Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon presents Nelijah Tatum, 12, with his autographed jersey. Tatum was diagnosed with a golf-ball-size mass inside his heart and had been sent to the Kansas City hospital after a doctor in Liberal identified something strange in his heart. Tatum was later taken to a hospital in Wichita, where doctors there could not identify the problem. Tatum’s story is part of a six-episode docu-series scheduled to air this week on KMBC-TV in Kansas City called “Inside Pediatrics.” Courtesy photo
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Like many his age, Nelijah Tatum enjoys taking part in sports, and as a student at Liberal’s Sunflower Intermediate, he had participated in many competitions in various athletic pursuits.
Now 12, Tatum had started attending South Middle School, but just before the current school year started, the young man was taken to a doctor to get a yearly physical to continue playing sports.
During the exam, the administering doctor discovered something Tatum’s mother, Misty Tatum, said was kind of funny with Nelijah’s heart.
Upon that discovery, Nelijah was taken to a hospital in Wichita, where he was given an EKG test. That exam revealed a large mass in the left ventrical on the left side of his heart. That news got the 12-year-old sent to Children’s Mercy, a hospital in Kansas City.
Misty said she received calls from the Kansas City children’s hospital, and the doctors she spoke to told her they had never seen anything like what Nelijah had.
“They didn’t know how fast it was growing or how long it had been there or what was causing it,” she said. “In Kansas City, they did a bunch of testing on him for a week or so. They really didn’t know what it was. He had to have open heart surgery.”
The doctors would later discover a tumor in Nelijah’s heart, which Misty said was very rare.
“The doctors said you’ve got a 1 in 5,000,000 chance in getting what Nelijah has,” she said. “They got it out. He’s doing good, and we go back for monthly check ups in Wichita to make sure it’s not growing back.”
The surgery took place shortly after Nelijah had gotten his physical at the end of July and the beginning of August. As could be expected, the mother was taken somewhat surprised by the news.
“We’d just finished two baseball seasons,” she said. “We went to camp all summer. We had no problems. He’s had no problems with anything. It was just really overwhelming. We never expected something this bad to happen. He was such a strong athlete. He was just constantly going, so we didn’t think anything was wrong with him.”
The Tatum family’s spiritual health was kept up mostly to what Misty credits to that of the patient himself.
“Anytime anything would go wrong or something would be kind of scary, he said, ‘Mom, don’t worry. God’s got it,’” she said. “That’s his famous quote. He said all the nurses quoted him. He shook up the entire waiting room. Everybody was crying and getting upset, and Nelijah was kind of getting nervous. When they gave him his medicine, he said, ‘Mom it’s going to be OK. God’s got it.’ He kind of kept everybody up in good spirits.”
Misty said Nelijah was more focused than those waiting to see how the surgery would turn out.
“We didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It was scary.”
Now, Nelijah’s story is scheduled to be featured in a six-part documentary series titled “Inside Pediatrics.” The series is narrated by Kansas City native and actor Paul Rudd and will air starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday on KMBC-TV Channel 9 in Kansas City.
Children’s Mercy Media Relations Manager Jessica Salazar said Inside Pediatrics follows doctors, nurses, patients and families over a three-month period at the Kansas City hospital.
“Cameras went inside our clinics and operating rooms, inside our families’ stories and inside the hearts and minds of our staff who provide transformational care for the children in our region and beyond,” Salazar said in an e-mail to the Leader & Times.
The first episode of the series follows Nelijah and his family as he is referred to Children’s Mercy where doctors, Salazar said, discovered a golf-ball size mass inside his heart.
After the episode airs, it will be placed on the Web site, Inside Pediatrics.com.
“We are in discussions with KWCH in Wichita to have the docu-series air in your media market this spring,” Salazar said.
Misty said at a red carpet premiere for Inside Pediatrics, Nelijah actually went up on stage with his doctor and nurse from the operating room.
“He got to talk about it and talk about his story,” she said. “The first episode’s an hour long, and there’s three families in there. Nelijah’s in a lot of it.”
Nelijah’s surgery took place on a Thursday, and through the following Sunday, Misty said the patient was “kind of out of it” because of the medicine he took following the operation.
“He was really grouchy,” she said. “He was kind of upset. He didn’t know if he was going to get to play sports again. He was kind of in that mode where he didn’t know what was going on with him.”
Misty said it was at this point when she had stepped outside for some fresh air, and when she came back in, she was somewhat surprised by what she saw.
“All the Kansas City Royals players were down in the lobby,” she said. “I went down and talked to one of the ladies that was giving the jerseys. I said, ‘Are these for real? Kansas City Royal players?’ She said ‘It is.’”
It was then that Misty knew she needed to do something for her healing patent, and she made a request from members of the team that finished runners up in this year’s World Series.
“I said, ‘I know you guys are busy, but I’ve got a huge sports kids up there,” she said. “He just had open heart surgery, and he’s really down and out. Is there any way one of you could come say hi? You don’t have to sign anything. Just come by and say hi. Maybe it’ll focus his spirits a little bit.”
The Royals rep said she would attempt to put something together for Nelijah.
“She said, ‘We’ll try. We’ve got a lot of things going on, but we’ll try to get up there.’” Misty said. “When I got back up to the room, I told Nelijah ‘All the Royals players are down in the lobby.’ He says, ‘Let’s go Momma.’”
Of course, Nelijah couldn’t leave his room, but his mother told him that maybe one of the Kansas City players would come see him.
“He said, ‘I can’t wait. I hope it’s Alex Gordon,’” she said. “Sure enough, not two minutes after I said it, that’s exactly who walked in the door. Alex Gordon came in and talked to him for a few minutes.”
Gordon, who plays outfield for Kansas City, asked the family if they had anything he could autograph. Misty said having nothing, the Royal then took the jersey off his back, signed it and gave it to Nelijah.
“That was the first smile we’d seen on his face since a week after we’d gotten there,” Misty said of her son’s reaction upon getting the jersey. “He was always in good spirits until it was surgery time, and after the surgery, he was kind of down and out. He just really didn’t smile. That day after Alex Gordon came in there, that’s all we seen was a smile. It completely lifted his spirits and put him in a good mood. It was really nice.”
Inside Pediatrics will air during the Christmas season, and Misty said the Tatum family already has their present for the holidays.
“It was a gift to all of us just him being alive,” she said. “The doctors said it was so big already. It was about an inch between the tumor and his heart wall where blood was actually swelling. They said they cannot believed that he never passed out or died on the field or on the court. They can’t believe he didn’t have any problems. We feel very blessed. We thank God every day.”
Misty said the family likewise is thankful for the doctors who found the tumor and got them going to the right places to get the problem taken care of.
“We felt we had Christmas in August,” she said. “We feel like he’s a miracle. We very blessed that he’s OK.”
The Tatum family would like to give special thanks to friends and family in Liberal.
“Thanks for your prayers, donations and concerns,” Misty said. “We fill very blessed to be a part of this community. They were wonderful to us.”