LONG BEACH -- Because he was only a toddler when diagnosed, 7-year-old Evan Heidingsfelder has only a vague memory of the surgeries and chemotherapy he endured for nearly four years.
The ordeal nonetheless toughened him up. Not much fazes him, said his mom, Mary Heidingsfelder.
He was pretty excited when his dad told him after school Thursday the Make-A-Wish Foundation had invited him and his brother, 5-year-old Luke, to throw the switch that evening on the first-ever computerized holiday light extravaganza in Jones Park and Gulfport harbor.
Gulfport previewed its Harbor Lights Winter Fest at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, and it will be open from Nov. 27 to Jan. 3.
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Evan couldn't wait to see the Christmas trees light up. He told his mom he wanted to wear one of his holiday shirts so it would match the lights and decorations.
Evan was first introduced to the Make-A-Wish Foundation after illness struck.
His father, chiropractor Adam Heidingsfelder, noticed the 2-year-old's lymph nodes were swollen. They didn't go down. The Heidingsfelders took Evan to a doctor for blood tests.
The doctor said he was anemic. But his parents felt something more was going on.
They took him to another doctor who agreed he needed more extensive testing. The doctor sent them to Children's Hospital in New Orleans. The Heidingsfelders received the diagnosis the same day more blood tests were performed. Evan had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive cancer.
His parents' persistence and the early diagnosis most probably saved his life.
While he was undergoing treatments, his doctor referred the family to Make-A-Wish, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening conditions.
Evan wanted more than anything to ride on a steam-engine train in the snow. He got the idea, his mom said, because he loved watching Thomas the Train. He still loves all things train. It's the wheels, he says.
In the midst of his cancer journey, Evan and his family were whisked off to Colorado. It was April 2013, so there didn't seem to be much chance for snow. But on their second train ride, they had snow flurries and the mountains were still covered with snow from the winter. Evan finished his treatments when he was 5 years old.
He's still active with Make-A-Wish Mississippi. In 2015, he was the first Mississippi cover child for the national foundation's calendar.
Evan remembers the train ride, sort of. And there are regular reminders of his illness, although he is now in long-term remission. He has blood drawn every three months. But he's not scared of needles and he doesn't cry.
"Needles," he said, "are better than school."