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Photo by Jeff Thompson.
Boy of the Year Cooper Tullo
Kim Tullo stands with her sons Cooper and Landry. Cooper, an avid athlete and sports fan, looks forward to attending the SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Met in May.
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Photo by Jeff Thompson.
Boy of the Year Cooper Tullo and family
From left, Mike, Kim, Cooper and Landry Tullo (not pictured is Landry and Cooper’s brother, Carson). The Tullo family lives in Hoover and is actively raising awareness for pediatric cancer research after Cooper was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma in July.
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Boy of the Year Cooper Tullo running
Everyone on the floor knew when Cooper Tullo was coming.
Cutting through the discord of the hospital halls, no one could mistake the thump and shuffle he’d emit while kicking his soccer ball. He’d follow it around as he checked on his new nurse friends and even into other rooms on his floor, where he’d offer a smile to every child with whom he shared these miserable circumstances.
It gave them hope.
Other children would first see the ball. Then, they saw a boy who was, in every appearance, happy. Finally, right behind him would be his IV rack, steadily pumping Cooper with the maximum amount of chemotherapy his 12-year-old body could handle.
“They called him the rock star of his floor,” Cooper’s mother, Kim Tullo, said.
On July 26, 2013, Cooper was diagnosed with Stage 3 Burkitt’s lymphoma, an extremely rare, aggressive cancer that can double in as little as 14 hours. He fought it and won, and now he’s taking his message of hope beyond the walls of Children’s of Alabama.
That one word
It was July 2013 and Cooper, a student at Brock’s Gap Elementary School, was finishing football camp and looking forward to starting sixth grade with his friends. It was the last time things were normal for the Tullo family.
Cooper visited the doctor to receive his regular shots, and the pediatrician noticed a hardened spot on Cooper’s abdomen. He walked Kim Tullo out to the hall and told her to go to Children’s.
Go now, he said. Right now.
By the following morning, Cooper’s parents were in the hospital receiving word that a team of oncologists was on the way, and treatment needed to begin immediately. The 12-year-old tried to wrap his head around the word. Cancer.
“You never want to hear that word,” Cooper said. “When I heard her say that I had it, I really didn’t know what to think.”
Cooper’s parents flipped internal switches as all other priorities shifted to the background.
“You immediately go into battle mode. You don’t have the luxury to just hang out,” said Cooper’s father, Mike. “We just thought, ‘We have to take care of him, to do what we can to help him get through this. Everything else is secondary.’”
“It seems so far away, and in a matter of a day, it hits you,” Kim said. “You realize your child has cancer. It’s happening to your family right now. Your oncology team is on the way, and this is life-threatening.”
Cooper underwent emergency surgery. Due to complications, he couldn’t eat for an entire week. After that, because Burkitt’s spreads so quickly, he battled seven days of near-constant chemotherapy, filling his body with as much as it could stand.
A spark plug
As Cooper developed mouth sores and lost his hair, all he could think about was getting back on the field again.
“Not being able to go play with my friends and just kind of sitting there in the bed was the hardest part,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s family describes him as their “little spark plug.”
“He’s such a fun, happy athletic kid,” Kim said. “He was just going through life, swimming in the summer, going to football camp. He was the last person you would think to ever have cancer.”
Cooper, the youngest of three boys, appears most himself when running around and playing with his older brothers. He is an avid Florida Gators sports fan and looks forward to seeing his team play at the upcoming SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Met in May.
Cooper also hopes to make the Hoover High School football team one day. He watched his oldest brother Landry play on the team as a linebacker, but Cooper prefers the other side of the ball. He calls himself a running back, but he plays most every skill position. He can’t wait to be a Buc.
“I liked how it was never individual when they won every game,” Cooper said of the HHS varsity team. “Just watching them and sitting with my friends and being a normal kid again. It was really fun. I’m going to work hard and dedicate myself to make the team.”
The bright side
During Cooper’s roughest weeks, Mike and Kim Tullo leaned on their faith and did everything they could to help their son battle what seemed like insurmountable odds.
“You just pray that everyone — the doctors, the nurses — do the best of their ability and understand it’s out of your control,” Mike said. “It really galvanized my faith in God.”
Cooper’s battle would prove triumphant when, on Oct. 14, he underwent his fifth and final round of chemotherapy. He is now in remission, and for him, that means “no more needles.”
Burkitt’s lymphoma grows rapidly, and post-treatment scans remain nerve-wracking for the family. Kim and Mike said the support from co-workers, neighbors and friends in their Hoover community has been overwhelming.
“We are blessed to live in Hoover and have a great support system, but a lot of people don’t have what we have,” Kim said. “There are kids on the eighth floor of Children’s Hospital battling this every day. There are people all over the Southeast that are driving here every week that are losing their houses, their jobs.”
“Tomorrow it could be your child, your sister, your next-door neighbor that has cancer. Everything you do makes a difference.”
So, Cooper might be back to playing sports and attending school with his friends, but not everything is back to normal. The Tullo family is now actively letting cancer change their lives, this time for the better.
Cooper was recently named the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Birmingham Chapter’s 2014 Boy of the Year and will inspire the Man & Woman of the Year candidates during their fundraising campaigns.
Cooper said he is humbled by the honor, and his advice for anyone going through a struggle is to always look on the bright side. He hopes that as Boy of the Year, his story will make a lasting impact.
“I didn’t know I was that important to that many people. I didn’t know that many people were praying for me,” Cooper said. “I want to help as many people as possible.”
Support Cooper’s cause
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Man & Woman of the Year campaign is a fundraising competition among individuals in the community. Candidates run in honor of the Boy & Girl of the Year and have 10 weeks to accumulate the most “votes” with every dollar raised counting as one vote.
The male and female candidates who raise the most votes are named the Birmingham Man & Woman of the Year at the Grand Finale on May 15. All funds raised help the society find a cure for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
To donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, visit our Publisher Dan Starnes’ fundraising page at stopbloodcancer.com. For more information about the Man & Woman of the Year campaign, visit mwoy.org/al/localchapter/bhm/.