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Harrison Korzekwinski expressed his appreciation this while surrounded by his family and friends.
“I never thought I’d get this far,” the 11-year-old boy said.
On Thursday, Harrison got to leave the UNC Medical Center after he beat leukemia. There were streamers hanging from the walls, birthday balloons floating and Harrison opened up gifts.
“Wow, thank you so much,” Harrison said as he opened up a gift bag full of Carolina Hurricanes gear.
Harrison turned 11 on July 24. Beneath the streamers is the reclinable bed that Harrison has slept on for the last six months. There was a stethoscope and other medical equipment next to the bed. Harrison has relied on this equipment for longer than he’d like to remember. Harrison celebrated because he finally gets to leave this room.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Harrison said as he finished thanking friends and family for the gifts.
Harrison made it to this point thanks to the people standing in this UNC hospital room, but also thanks to his favorite team.
“[I] just wanted to let you know I’m rooting for you,” Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said via a video message.
Harrison looks like he could be part of the team. He wore a red home Hurricanes jersey with his last name printed on the back. Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s signature is featured prominently over the No. 20.
After Harrison and his family finished watching the video from Slavin, Harrison’s doctor entered the room to signal the time to leave. There was a procession of doctors and nurses waiting in the hallway to cheer for him on his way out. The grand exit, looks a lot different than the way in.
“He came home from school, didn’t feel good …. tired,” Kathy Korzekwinski, Harrison’s mother, remembered.
Right before Christmas time in 2021, Harrison developed a sinus infection that just wouldn’t go away. After receiving treated from his pediatrician, he and the rest of his family contracted COVID-19. Even after the rest of the family got better, Harrison’s severe sinus symptoms persisted.
“His red blood cell count was so low,” Kathy Korzekwinski said. “It was amazing he was even walking around.”
After a series of tests, the Korzekwinski family received a nightmare diagnosis on Feb. 3. Harrison had acute myeloid leukemia.
“I had to lay on a bed for a minute, like I was passing out,” Kathy Korzekwinski said. “It just hit me that hard.”
The diagnosis couldn’t have come at a much worse time for the Korzekwinski family. The pandemic forced them to shutdown their restaurant, J. Betski’s. They had health insurance, but there were going to be hundreds of thousands of expenses left uncovered.
“You kind of feel like you’re on the Titanic and there’s a canon facing you,” John Korzekwinski, Harrison’s father said. “After you digest, you start getting your feet back on the ground.”
The family started a GoFundMe page. They also received support from friends, family and their community. Even kids in their neighborhood raised thousands of dollars through bake sales and lemonade stands.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” Kathy Korzekwinski said. “It means a lot.”
The community eased their financial concerns. The Carolina Hurricanes helped lift Harrison’s spirits.
“The team as a whole has just been tremendous,” John Korzekwinski said.
Multiple rounds of chemotherapy got a little easier after family friend and Carolina Hurricanes play-by-play announcer Mike Maniscalco gave Harrison a call. Later Maniscalco and color commentator Tripp Tracy mentioned Harrison during a game broadcast.
“Harrison is going to dig in and beat this,” Tracy said. “But he’s going to need all of us.”
“Harrison we’re pulling for you,” Maniscalco said. “We know that you’re smiling here tonight.”
Pretty soon players like Sebastian Aho were sending him video messages of encouragement.
“You’re a tough kid,” Aho said in his video message. “You’ll fight this and you’ll be back on the ice playing hockey soon.”
“It was almost like a dream,” Harrison said about getting a video from Aho. “That built a wall for me of encouragement.”
“What that did for my son and what that meant for him,” John Korzekwinski said. “If you saw his eyes, I would give anything in the world … it’s more than anything I could do, it just made me feel like a million dollars.”
Harrison started training to play hockey at the age of 7 after seeing his first Hurricanes game. He was robbed of the chance to play this season. His dream is to play in the NHL.
“I’m definitely going to get back out there,” Harrison said. “I’m not going to fall and if I do fall, I’m going to learn from it.”
Before Harrison can sound the Hurricanes siren, he needs to ring the bell. At the pediatric cancer wing of the UNC Hospital a crowd gathered to witness Harrison’s big moment.
“I think it’s time to ring this bell,” one of the medical staff said with a big smile. Harrison walked up and ranged it three times to a room full of applause. He is cancer-free.
“I’m free,” Harrison said. “I’m out of here.”