McDermitt lauded for perseverance, courage in face of illness
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Ryder McDermitt wasn’t bashful Thursday evening when he addressed a room full of government officials and dozens of borough residents.
The top of a scar peaked out from beneath the unbuttoned collar of his polo shirt. It was the only sign that the 12-year-old had battled years of illness, which required him to undergo a heart transplant early this year.
But Ryder, of the Hollidaysburg area, was in attendance at the Borough Council meeting to celebrate his newfound health and to be honored for perseverance.
“It’s truly a blessing,” he said.
Mayor Joseph Dodson agreed.
“This is an awesome story,” Dodson said. “This is an outstanding little boy.”
At only 18 months old in 2007, Ryder was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that affects blood cells.
It was an illness he was able to defeat, but not without treatment — chemotherapy, radiation and eventually a cord blood transplant, which can be used to produce new, healthy blood cells.
But treatment came at a cost. It affected Ryder’s heart, causing cardiomyopathy — a hardening of the organ, Karrie, Ryder’s mother, said.
She was told the hardening could eventually require Ryder to undergo a heart transplant.
Medication, a pill, she said, was supposed to slow or halt the progression of Ryder’s illness, postponing or eliminating the need for a heart transplant.
“It was supposed to hold it where it was, or if it didn’t hold it, it was supposed to help it grow slowly,” Karrie said.
At first the drug was “doing wonders” for Ryder, and his family and doctors hoped for the best.
“He did really good on it,” Karrie said.
Still, they remained vigilant, conducting periodic tests and monitoring Ryder’s ongoing health.
Then, about a year and a half ago, Ryder sometimes got lightheaded, his oxygen levels decreased, and he experienced dizzy spells.
That was true even as Ryder consumed nine pills every morning and another nine at night, Karrie said.
“It still wasn’t holding it,” said.
Swallowing nine pills at a time may seem like a daunting task for a child, but to Ryder, it’s no big deal.
“I didn’t care,” he said.
Karrie backed that claim.
“He puts them in a cup all together and down they go,” she said. “He has been like that since he was 3.”
At the time, Ryder attended Foot of Ten Elementary School, and his symptoms required him to be transported by ambulance from the school to UPMC Altoona several times, he said.
Karrie said the Foot of Ten nurses were especially helpful.
Ryder’s symptoms also led doctors to the decision to perform a cardiac catheterization — a procedure that allows doctors to test the health of a heart.
“They came back and they said ‘it’s not looking good,'” Karrie said, explaining that the hardening of Ryder’s heart was beginning to have a negative effect on his lungs.
“At that point, they said he needed a transplant,” she said, revealing that Ryder was added to a transplant list in summer 2017.
Though Ryder and his mother had been warned that a transplant may be necessary, Karrie said the doctors’ news still was hard to hear.
There was a fear that Ryder’s condition would warrant the need of a transplant of both heart and lungs, Karrie said, explaining the severity of that type of procedure.
“They only do one of them a year,” she said.
Instead, Ryder was elevated to a higher urgency status on the heart transplant list.
The upgrade allowed Ryder a better chance to get a new heart within six months, Karrie said. That was in late December of last year.
Ryder and his mother were told to be ready to make the trip from Blair County to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in a moment’s notice.
And on Jan. 4, a call was made to Karrie by Ryder’s doctor that a donor heart was available.
“We were so crazy when we got that phone call,” Karrie said.
Ryder tried to play down his reaction to the news, claiming he simply made a few phone calls to inform friends and family.
But Karrie set the record straight.
“You were not calm,” she said, with both admitting that they experienced a mixture of excitement and nervousness.
Aggravating the situation was a snow and ice storm that blanketed the region, Karrie said.
They made it to Pittsburgh safely and about noon on Jan. 5, Ryder was taken in for surgery.
Karrie said she didn’t see her son again until about 7:30 or 8 p.m.
Ryder spent the next few days in an intensive care unit and about a month in Pittsburgh before returning home Feb 2.
Karrie was impressed by her son’s quick recovery.
“The day after the transplant, he was eating a meatloaf dinner,” she said, explaining he was walking stairs within five days of the procedure. “They were like ‘we’ve never had anybody do that before.'”
This Oct. 17 will mark 10 years of cancer remission for Ryder, who said he plans to spend his time playing baseball and skateboarding before beginning middle school.
Ryder had to take this sports season off, but, later this month, he is invited to practice with teams competing in Williamsport’s Little League World Series.
Ryder’s ability to rebound and keep high spirits during adversity were recognized at a Thursday Hollidaysburg Borough Council meeting, where Dodson addressed the crowd.
“For most of us, it is not until the later stages of life that we are called upon to muster our inner courage,” he said. “Few of us are called to muster all of our courage in the first decade of life. Here with us is a young man who had to do just that, Ryder McDermitt.”
Dodson was part of an effort by numerous local organizations, including the local American Legion and Knights of Columbus, to raise money to donate to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in Ryder’s name.
“I don’t want to put a figure on it,” Dodson said prior to the Thursday meeting. “It’s a substantial, nice donation.”
Borough officials, staff members and the local police union also donated.
Dodson stressed that none of those donated funds came from tax revenue.
“I want everyone to realize … these are personal donations from individuals,” Dodson said.
Ryder eventually stood and turned to face those in the audience.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.