Wearing a Kansas Jayhawk basketball jersey, 6-year-old Dagen Korynta showed his deadeye Thursday afternoon as he drained repeated shots through a goal suspended from a small backboard above the family home’s front door.
He’s a big KU fan, his mother, Heather Korynta, said — a statement Dagen proved by identifying the last Jayhawk star to wear the 34 on his jersey.
“Perry Ellis,” he said.
The energy the boy displayed while playing with his 3-year-old brother, Grady, is a Christmas blessing for his mother.
“This is the best he has felt in a long time,” she said. “It's great to see him with so much energy again.”
Dagen was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in August 2015. Since then, he has had surgery to remove a tumor in his abdomen, radiation therapy to kill another tumor near his spine doctors couldn’t remove, two bone marrow transplants to treat the spread of the cancer in his bones and three regimens of chemotherapy.
That diagnosis came after a 4-year-old Dagen started complaining of pain in his legs.
“The doctor told us it was ‘growing pains,'” Heather Korynta said “He would wake up in the night crying. When he curled up in a ball crying from the pain, I called the doctor and said, ‘I know there is something seriously wrong with my son.’”
It was then that tests provided the neuroblastoma diagnosis.
Since that time, Dagen has spent a good deal of time, including his sixth birthday, at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Heather Korynta resigned from her position as a first-grade teacher in Topeka to care for her son and home-school him during his kindergarten year.
When home, Dagen battled the disease and the side effects of his treatments. He suffered a partial hearing loss as a result of chemotherapy, and another reaction required him to start wearing glasses, although there is hope the vision problem is temporary.
“He threw up bile for a month from a reaction to medicine,” his mother said.
The chemotherapy isn’t over. Dagen has completed four rounds of a once-a-month regimen of a new treatment. He is having some adverse reactions, but his parents, encouraged by his progress, hope he can complete the remaining six rounds of the chemotherapy.
When Dagen felt like playing during the bad times the past 17 months, he didn’t flash his basketball skills. Rather, he would sit on the floor playing with his toy garbage trucks.
Dagen first developed his fondness for the garbage trucks that visited the Koryntas' southwest Lawrence neighborhood at the age of 2, but he’s a bigger fan now. By his count, he has 15 toy garbage trucks.
The shy Dagen doesn’t share with strangers what it is about garbage trucks he likes. He does quietly admit he would like to drive one when he grows up. His mother relates that he likes the idea working on or in the trucks in the morning and having afternoons off, a schedule he thinks sanitation workers keep.
He has a more straightforward reason for liking the profession, too.
“I like that they help keep the world clean,” he said.
Word of Dagen’s interest spread to the city solid waste department, said Craig Pruett, operations manager for the city’s solid-waste division. The division has a lot of young fans who are obsessed with trucks that visit their neighborhoods, but staff took a special interest in Dagen.
“All the crews know him,” he said. “He’s been able to get down there (the solid waste yard), and we’ve been following his progress.”
When Dagen visited the yard, he received a T-shirt signed by all the employees of the department. He didn't know it at the time of his visit, but this keepsake would later be a key component of Dagen’s memorable Christmas Eve, thanks to the efforts of Elves of Christmas Present, a network of good Samaritans who work anonymously to provide Christmas “miracles” for families and individuals who have had a tough year. The miracles, such as using snow machines to give a sick child a white Christmas or giving a gravely ill girl a helicopter ride to a hangar decorated as Santa’s North Pole workshop, require a good deal of logistical planning.
The Elves decided this year to extend operations into Lawrence for the first time with a miracle for Dagen, said the group's lead organizer, who identified himself only as "The Chief Elf." He credited the city of Lawrence and especially the solid-waste division for its assistance in making Dagen's elaborate Christmas Eve surprise possible.
The miracle started Saturday morning when Santa Claus and an elf visited the Korynta home, where they spent time with Dagen, his brother and their visiting cousins. Santa then gave Dagen a toy garbage truck, which, through magic (and the use of blankets over covered young heads), he transformed into an actual truck adorned with a large picture of Dagen wearing the T-shirt signed by solid-waste employees.
Wearing an elf costume, Pruett then drove Dagen and his mother to the Southwest Middle School parking lot, where the boy sat in the garbage truck’s cab as it picked up a series of trash bins.
The picture of Dagen will remain on the truck as it services Lawrence neighborhoods.
A wide-eyed Dagen took in the miracle with few words, but his father said he wouldn’t need to see the garbage truck with his photo to remember the day.
“He’s so shy,” his father, Evan Korynta, said. “He didn’t say much in front of everybody, but I guarantee he’s going to talk about it the rest of the day."
BY ELVYN JONES
Lawrence Journal World