Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 9:32 pm / Updated at 6:47 pm
Barfknecht: Son's leukemia changes Husker assistant's perspective

LINCOLN — The number rolls off Chris Harriman's tongue like any other routine fact.

“It's been 116 days,” Nebraska's assistant basketball coach said Wednesday.

That information, though, is anything but routine in the Harriman household.

It's the time since Chris and Cheryl's 6-year-old son, Avery, underwent a bone-marrow transplant. The high-risk, high-reward procedure was necessary because last October, he was diagnosed with leukemia — again. The first time was at age 2.

After the initial remission, life had gotten mostly back to normal for the Harrimans. They moved with Avery and daughter Kacee from St. Louis to Lincoln last summer after Chris took a job under NU coach Tim Miles.

A new job, a new city and an old diagnosis, however, soon put the Harriman's life back in a blender.

Day by day, the churning has begun to slow, helped by news like the family received Wednesday. Since Avery's transplant in February, the need for medical visits had declined from three times a day to daily. Then from weekly to biweekly.


“It's going to be monthly,” Harriman said. “He's doing incredibly well. His hair has grown back. His energy is better. And he's eating well. When I get home, he can't wait to shoot hoops.”

Harriman smiled as he said all that, then exhaled the sigh of those who have dealt with this disease before.

“As well as he is doing,” Harriman said, “you live in fear because of what you have been through. When he has two good days in a row, you're afraid of the next one.

“But we've come to the realization that we just have to enjoy today, and be happy for the good news as it comes.”

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One such tidbit this week is that Avery's medicine dosages have been slightly reduced without side effects. Still, he takes eight drugs each morning and six each night. A recent purchase of one tiny vial rang up at $168.

Please don't get the idea that the Harrimans are courting sympathy by discussing this.

“When you are in cancer centers and hospitals, you see people who have it way worse,” Chris said. “So there is no boo-hoo for us. You lose that fast.

“Just recently, we've had two children who were in the hospital with Avery pass away. One was going through the exact same procedure. So who are we to sit around and mope.”

All that the Harrimans seek is increased awareness of pediatric cancer and extra visibility for the national bone-marrow donor registry.

As donor screening began for Avery, the number of technical matches was nearly 4,000. But Harriman said by the time various disqualification categories in Avery's case were reviewed (such as female, over age 21, influenza in the previous six months), the match list dwindled to two.

One couldn't do it. The other said yes.

“If that hadn't come through,” Harriman said, “I can't say our son would be alive today.”

So after Chris and Cheryl spent 48 of the first 55 days in the hospital with Avery and persevered through the mind-numbing exhaustion that goes with trying to live life while enduring their situation, part of their energy has been used to discuss a fundraiser and awareness campaign.

“I don't know exactly what it's going to be yet,” Harriman said. “But we really feel the need to do something to get people involved to help others who will face this.”

The return of Avery's leukemia last fall knocked him out of kindergarten after about six weeks.

If he can go to school this fall — he still is restricted from most crowded places for fear of infection, though he watched about 20 minutes of Husker basketball camp this week from a distance — he'll try kindergarten again.

“We're redshirting him early,” a smiling Harriman said, “which is good for a skinny guy.

“But we really don't know what is going to happen next. We've done this long enough to know there are no guarantees.”

What Harriman does know is his wife should be fitted for a halo for “dealing with this and me and my crazy job.” And that Miles and the rest of the Nebraska basketball family can never be repaid for their kindnesses.

One more realization: learning “there is no place like Nebraska” isn't just a line in a fight song after seeing neighbors, acquaintances and sometimes strangers pitch in to help.

“I'm not a huge spiritual guy,” Harriman said. “But I believe we were placed here. I can't imagine having done this without the help we've been given.”

Contact the writer:


Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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