It has been years since Gabe finished treatment. Even now as Rob and I sit looking at our proud cancer survivor, talking about the day he was diagnosed brings us close to tears. It seems like it happened yesterday and the feelings are still so raw. When you compound that with the emotions of watching Gabe facing the long-term effects of treatments we agreed to, the guilt can become overpowering. When those feelings overwhelm us we can only remind ourselves of the reality that the guilt is a luxury; Gabe is still here with us. We have everything to be grateful for.
One of the things we are most grateful for is our location. We are blessed to be so close to Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, whose dynamic staff saved the life of our child. We have always described ourselves as a “Vanderbilt Family,” as we share an intricate history with Vanderbilt that goes back to New Year’s Day 2002. Gabe was the first baby of the New Year in Nashville that year. His newborn face greeted the city from television and newspaper pages. Most babies born at Vanderbilt don’t have to come back, but as fate would have it, we were back almost one year later to the day.
The week prior to Gabe’s diagnosis, we visited the pediatrician three times searching for the cause of his enlarged lymph nodes and his newly acquired lazy right eye. Antibiotics were not working. In fact, it seemed like the symptoms were progressively getting worse. This series of events lead us to the emergency room on Christmas evening 2002.
A CT scan that night revealed a large mass in his right sinus cavity. It was resting on his brain and crushing his optical nerve. That night, as families all over the country settled into the winter evening, we heard the words no parent ever expects to hear. Our beautiful baby boy, one week shy of his first birthday, had a malignant tumor. Even as the words escaped the doctor’s mouth, my thoughts turned to a friend who had survived breast cancer. I squeezed Rob’s hand and mouthed the words that became our mantra. “THIS IS NOT A DEATH SENTENCE.”
Rob and I felt lost – cancer was an awfully mature word for such a little boy. The juxtaposition seemed both ironic and unreal. Our role as parents seemed to diminish by the minute, Gabe’s fate was in the hands of the doctors and we could no longer “kiss him and make it better.” Although our role had changed, Rob and I knew that we needed to keep Gabe as comfortable and cheerful as possible to speed his recovery. We also understood that supporting the medical team would mean ensuring that Gabe took all medications and was calm during procedures.
Rob was already no stranger to Children’s Hospital. At the time of Gabe’s diagnosis, he was a project engineer with the construction company building the new Monroe Carell Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. As he walked those floors every day, he could not have imagined that he was building the very hospital in which his son would be receiving treatment or that the doctors he had seen in passing would become an integral part of his son’s medical team. As we prepared to leave the hospital after our week-long stay, I was persuaded to take a little time off to shop for Gabriel’s birthday.
As I walked the mall I wondered how the world could possibly carry on as normal. Didn’t everyone know that my little man lay in a hospital bed fighting for his life? Could people not tell just by looking at me that my baby might die? I wanted everyone to know Gabe’s story.
The week after Gabe’s birthday marked our first visit to clinic. I had no idea of the wake-up call that awaited me. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but I thought there would be a huge fuss made over my child. He had CANCER after all!
As we walked into the waiting room I was met by at least 15 other families whose special children had cancer too. In an instant I knew that Gabe’s story had become a part of something much bigger, part of our story. Our story is a quilt of tales sewn with the threads of hope of families who shared our fate. Each narrative is unique, but familiar as your childhood security blanket.
As for Gabe, he still visits the Children’s Hospital for routine visits and still plays doctor with his Chemo Duck. Today, he is a proud cancer survivor who loves to spend time with other children in treatment. Although too young to remember specifics about his treatment, hospital living is a way of life for Gabe. He has a special way of bringing comfort to kids with cancer and feels that every Chemo Duck given out is his gift to other young cancer patients – a gift that provides a hope for a cure.
Together in the fight,