engineer Lee Harris and his wife, Dr. Ashleigh Kussman, Thomas is battling pediatric brain cancer. He receives frequent blood transfusions to combat the disease, and the city of Fairborn has organized a blood drive in his honor.
The “Tough Like Thomas” Blood Drive will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday April 21 at the Fairborn Senior Center, sponsored by the American Red Cross.
There are 70 total slots for prospective donors. Currently, 60 of those have been filled.
To schedule an appointment, call 1-800-RED-CROSS or visit RedCrossBlood.org with the sponsor code: Thomas.
Thomas was diagnosed with a brain tumor in January 2021. Prior to his diagnosis, Thomas had severe digestive problems, frequently spitting up solid food. He was initially diagnosed with gastroparesis, or partial paralysis of the stomach.
“He wanted to be held more, he wasn’t playing,” Kussman said. “He went from being a toddler who would eat everything to hardly eating at all.”
Thomas initially went on medication to help him move food through his system, but not all of his symptoms went away. As a medical professional, Kussman had her suspicions.
“The biggest problems with diagnosing brain tumors in kids is that symptoms can be explained away by elements of normal toddler development,” Kussman explained. “For example, if his molars are coming in, the pain associated with that can mean he eats less and sleeps less.”
The turning point came one morning when Thomas was sitting in his high chair, trying to smile at mom and dad. Kussman noticed, as he was trying to smile, his expression wasn’t symmetrical on both sides.
“He wanted down from his high chair and went to go follow his dad,” Kussman said. “That’s when we noticed he had this off, stumbling gait.”
His parents rushed Thomas to the emergency room, where doctors found a brain tumor in his right frontal lobe, 9.7 cm long at its widest point. Thomas had surgery the next day, and is currently in his third round of chemotherapy.
The reason the blood drive is so instrumental for Thomas and other kids going through cancer is because of the devastating effects of chemotherapy. Blood products are lifesaving for kids who go through chemo, as the process kills healthy blood cells as well as cancer cells. It takes a long time before bone marrow begins making red blood cells again, so red blood infusions and platelet infusions help patients’ immune systems recover.
Kussman, who is currently in a fellowship specializing in pediatric hematology and oncology, also had cancer as a child. She was diagnosed with leukemia as an adolescent, and knows firsthand what her son is going through.
“Remembering what I went through and how lousy I felt helps me know what he’s going through,” Kussman said. ““Since he’s a toddler, he doesn’t have a lot of words; he can’t express why he’s upset.”
Thomas has a stronger need for these blood products, as young children who receive blood products early in life have a risk of developing antibodies against other people’s blood platelets. Thomas is among only eight percent of pediatric cases that develop this condition.
Harris and Kussman have started a Facebook group dedicated to documenting Thomas’ journey. Originally for family and friends, the group currently has over 1200 members, or “prayer warriors,” following Thomas’ battle.
“The amount of people that have reached out and supported us during this extremely hard time,” Harris said. “We’ve had people we don’t even know that are following our story online send in cards, or sending prayers. Several people have sent stuffed animals to Thomas. It’s amazing to see the outpouring from the community and know genuine, nice people are still out in the world.
“It’s renewed a sense of hope, with the outpouring of support, with the amount of people praying,” he added. “It’s made it a little easier.”
“All the support that we’ve received has helped hold our broken heart pieces together,” Kussman said. “It’s heartbreaking what he has to go through, but it’s incredible and really heartwarming to see people come together and make a difference to help anyone who’s going through this tragic experience of cancer.”
Blood donations have been drastically been impacted by the pandemic, as organizations rely heavily on in-person events and organizations to maintain adequate supply. As a result, hospitals are having to use those resources less frequently, but for cancer patients that’s not always an option.
“We couldn’t go through this treatment of cancer without having these blood products,” Kussman said. “Conditions like cancer don’t stop with the pandemic.”