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Bull and riders visit Hopkins pediatric patients

Why was a bull in an East Baltimore parking lot Saturday?

For some patients at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, the 1,460-pound bull in a parking lot offered a welcome break Saturday from the routines of medicine and doctors.

Get Western, a bull featured in a professional bull riding circuit, was accompanied by about a dozen riders in cowboy hats on a visit to children and their families staying at Believe in Tomorrow's hospital housing. It was part of a long-standing partnership between the housing provider for critically ill children and the Professional Bull Riders Inc., an organization that attracts 2.5 million fans each year to live, nationally televised events. The riders offer the children encouragement and a behind-the-scenes look at their fast-growing sport.

Doing so immerses children in the adventurous world of bull riders and shifts focus away from ongoing treatments, the children's group's founder says.

"It's our goal that the children that are oftentimes thinking of today's treatment and yesterday's treatment start projecting forward and looking forward, and hence then believing in the future," said Brian Morrison, founder and CEO of the Believe in Tomorrow Children's Foundation. The group runs hospital housing facilities for Hopkins patients as well as a half-dozen "respite" houses in beach and mountain settings.

When the children meet riders, Morrison said, "they can follow them on TV and on the Internet, and it gives them ways to project forward."

Andrew Sumner, a 17-year-old Laurel resident, underwent bone marrow surgery in December for aplastic anemia and now must stay no farther than 15 minutes away from the hospital. Sumner, who with his mother has been staying since Dec. 22 at Believe in Tomorrow's three-story brick house on McElderry Street in East Baltimore, ventured out in the rain to meet the bull and riders wearing a protective mask.

Patients and their families "need something to take their minds off things, a change of pace," said Sumner, a senior at Springbrook High School.

Catonsville-based Believe in Tomorrow can accommodate 16 families at its Hopkins campus house and another eight families at the St. Casimir house in Canton, a stand-alone residence that serves pediatric bone marrow transplant patients. Stays range from days to months.

"It's a home away from home," said Sumner's mother, Susan Sumner. "Their whole lives are up-ended and uprooted. It's important to give them some degree of normalcy."

Through a 13-year partnership with the charity, the bull riding organization hosts pediatric patients with cancer and other critical illnesses at competitions around the country, including an event Saturday at Royal Farms Arena in downtown Baltimore. Children get behind-the-scenes tours and meet the riders.

"The riders tend to be some of the nicest young men I've ever met, down-to-earth nice guys … and they really develop a nice relationship with kids in our programs," Morrison said. "They can talk to them on a level the children understand."

Cody Nance, a 27-year-old bull rider from Paris, Tenn., said he got involved with the charity because he feels grateful for the good health of his children. Nance has been riding bulls since he was 14 and now spends 10 months a year competing at events around the country.

The patients "enjoy meeting us," Nance said, noting that he talks to them about overcoming obstacles as a bull rider. "It gives them interaction with the outside world on a different level."

Champion rider Mike Lee, 31, spends part of the week at home in Decatur, Texas, but is on the road competing each weekend. When he meets children through Believe in Tomorrow, he said he often prays with them.

"It's cool to see smiles on kids faces," Lee said. "They don't complain."

Meghan Erdman, 14, of Woodbine said she attended a bull riding event in Frederick with a friend and was eager to see a bull up close. Meghan, who is staying at the St. Casimir house after undergoing a bone marrow transplant more than two months ago, was joined by her parents and two brothers.

Mike Miller, Get Western's owner, says he often introduces the bull to ill children, who want to know what the bull eats and if it's "mean."

"Every bull has a personality, just like people," said Miller, who has 14 bulls on the current tour. "Some are nasty. Some are nice to be around. He's one of the nice ones."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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