Somewhere between the hospital and home, minutes before receiving the worst phone call of either of their lives, Nebraska assistant coach Chris Harriman turned to his wife, Cheryl, and joked about how nice it was to lead normal lives again.
It had been almost three years since their 5-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, and the anxiety and stress that had engulfed the family was finally receding.
No longer was Avery receiving chemotherapy and radiation or going to the hospital two or three times a week. He had progressed enough by mid-October that Chris and Cheryl felt comfortable taking him on family trips to visit friends in St. Louis and Florida.
Every doctor they spoke with during their appointment earlier that day was so optimistic about Avery's recovery that neither Chris nor Cheryl worried when a phone call from the hospital interrupted their conversation on the drive home. Only after Cheryl answered and heard a familiar voice on the other end did she begin to panic.
"When I heard the oncologist's voice, my heart went to my stomach," Cheryl said. "Chris could see in my face something was wrong. It was pretty awful. I was like, 'Here we go again.' "
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The news from the oncologist indeed was as dire as Cheryl feared. He told her that based on the results of a routine monthly blood test Avery had just taken, he suspected the leukemia had returned.
"Other than the obvious, your child passing away, that was about as hard a phone call as you can get," Chris said. "It was tough. Really, really tough. You felt like you were being punched in the face."
Stunned by Avery's sudden relapse yet desperate to begin treatment as quickly as possible, Chris and Cheryl hastily stuffed a week's worth of clothes in suitcases, found a friend to look after their 4-year-old daughter, Kacee, and made the hour-long drive from Lincoln to Children's Hospital in Omaha the next morning.
This time the mood in the car was somber yet still far from defeatist. Chris and Cheryl knew the survival rate for childhood leukemia drops significantly after a relapse, yet they were hopeful Avery's enthusiasm and fighting spirit could help him buck the odds.
• • • • •
If doctors and nurses in Omaha were initially surprised to see Avery driving a Hot Wheels mini-jeep down the hospital hallway after chemotherapy or out of bed watching basketball hours after radiation, they've gradually come to expect it.
Avery's tenacity is a product of how his parents have raised him. Chris and Cheryl have displayed the same relentlessly positivity during challenging times in their lives that their son is showing now.
When Chris and Cheryl met through mutual friends as freshmen at Augusta State University in 1999, they could not have been a much more unlikely couple.
Chris, a native of Sydney, Australia, was experiencing culture shock after leaving a sprawling city of 4.6 million to play Division II basketball in a town in the Deep South barely one tenth that size. Cheryl, who grew up in rural Georgia, had no way to relate since she had never spent time away from her family nor even been on a plane before.
"I was like, 'How on earth did you end up in this super small town?" Cheryl recalled with a chuckle. "But it was meant to be, I guess."
Chris and Cheryl became inseparable almost from the moment they met, dating all through college and getting married a few years after they graduated.
The first time Cheryl finally boarded a plane, it was a 23-hour non-stop flight to join Chris in Australia after college as he pursued professional basketball there. She endured homesickness and jet lag for a few days, but soon afterward she grew to love Australia as though it was her home too.
"I had to bring her back to America kicking and screaming," Chris joked. "She had no interest in wanting to leave."
They might never have left were it not for Chris' desire to break into coaching.
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It was too good an opportunity to pass up when Chris' former coach at Augusta State, Gary Tuell, offered him a spot on his staff at Division II Nova Southeastern, so he and Cheryl packed up their stuff and traded Australia for Fort Lauderdale in August 2004. That was the first stop on a journey up the college coaching ladder that has since taken Chris and Cheryl to Saint Louis University in 2008 and Nebraska last spring.
"Every four years, we seem to move," Cheryl said. "I know as soon as I get comfortable in a community and a place, he'll have some new options to consider."
• • • • •
Had Chris and Cheryl had any inkling Avery's leukemia was going to return, they may not have left Saint Louis last spring to come to a town where they knew nobody.
Saint Louis became special to the Harrimans because of the success Chris had coaching under Rick Majerus and because of the way players he helped recruit embraced Avery. They high-fived him in the locker room after big wins. They visited him when he wasn't feeling well. And they even took the time to attend his fifth birthday party, which of course had a Billikens basketball theme.
"That meant the world to us," Cheryl said. "These college guys probably have other things they'd rather be doing than going to a 5-year-old's birthday party but they all adored Avery. They came and made his day."
What made Chris consider leaving Saint Louis was an unexpected opportunity that arose during last year's Final Four in New Orleans.
Newly hired Nebraska coach Tim Miles was seeking an assistant coach who could recruit internationally because he believed that could be key to overcoming the scarce supply of in-state talent that has always hampered the Huskers. When Miles asked Loyola coach Porter Moser for suggestions over drinks at a New Orleans bar, the former Saint Louis assistant spent the rest of the night talking up his ex-Billikens cohort Harriman.
"The next day Chris and I met," Miles recalled. "It was supposed to last 45 minutes. It lasted about two hours. There was an easy chemistry that I think anybody would have with Chris. His ability to connect with people is just outstanding. I knew at that moment when he walked away, boy, this is the guy we've got to make a play on."
The opportunity to coach at a Big Ten school with sparkling new facilities intrigued Harriman instantly, as did the chance to learn under a man whose easygoing style was the polar opposite to Majerus. Cheryl wasn't eager to leave their friends in Saint Louis or move to a cold-weather state without any familiar faces, but she agreed because doctors assured her Avery's recovery was going as smoothly as possible.
It's safe to say Lincoln was a culture shock for Chris and Cheryl.
When every family on their block took time to introduce themselves within days of their arrival, Chris and Cheryl initially couldn't help but chuckle. They quickly came to appreciate that sense of community once Avery relapsed, however, because neighbors or wives of other Nebraska coaches regularly dropped off home-cooked meals or volunteered to pick Kacee up from school.
"This is as close to Australia in terms of the people as any place I've ever been," Chris said. "There's that slogan, 'There's no place like Nebraska.' Well, that's truly how I feel like it is."
• • • • •
Despite the support from friends and neighbors, the past few months have been challenging for the Harriman family.
Avery began chemotherapy again soon after his relapse, but his oncologist determined by mid-December that the treatment was unlikely to fully eliminate the leukemia. As a result, doctors told Chris and Cheryl their best remaining option was a bone marrow transplant, a high-risk, high-reward procedure designed to provide Avery a new immune system to fight the residual leukemia.
The possibility of Avery living a normal, leukemia-free life was alluring to his parents, but the potential life-threatening complications were downright terrifying.
Since Avery would need high-dose chemotherapy and head-to-toe radiation to deplete his existing immune system in preparation for the transplant, any minor infection he contracted the first six weeks after the procedure had the potential to be dangerous. Furthermore, there was the frightening possibility that the new marrow would not be a sufficient genetic match and would perceive his body as foreign material to be attacked and destroyed.
"They told us things could go really wrong and Avery could die," Cheryl said. "We just kept thinking, 'Holy cow, can his little body really go through all this?' It's crazy. The only thing in your mind was how many complications could pop up and that it was really risky."
What helped Chris and Cheryl change their mind about the transplant was finding a viable donor. Doctors had to seek someone from outside the family because Avery's sister was not a match, but improbably they found a 10-out-of-10 match in a yet-to-be-identified 24-year-old.
After numerous conversations with doctors and late-night chats with each other, Chris and Cheryl eventually conceded in late January that the transplant was Avery's best option.
"We always looked at the bone marrow transplant as a last resort," Chris said. "It's the hardest decision we ever had to make because it's so high-risk, high-reward. We tried to be as informed as possible and meet with as many doctors as possible. Everywhere we turned, the advice was we should do it."
• • • • •
More than two weeks have passed since Avery had his bone marrow transplant on Feb. 15, and so far he is exceeding the most optimistic expectations of his doctors.
Not only does the bone marrow appear to be a good match so far, Avery has also remained remarkably cheerful for a kid receiving shots or medicine every few hours.
Doctors said he'd likely be in bed for days after chemotherapy and radiation sessions prior to the transplant. He was racing nurses down the hallway in a tricycle. Doctors said he'd probably need a feeding tube the day after the procedure because he wouldn't have much appetite. He scarfed down a pizza and a banana smoothie. Doctors said it would be at least a few weeks before he could be unhooked from his IVs. He started taking his medication orally on Friday.
"Everyone who sees him asks, 'Did he really have a bone marrow transplant?' " Cheryl said. "It gives me chills to think about how incredible he has been."
One reason Avery has remained in such good spirits is because of the care packages that keep pouring in from friends of his father in the basketball industry.
Stuffed animals, T-shirts or videos of games seem to arrive from folks at Saint Louis once every few weeks. Signed jerseys have arrived from St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and Charlotte Bobcats forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. And just last week, Missouri assistant coach Ryan Miller arranged for his brother Mike to have Miami Heat teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade send autographed T-shirts, jerseys and photos.
Even though the past couple weeks have gone so well, Chris and Cheryl know hurdles remain for Avery.
Cheryl makes sure either she or Chris sleep in a chair at the hospital each night so that Avery will never wake up and not see one of their faces. And Chris has occasionally skipped practices or recruiting trips and done some of his advance scouting work from the hospital to minimize the chances that he's unavailable should something go wrong.
If the frustration of trying to help an undermanned Nebraska team remain competitive in the rugged Big Ten ever gets to Chris, he usually regains his perspective by thinking about his son. He can't complain about a bad practice or dwell on a blowout road loss because he knows Avery has it worse.
"He has every reason to get upset but when the doctors ask him how he's feeling in the morning, his response every time is 'great,'" Chris said. "He's a total inspiration."
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