Meet Going for Gold
Elijah Harper, Age 9, from Ellet, Ohio
Sidekicks: Mom, Pepin and brothers, Isaiah and Noah
Super power: Super Strength – He’s physically and mentally tough.
When he’s not busy overcoming obstacles: Elijah loves gymnastics, especially tumbling exercises like a full twist, front handspring and back flip. He also enjoys drawing, coloring and making loom bracelets.
Did you know fact: Elijah had the opportunity to train with the U.S. Men’s National and U.S. Men’s Olympic gymnastic teams at the Air Force Academy training facility in Colorado.
Why Elijah is a #ACHero: An enthusiastic gymnast, Elijah was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor, which required emergency neurosurgery, 6 weeks of intense radiation and a year of chemotherapy. Motivated by his love of gymnastics, Elijah worked hard to regain strength and flexibility so he could get back to the gym and continue doing what he loves most – tumbling.
Elijah’s Story: A self-taught gymnast, Elijah fell in love with gymnastics the moment he saw his first tumbling routine on YouTube. He practiced flips and tricks in his backyard and at his local YWCA, never afraid of a little bump or bruise that he may get in the process.
But, in June 2015, mom began noticing changes in her healthy, active boy. First it was his balance then came the headaches and lack of appetite. One morning, when he vomited, mom, Pepin Harper, took him to the Akron Children’s Hospital Hudson Emergency Department (now Urgent Care) thinking he had a concussion. The physicians examined Elijah, did some blood work and a CAT scan.
“I remember the moment so vividly,” said Pepin. “The doctor came in and said they found a tumor pressing against his cerebellum…I fell to my knees and put my head in the doctor’s lap and started praying.”
Elijah took his first ambulance ride to Akron Children’s Hospital blissfully unaware of the medical journey ahead of him.
Once in the pediatric intensive care unit, dozens of nurses and specialists evaluated Elijah to determine his care plan. His tumor was cutting off the flow of fluid that bathes the spinal cord, which can be fatal, so Elijah was scheduled for a 4-hour MRI and emergency neurosurgery the next day.
Before Elijah’s big surgery, mom asked surgeon Dr. Tsulee Chen, Akron Children’s Hospital chief of neurosurgery, to explain to Elijah what surgery was and what was going to happen.
“She was so good with him,” said Pepin. “She used kid-friendly lingo to help him understand what was going on but not scare him in the process…I didn’t want him going into surgery feeling afraid.”
The next day, Dr. Chen removed a golf ball-sized tumor from the fluid within his cerebellum.
Two weeks later, Elijah had a spinal puncture fluid test to see if any cancer cells were left behind. There were none but, as a precaution, doctors recommended Elijah undergo intense radiation and chemotherapy after his 2-month recovery from neurosurgery.
Elijah went to Chicago for 6 weeks of proton radiation therapy, a highly targeted type of radiation that focused on his brain and spine. The 30 rounds of radiation were difficult on him physically and emotionally, especially being away from his brothers and gymnastics.
Once complete, Elijah came back to Akron Children’s Hospital’s Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders for a year of chemotherapy.
Throughout the surgery, the treatments and the ongoing physical and occupational therapy, getting back to gymnastics motivated Elijah to keep fighting. Mom, who’s also a trainer, worked with Elijah on her own, too, even taking him to gymnastics to help him rebuild his physical and mental strength.
In December 2016, Make-A-Wish of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana surprised Elijah during a school assembly. With 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu in attendance, the group presented Elijah with the opportunity to work out with the U.S. Men’s National and U.S. Men’s Olympic gymnastics teams in Colorado Springs. He was up to the challenge and loved every minute of it.
Side effects were a real risk to Elijah’s treatment plan. Today, more than a year since his diagnosis and treatment, Elijah has some memory and balance issues and continues to visit the NeuroDevelopmental Science Center to monitor his condition.
“Elijah is tumbling again and continues to get better with his balance, even walking on the balance beam now,” said Pepin. “It’s amazing what he’s overcome this past year…by the grace of God, Elijah is a walking miracle.”