Fighting with ALL for Elijah

Spinnaker

By Lindsay Montgomery

All it takes is one cell – invisible, silent and deadly. The cancer hastily multiplies, eagerly overtaking the production of healthy cells. It grows and survives better than the body’s own defenses.

As it rapidly crowds any available tissue, overtaking bone marrow and spreading through the bloodstream, the first signs of fatigue start to show, explains a 14-year-old soccer fan and ball boy for the UNF men’s soccer team.

Pictures of Elijah Deer’s family and friends cover the walls of his bedroom. Many of them depict a healthy, smiling boy with a head of thick, dark hair. The trappings of a soccer player are scattered across every surface – awards, jerseys and team photos. It’s easy to tell that he has a serious passion for the game.

While attending Olympic Development Program tryouts, a program that seeks the top youth soccer players across the country, Deer noticed something was wrong.

“I went to ODP in Alabama,” Deer said. “It’s a tryout for the regional team. I was playing, and usually for my club team, I play the whole game. … Once I got there, I was only playing five minutes, and I started getting tired.”

Deer’s uncharacteristic lack of energy stumped the trainers, who advised him to see a doctor when he returned home.

His doctor recommended a blood test, which revealed Deer had a low white blood cell count. The results raised a red flag that sent Deer to the emergency room for a second blood test. The test found cancer cells that had been discreetly overwhelming his body.

Handling the disease
Deer was diagnosed with ALL, Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer July 16. It inhibits the body’s ability to produce healthy marrow cells by causing an overproduction of abnormally functioning cells. About 60 percent of new cases are diagnosed in children, though the average age is even younger than Deer.

Deer’s Chemotherapy, started immediately after the diagnosis of ALL. Before chemo, Deer was active, He didn’t play very many video games because he was constantly outside, he said.

In order to eradicate the cancer, he is scheduled to receive radiation therapy in mid-October. The four-day process will prepare him for a bone marrow transplant by killing the cancer cells and holding back his immune system while the transplanted cells graft to his body.

For many transplant patients, part of the challenge is finding a bone marrow donor – but not for Deer. His mom is a perfect match; she met six of six of the markers used in Human Leukocyte Antigen typing. HLA are proteins the immune system uses to recognize which cells belong in your body. The more closely the donor matches the patient, the more likely the transplant will be successful.

Deer attends Florida Virtual School because of his frequent hospital visits.

“I have a lot of friends, so I miss seeing all of them at school,” he said.

He has them over at his house and hangs out with them when he’s not in the hospital; they even went to see “Devil” in theaters Sept. 24.

Deer’s club team unites
His top priority is going to all of his team’s practices and games. Deer plays for the Jacksonville United Football Club U-15, though his cancer has caused him to cheer from the sidelines this season. He said his favorite position is right back, but he plays on the left and midfield, as well.

He’s a pretty aggressive player on the field, having earned quite a few yellow cards while playing last year.

“No reds, though,” he assures.

The most important part of Deer’s battle with cancer has been support from friends and family. It shows in the pile of cards stacked on his dresser, and in the giant banner above his bed that reads “Get Well Soon Elijah, We Love You,” signed by the players on his team.

Ospreys offer their support
The UNF men’s soccer team has also made an effort to show support for its recuperating ball boy. Assistant coach Robert Hall broke the news of Deer’s illness to the players before the team played in the Soccer for a Cure tournament at the University of Alabama Birmingham. As a sign of solidarity to Deer’s hair loss from chemotherapy, the players agreed to shave their heads.

“We had a team meeting, and we all decided to do it,” said Theo Fulger, a defensive player.

The team members also wears red bands on their wrists that read “Fighting with ALL for Elijah.” Fulger and Adam O’Neill, the men’s soccer captain, recently visited Deer. They ate Chick-fil-A, played video games and enjoyed getting to know one another off the field.

O’Neill said that despite having a good time, there was an air of tension during the visit – the family was waiting for the results of the HLA typing. He said Deer’s parents were welcoming but understandably anxious.

“You could just see it on his dad’s face,” O’Neill said.

He said the news that Deer’s mother could be the donor came as a great relief to everyone.

O’Neill has plans to visit again.

“The most you can do is be positive, and let him know he’s got support,” he said.

Looking forward
Deer is determined to beat his illness. He hopes to play as a professional and wants to get back on the field as soon as possible after his one-to-two-month recovery from the transplant. Because his mother is such a strong match, his recovery time will likely be shorter; ideally, he could be playing again by February.

While he waits, he spends his time following his two favorite professional teams, Barcelona and Manchester City. The only thing he cares about on TV is ESPN, and he uses the Internet to watch games and keep up with scores.

Being diagnosed with ALL might have put Deer’s plans on hold, but now he’s hungrier than ever, he said. It kills him to support his teammates without being able to play.

“My team is going to be number one this year. We’re in sixth place now; we don’t have far to go,” he said.