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Man honors sons with 700-mile long bike ride

NATCHEZ — Justin Akin’s son Matthew loved riding his bicycle.

With that in mind, Akin will start a 700-mile, seven-day bike ride in Natchez Saturday to honor his son.

Akin’s goal is simple: reach the front door of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to raise awareness of an underdiagnosed immune disorder called Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis, commonly referred to as HLH.

Matthew, 5, died May 1, 2010, as a result of HLH. Akin’s other son, 2-year-old Andrew, died Sept. 5, 2009, of the same disease.

“How did we live in hospitals for 33 months? How did we go from two kids to none?” were the questions Akin and his wife Kristin dealt with, along with immense despair, following the deaths of their two children.

During that time, Akin became aware of a father who lost his son to childhood cancer. That father chose to honor his son by riding a bicycle across country to raise awareness.

“I bought a bicycle and started training to ride my bicycle across the country,” Akin said. “I ride my bicycle because my sons don’t have the opportunity to ride down the street. Matthew loved riding his bicycle. Ultimately, after he passed away, we donated his bike to the child life department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Andrew never even had the opportunity to ride a bicycle.”

In 2012, Akin successfully rode from Clinton, Okla., to St. Louis, and was joined by another dad who lost his daughter to HLH and found Akin’s website, matthewandandrew.org.

Each day of the ride features a dedication video filmed by Akin about children in the hospital battling HLH.

The journey that begins Saturday in Natchez will include numerous parents who have lost children to HLH, some whose children have survived it and one rider, 23-year-old Sean Feltoe, who is an HLH survivor from Canada.

A local contingent will send the riders off with fanfare.

Before moving to Natchez, Anna McCrory Ward was a travel nurse at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital on the hematology/oncology and bone marrow transplant units, when Andrew Akin was a patient.

“I only took care of him once or twice, but I will never forget him,” she said. “He was simply adorable. He had the cutest cheeks I have ever seen.”

Ward said the Akins are doing amazing things for HLH awareness.

“I have already had 30 people ask me, ‘What is HLH?’” Ward said. “The Akins are an inspiration. They have endured the unimaginable loss of their two sons, yet they persevere. They reach out to other families, they educate, they raise money for Cincinnati Children’s. I am in awe.”

Ward’s husband, Dustin, is going to ride the first several miles with Akin, and she and her son will be there to cheer them on.

“I want to support this dad while he honors his children and raises awareness,” she said. “These kids endure months of pain but still smile. I was taught many humbling lessons by the children I cared for — as well as their families. I will never be the same.”