Eighth grader and star catcher Liam Canard, of Our Lady of Lourdes School (OLLS) in Raleigh, loves baseball. When he isn’t playing for his school team, he’s playing with his travel team, the NCDB RiverCats, in weekend tournaments. As far back as he can remember, he’s been swinging a bat and wearing a glove.
“When he isn’t on the field, he’s watching baseball on television and thinking about baseball,” jokes his father, Jim, who coaches Liam at OLLS. “Every morning, he wakes up and turns on the MLB Network for highlights. It’s the first thing he does each day.”
Last June, Liam’s ability to play baseball was in question when he was diagnosed with Stage IIIB Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system. Treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients are challenging, and for the better part of a year, Liam has undergone rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, leaving him immunocompromised and unable to attend school during the fall semester in 2014.
Patrick Thompson, MD, associate professor of hematology-oncology in the Department of Pediatrics at UNC, is Liam’s doctor. Dr. Thompson laughs when he thinks back to how Liam and his parents interpreted the recommendation to keep Liam away from closed, crowded spaces – to not go to school, where other kids would be carrying infections.
“How does that impact baseball?” they asked. “You don’t play baseball in a closed, crowded space. If we keep him away from the other boys in the dugout, can he play?”
Liam was cleared to play on fall weekends with his travel team, filling the role of designated hitter rather than taking on the physical strain of catching. Despite treatments that left him feeling weak, as one of the best players for his age, he still played well. He went from being tired and nauseated on Thursday nights to hitting doubles and triples on Saturdays and Sundays.
“Baseball has kept him going,” says Liam’s mom, Annette. “Being able to get on the field and play during his treatment has been so important for him. He wasn’t at peak performance, of course, but his will and his mental state were strong, and baseball helped him get through his treatment in so many ways.”
Dr. Thompson marvels at the way Liam was able to handle treatments during the first year of his fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“He told me one time that he should’ve legged out a triple but had to settle for a double because he wasn’t feeling as fit as usual,” says Dr. Thompson. “That kind of epitomizes how he has approached his treatments. He hasn’t been slowed down very much. His inner-strength is amazing for someone so young.”
The Carolina Family
Liam and his parents credit many supporters for helping him through the past year of treatment. His school community at OLLS has been there for him, hosting an event to raise money to help with medical bills and reaching out to the Canards in many meaningful ways.
During those initial days of treatment last June, Liam received a much-needed lift in the form of an unexpected visit from former Carolina baseball player Chase Jones and 2015 Tar Heel pitchers Benton Moss, Chris McCue, and Zach Rice.
“We had all been trying to handle the challenging news we had received, and during one of the very early visits to the hospital, Liam was surprised by a number of UNC baseball players that had come to visit and give him support,” says Annette. “It was a special moment for all of us, particularly Liam.”
Chase Jones, founder of the Vs. Cancer Foundation, which raises money to help in the fight to cure pediatric cancers, knows all too well how important it can be to have supporters by your side. His own teammates rallied around him when he was diagnosed with Stage IV brain cancer as a college freshman and treated at the Children’s Hospital.
“We wanted him to know that Carolina baseball had his back,” Chase says.
The early days of treatment were particularly nerve-racking for Liam, who wasn’t sure what to expect.
“He was understandably pretty scared,” Benton remembers. “I could tell he was a little worried about what was going to happen, so I got his number and told him I’d text him and keep up with him, and we started texting that day. I’d known he was into baseball but I learned how big a player he is and what a fan of the game he is, and we bonded over that. The kid’s a stud.”
Over the next several months, Benton, a Morehead-Cain Scholar and leader of Carolina Outreach, dropped by the Children’s Hospital on his way to class when Liam was in for treatment. He’d visit him for 20 or 30 minutes, ask how he was feeling, encourage him to keep his head up, and stay in touch with him via text after leaving.
Benton even invited Liam and his family to Carolina baseball’s Fall Classic, the team’s internal scrimmage, where head coach Mike Fox asked Liam to sit with the team in the dugout. Liam hesitated because he didn’t want to be in the way.
“I told him, ‘If you don’t go sit in the dugout, I will,’” Jim remembers, and Liam immediately hopped the fence and joined the players.
Benton and the Tar Heels have continued their relationship with the Canards. On his way home to Rocky Mount for holiday break in December, Benton stopped by the Canards’ house in Raleigh to check on Liam.
“They’re incredible people,” Benton says. “Liam’s mom reminds me a lot of my mom. I remember showing up before Christmas and she’d prepared blueberry muffins for me. She insisted that I eat them – that’s something my mom would do for guests – and they were great.”
The Canards feel the same way about Benton.
“Not every college student is like Benton,” Annette says. “Being as busy as I know a college senior is, you’d expect that over time he’d lose touch, but that hasn’t happened. He’s really been a role model and inspiration for Liam and we are so impressed with him. Benton’s parents must be extremely proud of him.”
Dr. Thompson, too, shares a sense of gratitude to Chase, Benton, and other members of the Tar Heel athletics family, whom he calls a special part of medicine at UNC.
“They are our secret weapon to help patients like Liam fight,” he says. “They can reach and inspire patients in ways that physicians can’t.”
Chase and Benton have taken their guidance a step further by talking with Liam about the health challenge he’s facing and the positives he can make of it.
“They’ve talked a lot about how I can help other kids through this,” says Liam, who has worked out every day since he was diagnosed last spring. “That’s definitely something I want to do – reach out to kids like me and let them know that they don’t have to stop what they’re doing. The disease should never define who you are.”
Sometimes patients and physicians are there for each other in unexpected ways. That’s been Dr. Thompson’s experience with the Canards.
Last spring, Dr. Thompson took a position in the Division of Hematology-Oncology in the Department of Pediatrics at UNC. He’d been a chemical engineer before deciding to attend medical school at Baylor College of Medicine and joining the faculty there.
With his family staying in Texas, Dr. Thompson arrived at UNC and found the collegial environment he was looking for and a mission that meant something to him.
“It sounds corny, but the plaque in Memorial Hospital, ‘Built by the People of North Carolina, for the People of North Carolina,’ tells it all,” says Dr. Thompson, who has become a staunch supporter of Carolina athletics, attending sporting events with his nineteen-year-old son, Colin.
Shortly after arriving at UNC, however, his family had its own health challenge to face when Colin, who had recently graduated from high school and was planning to attend Carolina as a college freshman last fall, was in a car accident back in Texas. Colin was in a coma for sixteen days, in the ICU for a month, and in inpatient rehab for two months.
Liam had been one of Dr. Thompson’s first patients at UNC, and the Canards, Dr. Thompson says, were there for him.
“They always asked how Colin was doing and stressed that he was in their thoughts and prayers,” he says. “They’ve been an example for me in how they’ve dealt with their challenge and through the kindness they’ve shown us after Colin’s accident and during his recovery.”
Today, Colin, who ran track in high school and excelled in youth soccer, is preparing to become a student at UNC in the fall, a year later than expected. Dr. Thompson has seen Colin’s improvement over the past several months as he has continued in rehab and participated in UNC Athletes in Action.
“In the months after the accident, when we were going to football games, he had bad double-vision and had to ask me for downs and distances,” Dr. Thompson says. “In the spring, I knew he was getting better because he started expressing his frustration at referees’ calls during Carolina basketball games.”
Although the Thompsons have always bonded over sports and have become passionate Carolina football and basketball fans, one moment at a Carolina sporting event sticks out as the most memorable they have shared together: at a Carolina baseball game against Miami in March, Liam threw out the first pitch.
“It was a real privilege for me and Colin to get to stand along the third-base line and watch him throw out the first pitch,” says Dr. Thompson. “The Canards are very special to me. Liam was one of my first patients when I started here. Coming back to take care of him after Colin’s accident was something that helped me heal and get back to my job. But one thing you have to understand about my relationship with the Canards is that I like to joke. I made sure to let Liam know that a four-hopper to home plate wouldn’t be acceptable. He didn’t disappoint – he threw a nice pitch.”
As Liam and his parents have gotten to know Dr. Thompson, they've established more than a good working relationship with him.
“We’ve also gained a friendship that we believe will continue going forward,” Jim says. "We've never felt that Liam is just a patient or a case for Dr. Thompson. He has developed a very real relationship with Liam and has a personal touch, and that has helped Liam throughout his treatment."
A few weeks ago, the Canards learned that the first round of chemotherapy and radiation may not have cleared all the cancer. In spite of the news that Liam may need to spend the summer undergoing additional treatment, Liam, being Liam, continued playing for his school baseball team and wound up winning the Triangle Catholic Schools Athletic Conference Championship against Raleigh rival The Franciscan School.
Before the game, Liam told Jim that he was feeling tired.
“If you don’t feel up to playing or getting behind the plate, I’ll adjust the lineup,” said Jim, protecting his son.
Liam was scheduled to have extensive biopsy surgery the day after the game.
“No, Dad, I’m playing behind the plate – all seven innings,” Liam said.
Liam went on to play critical roles both defensively and offensively in a dramatic OLLS victory. With his team down 4–1 in the fourth inning, he threw a runner out at second, a moment that changed the momentum of the game and sparked OLLS batters to produce five runs of their own, with Liam knocking in the winning run.
When Carolina head coach Mike Fox heard about the results, he laughed.
“That is awesome,” Fox said. “He’s been dealt a tough thing. He’s just a kid – he’s just trying to live his life. He has some inner strength that I think we all could draw upon. A kid that has to battle this and get treatment that makes him feel badly and causes uncertainty in his life, if he has the ability to keep moving forward and continue to persevere, that’s a great lesson for all of us.”
Dr. Thompson believes Liam has been well-served by never letting the disease or the experience define him.
“You have to give him credit for that,” he says. “He has always been Liam, not Hodgkin’s disease. I think it’s important for patients to never do that. It’s also important for us as health care providers not to do that. I think the fact that he is still Liam, playing baseball, doing as many things as he can and attending baseball games and hanging out with the college players, has really kept his soul and spirits strong.”
The Canards are incredibly grateful for the way the Carolina community has reached out to them during the past year to help keep Liam’s spirits strong. One moment in particular has served as a model for the way Liam would like to conduct himself, both on and off the field. During the UNC-Miami game for which he threw out the first pitch, an error was made at shortstop behind Benton Moss. Benton turned around to the shortstop and gave him a nod, as if to say, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get the next one.”
Liam turned to Jim and said, “Did you see that, Dad?”
Jim had, and they agreed that it was great leadership.
“As coaches, we tell that to Liam and his teammates all the time, but it’s a lot different when you see it at that level,” Jim says today.
“It’s a great lesson for kids to see,” echoes Annette. “You don’t beat up on each other for making a mistake – you lift each other up.”
In the near future, Liam hopes that his experiences will help him lift other kids up as he continues on his journey, and one day, when he’s finishing up high school, he dreams of playing at UNC.
How about getting a head start and catching some of Benton’s fastballs?
“I don’t think so,” Liam says, smiling. “I think I’ll wait until I’m ready for that.”
On Twitter, follow Team 24@TeamCanard to track Liam through baseball and to help other children fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma.