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Pushing a blood disorder to the sidelines

  • Greg
  • 9/10/2013 12:00:00 AM
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Before I was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in August of 2007, I was an all-star basketball player. At the age of 11 I led my AAU basketball team to a third place finish in the Massachusetts State Tournament. I hit three buzzer beaters during the tournament, including the all-important shot to capture third place.

As an athlete who played a lot of high-contact sports like basketball and football I was no stranger to a couple of bruises every now and again, but in the weeks leading up to my diagnosis I noticed that I had been bruising very easily and abnormally compared to my teammates. I had very dark bruises on my legs and arms, and batches of little red dots all over my skin. Others told me that I looked pale. I was never at a loss for breath or overly tired—I felt fit enough to make every game and practice—but the constant bruising was the big indicator that something was wrong.

My parents made an appointment with my doctor who recommended a bunch of special tests, including some for cancer. When one of the tests showed I had aplastic anemia, I was crushed. The doctors told me I had very low blood counts, and that with low reds, whites, and platelets, I could not return to basketball or even go to school—suddenly it seemed as though everything had been taken away from me.

But, upset as I was, I tried not to focus on the negative. Like the challenges I faced during that tournament, when my team was down in the final seconds with our season on the line, I knew that all I had to do was fight harder than I had ever before. It was an adjustment, but I tried apply a game-like mentality to overcoming my illness. I really believe that my competitive spirit and desire to get back to basketball helped drive me beat it. But I wasn’t alone; constant help and support from Dana Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer Center, my teammates, coaches, family, friends—and even the Celtics organization—kept me strong in the fight.

While away from the court my doctors became like coaches to me, and my nurses like fans. Doctors Erica Esrick and Leslie Lehmann were the driving force behind my recovery. They treated my health and mental wellbeing perfectly, checking in with me every day to see how I was and doing whatever was necessary to help me do even better. They made all the right plays in helping me return stronger than ever. In a similar way, my nurses on 6 West floor of Boston Children’s seemed to be my biggest fans and a strong support group. My favorite nurse, Bethany Enos, would play cards with me often, and always managed to put a smile on my face with her amazing sense of humor. Two of my other nurses, Caitlin and Jess, were some of the nicest people I have ever met. They helped keep me in the game and always boosted my confidence that I could beat aplastic anemia. And although I couldn’t interact with the other patients on my ward because of medical restrictions, I felt like they were my teammates. I wanted to see them get better and win, and I’m sure they wanted to see me get better too.

Greg and Dr. Lehmann

But it wasn’t just the team of hematologists and oncologists at Dana Farber and Boston Children’s that helped me recover that year. The Celtics (my favorite sports team) gave me hope throughout my experience as well. Although they finished with the worst record in the NBA in 2007 they bounced back in 2008 and went on to win the championship against the Lakers. Their turnaround from last to first inspired me. The 2008 regular season started around the time I was admitted to Boston Children’s for a bone marrow transplant (courtesy of my older brother). I loved watching them cruise to the best record in the NBA from my bed in a small hospital room. They made me believe that I could rally and defeat aplastic anemia in the same way they won the championship, with determination and a never-quit attitude.

In the final weeks of my stay in the hospital I felt healthy enough to dribble a little basketball up and down the hall of the ward I was being treated on. Even though at times I felt slightly unbalanced, weak and sick, I pictured myself as a Rajon Rondo, or some other Celtics player competing for a championship. I kept that dream close to me and embraced it every day. My condition continued to improve and I felt stronger.

Throughout my experience my town basketball team, AAU team, and coaches all sent me memorabilia. Whether cards, jerseys or basketballs signed by the team, I knew that they were keeping me in their prayers and wanted to remind me to keep fighting. The single biggest present that lifted my spirits was a package that I received three months after my bone marrow transplant from Danny Ainge, the General Manager of the Boston Celtics. In it was authentic team apparel, warm up shirts, headbands, sweatbands, NBA socks, and a Kevin Garnett jersey signed by the man himself. I was so ecstatic and jubilant when I received that package that I felt stronger than ever before. Those very generous gifts gave me the utmost confidence that I would win my battle with aplastic anemia.

 [greg-6-(1)]  Greg at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cnacer and Blood Disorders Center

Eventually I returned to playing recreational basketball in the summer of 2008, and in no time I was back with my old teammates from 2007. Amazingly I never lost a beat. I continued to impress everybody with my natural talent and passion for the game, and my teammates loved having me back. Basketball has still been a way for me to cope with life’s challenges. I am now 18 years old and have been fully cured from aplastic anemia for five years. I attend Phillips Andover where I play varsity basketball.  The lessons I have learned on the court helped me overcome my illness and have made me into a stronger individual. I owe so much to the team of doctors and nurses who saved my life. They were always there for me when I needed them most, and they coached me back to success.

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