At the age of 13, Thomas Heiberger loved nothing more than to play basketball under the blue skies of Katy at his family’s home.
But one day in 2008, Thomas walked into the family kitchen and announced to his mother that he felt too weak to play.
“He told me, ‘My legs just won’t hold me,’” his mother Ellen recalled. “I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. That wasn’t normal for Thomas to say, because he’s always on the go.”
After numerous blood tests, his local physician detected a problem with Thomas’ blood counts, and recommended he visit Texas Children’s Hospital.
“We were told to go right to Texas Children’s, because they’re the best,” Ellen said.
Further testing confirmed that Thomas had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This type of cancer happens when immature, malignant white blood cells infiltrate the bone marrow and crowd out the normal cells.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Thomas said. “I just knew it wasn’t good.”
To complicate matters, Thomas was placed on a course of chemotherapy, but the treatment triggered diabetes in his system. In addition to receiving treatment for ALL, Thomas and his parents had to learn about insulin shots and the like.
“We felt like we’d just been run over by a truck,” Ellen said. “First the chemotherapy, then this.”
Fortunately for the Heibergers, Texas Children’s has been ranked as one of the best pediatric cancer programs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. In addition to its innovative technology and treatment programs, the hospital’s Cancer Center is staffed by specialists who understand the needs of both patients and families during such stressful times.
“The second day we were there, Thomas’ doctor came in and sat on his bed,” Ellen said. “He looked him straight in the eye and told Thomas he was going to get him better. Then he proceeded to give me all of his telephone numbers—including his home and cell numbers—which I’ve used more times than I can count over the years.”
Thomas ultimately underwent six months of chemotherapy, but his body did not respond to the treatment. Unlike 90 percent of all pediatric patients who undergo chemotherapy for ALL, Thomas’ cancer did not go into remission. He was next scheduled for a bone marrow transplant, which took place in January 2009.
“I’ve actually met my donor,” Thomas said. “He was a 21-year-old from South Carolina who goes to Clemson University. He flew in and met my whole family.”
Once Thomas received the transplant, he underwent full-body radiation and chemotherapy at the same time. He remained on the bone marrow transplant unit at Texas Children’s for 40 days.
“I got to talk to my relatives on the computer every day, because you don’t get to see anyone when you’re in isolation,” Thomas said. “It was so nice getting to talk to someone different.”
Today, Thomas is in remission. He visits the bone marrow transplant program every three months for immunization shots, because the immunizations he received as a baby were destroyed along with his bone marrow before the transplant.
After reaching 18 months post-transplant, Thomas and his family celebrate that milestone.
“The doctors told me that after 18 months of recovery following a transplant, the chance of a relapse is almost nil,” Ellen said.
Today Thomas plays tennis, rides his bike and shoots baskets at the family home. Not surprisingly, his favorite activity at Texas Children’s involved a game room on the hospital’s 16th floor.
“They even had a pop-a-shot machine,” he said with a laugh. to me.”