WICCOPEE – Liam Craane stopped breathing as midnight approached on July 14.
There was a frantic 911 call, and the 5-year-old’s parents nervously performed CPR to resuscitate him temporarily.
He was rushed to the hospital, where it was soon revealed to the Putnam Valley family that their son had cancer.
But, on Monday, Liam clapped, giggled, offered two-handed high fives and “double handshakes,” and he bounced giddily in Jenna Fusco’s lap. His parents, Billy and Jeanmarie, spoke about the recent progress their child has made in battling the disease, and what it meant for the John Jay High School field hockey team to “adopt” him.
Through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, the Patriots were linked with Liam earlier this month and, during a ceremony in the school cafeteria Monday, welcomed him to the team.
“I feel great,” Liam said with a grin. “Everyone is talking about me and bossing me around, but in a nice way.”
Friends of Jaclyn Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit charity that partners athletic teams with children battling pediatric brain tumors and other childhood cancers. The inspiration for the charity was Hopewell Junction’s Jaclyn Murphy, an Arlington High School and Marist College graduate. Both schools are among several local institutions with teams that have taken part in the program previously and have raised money for the organization.
“Having him here reminds you of what’s important,” Fusco said of Liam, who became the 711th child to be paired with a team through Friends of Jaclyn. “He and his family are going through a lot, and we hope to take their minds off that for a little while.”
The John Jay cafeteria was decorated with balloons and posters bearing his name, and filled with players, coaches, faculty and members of other teams. Liam was presented with bags of gifts. The favorites, he said, were the toy cars.
“It’s rewarding to see a kid smile and feel like part of a team and, for a while, not have to worry about treatment or being in pain,” Murphy said at the ceremony.
Murphy, at age 9, endured treatment for a brain tumor. During her recovery, she was put in touch with the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team, which honored her and sparked the idea for the charity, which since has spread throughout the country.
“This means the world to us,” Billy Craane said.
Liam was diagnosed with T-cell Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the cancerous growth was between his heart and trachea, obstructing his airway. The tumor has shrunken considerably, Jeanmarie Craane said, but Liam will continue to receive chemotherapy until the end of March.
The effervescence displayed on Monday, his father said, “has only been this way for the last three weeks.” Initially, he was sedated for two weeks in the hospital then, as treatment began, he became withdrawn and sullen.
“It’s a whole lot for a small child to deal with,” said Murphy, 21, who graduated Marist in May. “I was told I had a 30-percent chance to live. I lost my hair, had to re-learn how to walk, I have permanent hearing loss in my right ear, I have Celiac disease because chemo damaged my small intestines. That’s not easy for anyone, especially a kid.”
Liam will remain out of school until his treatment is complete, but on Monday morning, he met for the first time with his kindergarten class. Then in the afternoon, he was introduced to his new teammates.
“Seeing him smile like that, knowing all he’s been through, it’s heartwarming,” Patriots coach Kristen Perry said.
Paige Fetzer, a member of the team, met Murphy and her father, Denis, last year and “immediately” became interested in having her team sponsor a child. Soon after, John Jay was put on the waiting list. The Craanes’ neighbors, Madeline and Kent Calhoun, are friends with Murphy’s parents, and helped put in motion the “adoption” three weeks ago.
“I was really excited for this day, but it was more overwhelming than I expected,” said Fetzer, who was tearful. “But it’s extremely fulfilling.”
The Patriots sported gray T-shirts emblazoned with “#WePlayForLiam.” He will attend some of their games and practices, as well as bonding activities such as pasta parties and an upcoming apple-picking trip.
“I love it,” Liam said, donning a field hockey practice pinnie. “I’m gonna wear it every time I come here… I’m excited to infinity.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4