Leo Harrison, a 2.5-year-old cancer warrior from North Lakes, will take centre stage, alongside racing sensation Jimmy Vernon, also known as “The Phantom,” at the upcoming Boost Mobile Gold Coast 500 in the V8 SuperUtes Series.
The event, scheduled for the 27 to 29 Oct 2023, will see Leo’s smiling face prominently featured on the helmet of The Phantom. Vernon’s participation in the race is dedicated to children like Leo, who are battling cancer.
The Boost Mobile Gold Coast 500 is expected to be filled with exciting surprises for Leo and his family, as well as other kids.
A Weekend of Dreams Come True
Leo, along with his mum Jennifer and 12-year-old brother Kai, will be heading to the Gold Coast for a remarkable weekend of behind-the-scenes action at the races. They’ll have the unique opportunity to meet Mr Vernon and other drivers, take thrilling pit tours, explore the grid, and even sit in Vernon’s race car, “The Purple Rocket.”
Ten other families with children battling cancer will also join Leo, forming an unforgettable group that will share in the excitement of the race weekend.
Leo’s Remarkable Journey
Leo was a normal happy baby reaching all milestones until at just 6 months old his mum Jennifer noticed his abdomen was firm and distended. At first Leo’s GP thought it could have been because of his transition to solids, but an ultrasound was advised.
On Christmas Eve 2021 Leo had his ultrasound. A liver tumour was seen, and Leo was Leo rushed to the Queensland Children’s Hospital immediately. Further testing revealed Leo also had cancer throughout his lungs. No symptoms were outwardly seen, but his blood tests were showing signs of a problem. Leo and his mum Jennifer stayed in hospital over Christmas, New Years, and weeks after for Leo’s initial chemotherapy. The oncologist said the tumour could have grown in just one month.
Leo spent the next six months constantly having blood tests, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, emergency visits due to fevers/infections, nasogastric tubing to keep his nutrients up and constant isolation from community and most non-essential family.
As a veterinarian, Jennifer translated her skills with animals to helping Leo.
Leo and Jennifer were in hospital again over Christmas 2022 for Leo’s final round of chemo, as well as the removal of a small lung tumour. In Leo’s final remission scans, sepsis was seen and Leo’s central lines had to be removed.
After the tumour shrunk and Leo’s lungs cleared, the doctors realised that the primary tumour was positioned around major vessels, such that an entire liver transplant was required. The first waiting period for a liver required Leo to be off chemotherapy, and to wait three weeks. A liver was not available, and the cancer grew in that time. Horribly, Jennifer was told to start to prepare for palliative care.
After another round of chemotherapy, and another three-week waiting period, Jennifer received a phone call that gave Leo a lifeline. A donated liver was available for Leo, and with his test results good, his transplant would take place immediately.
Leo defied the odds and was out of ICU on day four, and home on day thirteen post the operation.
Leo has high frequency hearing loss from chemotherapy (which may or may not improve or worsen), a bit of kidney damage from chemotherapy which can resolve, but he is reaching his mobility, speech and listening milestones with therapy and hearing aids. He is on track to go to standard school and to speak just like his peers.
“Leo’s very smart and determined. His name suits him – Leo/Leonardo – brave-hearted and strong. To look at Leo, you would not know what his journey has been. He has a very strong body, a huge energy and zest for life and LOVES cars” said Jennifer, Leo’s mum.
“He has smiled and laughed his way through this journey despite feeling sick, tired and stuck in hospital. Leo’s big brother Kai, who is almost 12, is his bestie. Kai is the one who brought the first big smile to Leo’s face after his liver transplant. Kai is an amazing big brother to Leo” Jennifer added.
Jimmy Vernon’s Commitment to Kids with Cancer
Jimmy Vernon’s participation in the Boost Mobile Gold Coast 500 is not just about racing; it’s a heartfelt commitment to children battling cancer. Following his 2022 win in the Australian Production Car Championship, A1 class, Mr Vernon has dedicated the 2023 season to driving for the Kids with Cancer Foundation. His mission is to raise awareness and funds to support the nearly 800 children diagnosed with cancer each year in Australia.
At each race, Mr Vernon hosts children with cancer and their families, providing them with a memorable experience at the racetrack. Beyond his time and dedication, Mr Vernon has pledged to allocate 20% of his corporate sponsorship funding to the Kids with Cancer Foundation, which has been supporting children with cancer and their families for 25 years.
The foundation has provided over $30 million in funding nationwide, focusing on direct financial support, Care Packs, Wigs4Kids, funding critical hospital salaries and infrastructure, cancer research, and more. Jimmy Vernon’s remarkable commitment to children like Leo underscores the spirit of unity and compassion that the V8 SuperUtes Series represents.