Thomas Saacks, 14, of Havre de Grace, will hit his fifth anniversary of beating a rare form of liver cancer in May; that milestone drew cheers and applause from the crowd at the fifth annual Havre de Grace head-shaving fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation Saturday afternoon.
“You’d never know anything happened to him,” Thomas’ father, Nick, said. “We’re very proud of him; he’s a very healthy boy — or a young man.”
The Havre de Grace fundraiser, held in the parking lot of Bill Bateman’s Bistro in the Swan Creek Village Center, is one of many local events around the country in which men, women and children volunteer to get their heads in exchange for donations to St. Baldrick’s. The money raised provides grants to support children’s cancer research — research that benefits patients and survivors such as Thomas.
Nick Saacks said his son gets annual checkups to monitor any potential after-effects from cancer treatments. He said children who beat cancer can suffer long-term impacts from chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments.
While Thomas is largely free of any issues — he did say he cannot lift heavy weights — his doctor at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore has received a grant from St. Baldrick’s to support her research on how leukemia affects survivors’ performance in school and their sleep, according to his father.
Dr. Kathryn Ruble is the director of the Life Clinic and Leukemia Survivorship Program, according to the Hopkins website.
“St. Baldrick’s, thanks to the money you all give, gave Dr. Ruble a grant,” Saacks told the crowd.
Thomas, who has appeared at the St. Baldrick’s event with his father for the past five years, is in eighth grade at Havre de Grace Middle School, and he will attend the private Calvert Hall College High School in Towson in the fall.
He plays soccer, and he said he was taking part in soccer training before coming to the head-shaving event.
“It’s really incredible,” Thomas said of the community’s support. “Everybody always comes out, and we raise so much every year.”
Nearly 90 people participated this year, and more than $82,000 had been raised as of Saturday evening, lead organizer Billy Berg said Sunday.
Berg is a member of the Susquehanna Hose Company, Havre de Grace’s volunteer fire company, which works with local businesses and other first responders such as the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Fire & Rescue Department — Berg is a firefighter there, too — to put on the event each year.
“The weather was nice, a lot of people turned out,” Berg said. “Everyone had a good time, and we’re looking forward to next year, that’s for sure.”
Havre de Grace resident David Brown chatted with the Saacks before going on stage to get his head shaved. He told them briefly about his time working with pediatric cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Brown, 62, said later that he spent 11-and-a-half years as a clinical technician in the pediatric intensive care unit at Hopkins. He started working there in the late 1990s, and most of the patients he and his ICU colleagues cared for were at the end of their lives.
“I love this kind of stuff,” he said of the St. Baldrick’s fundraiser. “To see the kids that are healthy, it’s great.”
Brown, a Susquehanna Hose Company firefighter and recently-retired Baltimore City firefighter/paramedic, said he got his head shaved for the first time this year. His wife, Elaine, has volunteered at the event for the past four years, he said.
Brown said children “need to be able to live life and see the things that adults have seen, go to a ball game instead of going to the hospital.”
Charlotte Winder, of Joppatowne, got her head shaved for the third year. She took part with her son, a BWI Airport firefighter, and her 5-year-old grandson.
“My grandchildren are healthy, but I can only imagine what this is like for somebody to have to go through [cancer],” Winder said.
Ely, 25, got her head shaved during the first Havre de Grace St. Baldrick’s event in 2014. She said a good friend of her family has a son who is in remission from cancer. Her cousin died from cancer a few years ago. Ely said the passing of her cousin, who was an adult, is a “very” big driver in her participation.
“Everybody comes together to raise money for childhood cancer,” she said. “It’s something that no family should go through, but to have your child diagnosed with it, that’s heartbreaking.”
Justin Fleming, 39, of Conowingo, got his head shaved Saturday, something he does every year on behalf of his best friend’s oldest daughter, who survived cancer.
“I just want to raise money for childhood cancer research because she’s a survivor of childhood cancer,” Fleming said.
He and his best friend met while serving in the Air Force — Fleming served from 1997 to 2011, and he was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in 2007.
He said it feels “weird” to grow out his hair and beard for St. Baldrick’s after so many years of of a short military haircut.
“This is something I will do for the rest of my life — this is such a great cause and a great feeling, you can’t beat it,” Fleming said. “Growing hair and a beard is annoying, but I’ll do it every year no matter what.”
The concert is July 15 in Hutchins Park in Havre de Grace. Tickets are available online through Eventbrite. Berg said “100 percent” of the $25-per-ticket revenues will go back to Susquehanna Hose to donate to St. Baldrick’s.