Inspiring comeback for Leisey
Leisey, an eighth-grader at Cocalico Middle School, would be the EPSHL Comeback Player of the Year if they had the award.
The assist was Hunter’s lone point in the game, a 10-6 loss, but it signified a victory in his year-long battle against cancer that wiped out his entire 2012-13 season.
Hunter’s symptoms first surfaced during the baseball season of 2012 when his family noticed numerous bruises.
“He was black and blue on his knees,” said his father Randy. “You don’t really think that much. We took him to a sports doctor that we really like and he said (Hunter) was just bruised really badly. Keep it iced and keep him playing.”
Along with the bruises, Hunter felt listless.
“I wasn’t hungry and I was tired,” he said. “I’m normally going to the pool. I didn’t go to the pool that much.”
The most telling symptom in the young athlete was his inability to hustle during his baseball games.
“He always put his heart into it and (now) he wasn’t,” said his mother Pam. “We were like ‘Hunter, if you’re going to play, you’ve got to give it your all.’”
“I was trying to but I would get tired right away,” explained Hunter. “(I was) tired before a play would even come my way.”
The Leiseys sought the reason for Hunter’s lethargy throughout the summer. Among the possible causes explored were a stomach bug, dehydration and Crohn’s Disease, which a
fflicts his brother Cody. By the end of the summer, Hunter was sent to a lab to have blood work done on Aug. 22.
“They were going to run the same blood work they had just run on Cody,” Pam said. “They told me I’d hear in a week. Well, literally three hours from the time I had taken him to the lab and got home is when we got the phone call that he needed to go to Hershey immediately. It was leukemia and they would be waiting for him.”
The diagnosis was Acute Myeloid Leukemia or AML. According to WebMD, AML is a cancer that originates in the bone marrow and can spread rapidly and attack other organs. Without treatment, AML can be quickly fatal.
“They did say that he came in, overall, strong and healthy as far as his organs,” Pam said. “It hadn’t gotten to the point where it was affecting his organs. In that sense, he was still strong and healthy. It was caught early enough that his body could tolerate some of the harsh chemo and medicines.”
Hunter checked into Hershey Medical Center, where he spent most of the next school year and endured four rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. It was also where the he began to understand the severity of his condition.
“He was there a couple of days when he said, ‘I guess I won’t be able to play hockey,’” recalled his father. “I said ‘You won’t be able to play hockey. You’re in here for a while.’”
“(It took) about a day or two (to sink in),” admitted Hunter. “I couldn’t believe that I had cancer. I was pretty scared.”
AML can be an aggressive cancer that requires aggressive treatment, but subsequently, the treatment can be shorter than some other cancers. Befriended by two other boys at Hershey, Hunter decided that, if it had to be, he’d rather face the form of leukemia he had.
“Cole and Reilly were telling me about it and I was asking the nurses,” Hunter said. “They were two of the kids I met while I was in the hospital. They had the same thing that I had. I was asking them a lot of questions. They told me that AML is a shorter process than (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia) is.”
ALL was one of the possibilities and the Leiseys were told that ALL has a higher cure rate but a longer treatment time.
“Mom and I were praying for (ALL) but Hunter came out right away and said ‘Dad, I’m happy with AML,’” Randy recalled. “I said, ‘Hunter, do you know what you’re saying?’ He said, ‘Yeah. I want this done with. I want to go to the hospital and get fixed up.’”
As his mother pointed out, the treatment is shorter but more intense with more hospital time because of the side effects. From his diagnosis to February of 2013, Hunter underwent four cycles of chemotherapy to prepare for a bone marrow transplant.
“The first two rounds, I didn’t get sick at all, but then my mouth was getting sore in the first round,” Hunter recalled. “In the second round, nothing really happened. The third round was probably the worst. I was getting sick and my mouth was even worse than it was before. I wasn’t eating. I was tired. I tried keeping a positive attitude mostly and I wouldn’t let it bother because I had a bunch of things that I would do to keep my mind off of thinking about it.”
Throughout his hospitalizations and even when released between treatments, Hunter received support from the Hershey Bears.
“The (Hershey players) come over once a month,” Randy said. “It helps get the kids’ minds off of it.”
“Three of the Hershey Bear players came over to visit,” Hunter said. “Two of them played Xbox with me. One was Tomas Kundratek. Another was Dany Sabourin and the other one was Boyd Kane. (Kane) came another time to visit everyone and he played air hockey with me. We talked about hockey.”
Other athletes visited the hospital to be with the young patients. The Penn State swim team came to Hershey and Hunter spent time playing games with one of the divers. The Eagles’ LeSean McCoy went there but Hunter did not get to meet him. The Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Phillies sent packages with various team-related items.
However, the hockey bond proved strongest and Hunter met with the Bear players in and out of the hospital. Sabourin invited him over to a practice right before Hunter went back into the hospital.
“After the practice, he took us back to the Giant Center and took us in the locker room,” he said. “We then got two hockey sticks signed by (Hershey’s) Jeff Taffe.”
Randy said, “It was a good way to go back into the hospital.”
Hunter was readmitted on Jan. 23 to prep for the bone marrow transplant on Feb. 1. The procedure fascinated Randy and Pam with how seemingly simple it is and how the body knows what to do with the new marrow.
“It was going through his broviac (tube) into his chest,” Pam recalled. “It is almost like a miracle, the bone marrow just knows to filter through the body. It just knows where to filter in where it was wiped out of him. It took only an hour for them to do that bone marrow transplant.”
“During that, the doctors and the nurses do not leave his room. That’s when his body may reject it or just decide to shut down. It is intense. It is amazing because I had no idea,” she continued.
The procedure is the beginning of the end, but the patient is vulnerable to disease and rejection of the marrow.
“The first 100 days are the most important,” Hunter explained. “They have to make sure you don’t get any infections or you don’t get Graft versus host disease.”
Graft-versus-host Disease, where the new bone marrow is attacked by the recipient’s body, must be monitored to ensure the body ultimately accepts the new marrow.
“It is something the doctors want to see,” said Randy, to which Pam quickly added, “At the same time, too much of it can be lethal.”
Despite complications, Hunter pulled through and was able to come home permanently the weekend after Mother’s Day.
“It felt good to be home and sleep in my own bed,” Hunter said.
When asked what he missed the most, Hunter replied, “Probably my cats, Chuckles and Cuddles. Chuckles sleeps in my bed, kicks me out of my own bed. He goes after my blinds and tries to wake me.”
Lingering concerns over infections kept Hunter away from baseball over the summer, so hockey proved to be the gateway to Hunter’s return to normal activity. Through his Dad’s connections in the hockey community, Hunter was able to join Cody at the Lancaster Ice Rink Skills Camp.
“My brother was signed up for a 12-week clinic in Lancaster,” Hunter said. “The last three weeks, I was able to go up and practice with them. It felt good. (I felt like I was) coming back. It took a while to get my legs back. I am not sure how long but it was quite a bit.”
When the EPSHL Middle School season began in October, Hunter knew he had regained his conditioning after the first game.
“I could tell I was pretty much back but in the third period, the team was super tired and we ended up blowing a huge lead,” he said. “I was tired at the end, (but) it felt good to on the skates.”
Hunter finished the season with five goals and seven assists in 12 games, but more importantly, he knows he is back to a normal life as well as hockey.
“I feel like I am back to myself,” Hunter said. “I am in remission now. I go up (to Hershey) every other month for a checkup and stuff. I am getting all the tests done again because they want to see how I am doing.”
“I do consider myself as a survivor.”
by John Crawford