One by one, Julian Kinard’s family delicately swung his frail legs to the edge of the bed in Room 310 of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. With a nurse helping him sit up, the 11-year-old stared at the cold, tiled floor, still digesting the events of the past two weeks, none of which he remembered.
Doctors told Kinard he had been in a coma to help suppress the effects of hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a rare genetic blood disorder that, when active, can cause grave damage to organs and tissue. Kinard’s parents said he had nearly died on New Year’s Eve after being placed on life support.
But all Kinard could hear was how his condition could jeopardize his chances of playing football again. And on that morning in January 2010, it was time to put that notion to the test.
“The first time I stood up was one of the most painful things ever,” Kinard said. “I immediately started crying because it felt like my legs were tearing apart. That was my first time accepting that I couldn’t walk and that it’d be a while before I played again.”
The memory briefly crossed Kinard’s mind earlier this month as he warmed up for Damascus High School football’s season opener, his first as the team’s starting quarterback. Through three games, the senior has thrown four touchdowns and rushed for another for the third-ranked Swarmin’ Hornets, who are 3-0 heading into Friday’s game at Poolesville.
As someone with HLH, a disease that affects one in 500,000 children and has a mortality rate of about 50 percent, Kinard, now 17, is an anomaly — not only because of his condition but because he survived. Now, after enduring a nightmare situation to reach his football dream, the fully rehabilitated senior has his sights set on another milestone: winning the Maryland 3A state championship.
“As a kid, you always look up to the Damascus football team, but when I got sick, that became even bigger for me to be one of them,” Kinard said. “It’s hard to believe, everything I went through, but I made it back playing football.”
Lauded for his accuracy and sound decision-making under pressure, Kinard has infused the Swarmin’ Hornets with an element they hope will help them avenge last year’s loss in the state final.
He’s also brought a sense of familiarity. The last time Kinard started at quarterback while donning a Damascus jersey, he was leading the Cougars, alongside current teammates Jake Funk and Da’Quan Grimes, to the 11-to-13-year-old division state title.
“You could tell that Julian was very focused,” Cougars Coach Victor Furnells said. “He had good zip on the ball and some of the tangibles to be a quarterback. It seemed like a natural fit.”
The fight to salvage many of those skills began in December 2009, when Kinard came down with a high fever and experienced body soreness. As the symptoms got worse over the next seven days, his mother, Lorena Mauney, took him to the emergency room. His liver was failing.
Kinard was immediately transferred to Children’s National Medical Center, where blood began hemorrhaging into his brain and eyes. As Mauney gathered her bags to move her son to intensive care, she noticed blood dripping on the floor beneath her. Eight months pregnant with her fourth son, Mauney found herself in need of medical care and torn between her two children.
Only the presence of Christy Gaskell, a nurse whose son played on Kinard’s football team, convinced Mauney to travel back to Maryland to give birth. But as Kinard’s platelet level dropped to three despite 24 consecutive hours of blood transfusions and his oxygen levels fell even while he was on a ventilator, Gaskell began to fear for the worst.
“What Julian had was very non-specific, so it takes time to rule out and identify something so rare,” Gaskell said. “I remember being terrified because at that point you’re reaching the capacity of what you can do.”
So was Mauney. A day after giving birth to Carson on Dec. 30, doctors informed her husband, Carl, that, with Kinard’s prognosis grim, they needed to come back to his side in case he didn’t make it through the night.
“That was the hardest thing I ever heard,” Mauney said. “We called in our pastor and started a prayer chain, but I really thought he was going to die.”
It wasn’t until a spinal tap revealed the presence of abnormally placed cells that doctors could pinpoint Kinard’s condition as HLH. The genetic disease is characterized by immune cells that do not properly destroy infected or damaged cells, resulting in an agitated system that attacks other immune cells, organs and tissue.
With Kinard still in a medically induced coma, doctors warned that there may be brain damage or that he may never walk again. But when Kinard awoke after nearly two weeks, he reassured his family with two questions.
“First, he asked me, ‘When did you have the baby?’ ” Mauney said. “That’s when I realized how long he’d been sleeping. Then he asked if he could still play football.”
The journey back to the playing field would be arduous. Down to 60 pounds and unable to feed himself, Kinard faced the prospect of three months in a rehab center. In response, he ramped up his recovery, undergoing four daily sessions of therapy while often taking walks through the halls with his many visitors. On his 23rd and final day in the hospital, Kinard walked right out the front door.
For the next six months, Kinard took more than 20 pills a day and endured frequent blood tests until he was declared in remission in the summer of 2010, this while bypassing the chemotherapy normally administered to HLH patients.
An illness or live virus could re-trigger his condition, and the lone cure is a bone marrow transplant. Though he has yet to find a match, as long as Kinard remains in remission, the procedure is not necessary. And in the past six years, Kinard has experienced only one minor setback — a sinus infection that required a trip to the hospital for antibiotic treatment.
With a protocol in place for his condition, Kinard threw his focus into returning to football the next year. After spending a summer regaining his coordination and agility, he had to prove himself again to his cautious Cougars coaches and teammates.
“At first, some of them were worried and didn’t want me in hitting drills,” said Kinard, who now stands at 6 feet and 165 pounds. “But I just wanted to get my anger out from the last six months.”
A similar eagerness preceded the current football season. After one year away at Urbana following his family’s brief relocation, Kinard is back at Damascus, back under center and, miraculously, back to his old self.
“I remember visiting Julian in the hospital, and it was one of the scariest things I had ever seen,” said Funk, the team’s starting running back. “I’ve never seen someone go through so much. It’s crazy to have us all playing together again. He’s definitely a miracle.”