At a time when the country is so divided over political issues on social media, truck drivers and farmers have banded together to ensure a trucker’s son, who is battling a rare, incurable pediatric brain tumor, has the best fifth birthday possible.
All independent owner-operator Howard Salmon’s son Liam said all he wants for his fifth birthday on Thursday are birthday cards, John Deere tractors and Legos.
A group of truckers and John Deere Twitter followers are ensuring that happens.
After John Deere retweeted the FreightWaves article on Saturday about Liam and his love of John Deere, the company’s Twitter followers quickly responded and found little birthday surprises Liam was sure to love.
Truckers also rose to the challenge and donated money to ensure he had everything he needed on his special day. Liam’s aunt, Jennifer Syfert, has set up a GoFundMe page to help Liam battle diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), the tumor with which he was diagnosed in January.
Before Liam’s terminal diagnosis of DIPG, Salmon described Liam as his “shadow.”
“He used to walk around my truck with me,” Salmon said. “If I kicked the tires, so did he. That’s what little boys do. They follow dad.”
Kids following their parents on the farm and in the truck resonates both with truckers and farmers.
“Not only does this resonate with any parent, but with our agriculture community,” Jennifer Hartmann, global head of public relations and social media at John Deere, told FreightWaves. “I don’t think there’s a farmer in the world that can’t relate to that shared experience with their kids.”
She said part of the reason this story captivated John Deere’s Twitter audience is at a time when the country is so divided, “Liam’s story is a reminder about what’s really important and what really matters.”
“I think every parent can relate to the desire to spend every second with their child and so the choices that his parents made, and that his dad made not to work as often so he could spend that valuable time with his son, I think every parent can empathize with him,” Hartmann said.
“It’s affirming about how good people are and what really matters when you see a family going through this kind of unimaginable challenge,” Hartmann said.
She said their humble ask for birthday cards mailed to Liam, given their financial predicament, is touching.
“I don’t think there’s any parent that can read this story and not feel moved,” Hartmann said.
Prior to the FreightWaves article, Hartmann said her marketing team received a request a few days prior from Liam’s grandma trying to order John Deere pajamas, which weren’t available in his size until December. Hartmann’s team was able to track down the PJs in Liam’s sizes, along with some other birthday surprises. She then put the two “Liams together.”
“That’s what makes this so touching is they weren’t asking for the world; they wanted some birthday cards and some help tracking down some pajamas in Liam’s size,” Hartmann said.
Liam loses balance, use of left arm
Twenty-four-year trucking veteran Howard Salman and his wife, Mary, who live in Anderson, California, noticed in early January that Liam had difficulty walking. They also observed he wasn’t using his left hand, which was odd because Liam is left-handed.
At first, the Salmons thought their son might have an ear infection, which can affect balance.
After taking him to the emergency room when Liam’s condition didn’t improve, doctors at their local hospital broke the news that Liam needed to be life-flighted to Sacramento for further testing. Liam’s mom, Mary, rode in the helicopter with their son.
Howard drove home, quickly packed a bag for the family, and made the 2.5-hour trek to the hospital.
“It was the longest ride of my life as I tried to catch up to them,” Howard Salmon told FreightWaves. “At that point, I didn’t really know what was going on.”
Doctors at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento discovered a brain tumor. Liam was quickly scheduled for a biopsy, but the results were not good, Salmon said.
Liam was diagnosed with DIPG. The rare pediatric brain tumor infiltrates the pons portion of the brainstem that controls breathing, sleeping and balance.
After digesting this news, the Salmons were dealt another devastating blow. Currently, there is no cure for DIPG, which has a 0% survival rate.
Liam was later transferred to the University of California in San Francisco, where he underwent 30 rounds of radiation, which he completed on March 17.
“I carried him in every morning, crying, while they put the radiation mask over his head and bolted it to the table because they needed pinpoint accuracy to target the tumor,” Howard Salmon told FreightWaves. “It’s a helpless feeling listening to your 4-year-old son screaming and crying as you lay him on the radiation table. It’s pure hell.”
However, doctors informed the Salmons that Liam’s treatments to shrink his tumor didn’t work.
“I felt helpless then and I still feel helpless today,” Salmon said. “I would die for him. I would gladly trade places with my son because I’ve lived a full life — he hasn’t.”
Besides receiving the devastating news in January that his son may only have a year to live, Salmon only makes money when his wheels turn.
He had some tough choices to make.
“The last thing on my mind was trucking at this point,” he said. “My wife and I decided that we were going to make every day about Liam.”
Since Liam’s diagnosis, the veteran owner-operator said he’s blown through his savings, sold all of his stock and maxed out his credit cards to spend every minute with his son.
Trucking industry steps up to help
Howard Salmon, a country music singer who previously performed at truck shows across the country to raise money for various charities through the years, said he never thought he would be the one needing help.
However, he said he and his wife are overwhelmed by the trucking community’s kindness, as well as other local organizations that have stepped up to help since Liam’s diagnosis.
“I never once expected to be a recipient and it kind of hurt my pride a little,” he said. “But I have learned to accept others’ generosity if it means I get more time with Liam. Every day with him is a gift.”
Soon after hearing about Liam’s fatal diagnosis, Salmon said the St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund quickly offered to help him.
“They made two of our house payments in January and February so I could take time off of the road to be with Liam during his radiation treatments,” Salmon said. “I know they have a lot of drivers and their families to help, too.”
The St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), was founded in 2008 to help professional truck drivers and their families with financial needs due to current medical problems.
Over the past 12 years, the organization, which relies on donations, has helped 3,066 truck drivers and has paid housing, insurance and utility bills amounting to more than $3.3 million.
Howard, Liam promote truck stop chain’s fundraising campaign
In September, Howard and Liam were asked by a top truck stop chain to be featured on posters displayed across the country to promote its latest fundraising campaign to benefit the St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund.
“How could I say no,” Salmon told FreightWaves. “St. Christopher generously stepped up to help us, so this was the least we could do to give back.”
TravelCenters of America, which operates TA Travel Centers and Petro Stopping Centers, launched its first point-of-sale fundraising campaign in September to help professional drivers who may be sidelined because of an illness or injury.
Truckers and customers visiting participating TA, Petro and TA Express truck stops through Nov. 30 have the option to round up their order to the nearest dollar and donate that amount to the St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund.
“This is a cool thing they are doing and will help many families,” Salmon said.
Even with the assistance his family has received so far, Salmon said his financial situation is dire.
“I am at the point where I need to find a load here and a load there to pay the bills,” Salmon said. “But Liam’s doctors are concerned that I may contract COVID-19 while out on the road and bring it home. With Liam’s weakened immune system, that could be devastating. I just don’t know what to do.”
According to The Michael Mosier Defeat DIPG Foundation, only 4% of all cancer research money is spent on pediatric cancers. The organization said the entire amount spent annually on DIPG research — approximately $3 million to $5 million — is less than 0.0005% of the total funding for cancer research.
Approximately 300 children are diagnosed with DIPG each year in the U.S. The average life expectancy of a child diagnosed with this rare disease is 6 months to 1 year.
Despite the statistics, the Salmons say they aren’t giving up. Neither are Liam’s doctors.
Salmon said Liam’s doctors in California are working with a North Carolina doctor specializing in DIPG. This doctor is working on a new chemotherapy treatment to shrink brain tumors.
However, just weeks into the new treatment, the drugs caused Liam’s blood pressure to rise dangerously high, so doctors had to stop some of the medications to try to get his blood pressure under control, Salmon said.
“Are we just doing everything we can, or are we doing too much?” Salmon said. “We are going to fight like hell. We have to try something — we can’t give up.”
Dad’s shadow, Liam, turns 5 on Thursday
Liam, who will turn 5 on Thursday, loves small John Deere tractors, Legos and mail.
Salmon said Liam loves getting cards and looks forward to small packages delivered to the house from UPS, or “the PDS man” as he calls him.
You can send birthday cards to:
6028 Calin Lane
Anderson, CA 96007
A local trucking company, T & S, is hosting a drive-by birthday party for Liam at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday in Anderson.
“We are nine months into this diagnosis and we are praying he makes it to his fifth birthday,” Salmon said. “We had one a few weeks ago for him, too, because we just don’t know.”
A parent’s worst nightmare
Nine months into Liam’s diagnosis, Salmon said his son is sleeping a lot more and slurring his words but isn’t in any pain — yet.
“He is happy and just plays and wants us to play with him,” Salmon said.
Salmon said he and his wife, Mary, know there will be some hard decisions to make soon.
“As long as Liam’s happy, smiling and loving, then we’re fine,” Salmon said. “But when the time comes and he doesn’t want to do it anymore, then we have to respect his wishes and comfort him and go through the next transition with him. I just hope and pray it’s not anytime soon because I don’t want to know a life without him in it.”