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SAN CLEMENTE : Surgery on Boy, 3, Will Make History

When 3-year-old Daniel Harberts checks in to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, hundreds of people will be hoping and praying for him.

During the last year, as Daniel has undergone open-heart surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments to battle a rare form of liver cancer, people have given money and emotional support to him and his family.

“The community support has been super,” said Daniel’s father, Craig Harberts. “Every time I turn around, there’s somebody wanting to be there for us.”

But the last year has been only a prelude to an important surgery scheduled for Thursday, in which a tumor will be removed from his little body.

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The procedure, led by liver surgeon Luis Podesta, is expected to involve the removal of 75% of Daniel’s liver and replacement of his inferior vena cava--which transports blood to the heart--with a vein graft. A heart surgeon also will be standing by during the eight- to 10-hour procedure, Harberts said, in case the cancer is found to have grown close to Daniel’s right atrium.

“It’s basically going to be a very difficult surgery,” Harberts said. “This type of combination in a child has never been seen before. Through his literature research, (Dr. Podesta) said this would be the first time this kind of surgery has been performed on a child.

“It’s a little scary when you hear from a doctor who does liver surgeries every day that this is the first time this has been done,” Harberts said. “But we have complete confidence in him. We think he’s the best at what he does.” Podesta declined to comment until after the surgery.

Craig and Dorothy Harberts learned their son had a rare form of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma on Halloween last year. Doctors then discovered the tumor on his liver had spread to his right atrium, requiring immediate open-heart surgery.

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Since then, to shrink the tumor, Daniel has undergone chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital of Orange County and an experimental procedure at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles that concentrated medication on the cancerous growth.

Throughout his battle, people in the community have sponsored carnivals, T-shirt sales and other benefits, raising about $40,000, said Teri Steel, a next-door neighbor who has helped organize some of the efforts.

The Harberts have an insurance policy with a $1-million cap, and expenses covered by insurance have reached about $900,000, Steel said. Thursday’s surgery will cost $250,000, leaving the Harberts with about $150,000 to pay out of their pocket, she said.

In the last few weeks, Craig and Dorothy Harberts have been trying to make the most of their time with Daniel and their 18-month-old daughter, Cassandra. They took a trip in a rented motor home and visited San Diego and Knott’s Berry Farm.

“We’ve just been trying to have some fun,” Craig Harberts said. “It’s just been a real trying time for my wife and I. It’s just real hard to go through.”

During this time they also tried to explain to Daniel what the surgery is all about. To which Daniel responded: “And we’re going to throw my tumor in the trash truck. Right?”

“He’s a real fighter and a real trooper,” Craig Harberts said. “He’s an inspiration to all of us.”

Donations can be sent to the Daniel Harberts Benefit Account at Household Bank, 638 Camino de Los Mares, Suite F-140, San Clemente, Calif., 92673.

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