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Andrea Verdone '99 and husband Dan Gorsegner had everything they had worked to achieve: two full-time jobs they enjoyed, their dream home in Rutherford, N.J. – the home they planned to retire in some day – and two beautiful daughters they adored, Hannah and Natalie.
What they didn't have was time.
"Our days started at 5:30 a.m., and sometimes I would get home after 8 p.m.," says Andrea. "We missed our kids. We never got to know people in the area because we were never around. Our lifestyle was crazy!"
While she loved her job as photo editor of Women's Health magazine and was proud of her accomplishments as a working mom, Andrea struggled to find balance. "We were working our butts off, but for what?" she questioned. "We had this nice, big home that we weren't even in that much because we were always working."
In June 2012, while vacationing in Ocean City, N.J., the couple made a decision. If they sold their house and bought a home they could afford on one salary that was closer to family, and if Andrea worked as a freelance photographer, the family would finally have the time they desired.
As soon as they returned from vacation, the wheels started turning. Dan started on projects around the home to prepare it for sale while Andrea began the paperwork for her business, Infinite Love Photography.
Then, on Aug. 16, 2012, the wheels stopped.
On a hot July day this summer, I visit Andrea, Dan, 6-year-old Hannah, and 3-year-old Natalie in their new, split-level home in Middletown, N.J. The family had moved in just the week prior. While we sit and talk at a folding table in the dining area amidst unpacked boxes, Andrea looks at me, shaking her head, and says, "I remember the day like it was yesterday."
Natalie, then 2 years old, hadn't been feeling well. She had a low-grade fever and petechiae, tiny pinpoint red dots, around her right eye. Dan took her to see the doctor early in the week and was told she had a summer virus, so they went home to rest. But something didn't sit well with Andrea.
As the week went on, Natalie became lethargic. She didn't want to walk. The whites of her eyes showed broken blood vessels, and she had a significant bruise along her hairline. Andrea called the doctor and was told to bring her in right away.
Following a barrage of blood tests at the hospital, Andrea sat holding her baby girl close as a stream of blood began trickling from Natalie's eye. Just as Andrea was about to hit the call button, in walked a pack of doctors, nurses and social workers. "They started saying all these things, but I didn't understand. They were all talking to me, but I don't remember what they said," she recalls as her eyes moisten. Looking across the table at Dan, who is gently holding her hand in support, she wipes her tears away. "I still get choked up talking about it."
Natalie had been diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer.
Alone in the hospital room with Natalie when she received the news, the first thing Andrea did was call Dan. "What? What?" she says he repeated over and over as she quietly shared the news. "I remember feeling numb," Dan says. "There was nothing I could do to comfort Andrea. You hear the word leukemia and you assume the worst is going to happen," he says, squeezing Andrea's hand. "So much of it is a blur."
The day after the diagnosis, Andrea and Dan learned how their lives were going to change.
Natalie was to begin weekly chemotherapy treatments at Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center that would result in side effects—not possible side effects, definite side effects—like increased appetite, decreased appetite, weight loss, weight gain,
It was a difficult adjustment for the entire family, including older sister Hannah. "She had a lot of anger in the beginning," says Andrea, glancing over at the tall, thin redhead coloring in a Strawberry Shortcake coloring book. "We had a lot of unexpected
All Natalie wanted to know was "Why?"
As we begin talking about how Natalie has dealt with her illness, the 3-year-old with the squeezable cheeks sleepily strolls out of the playroom after her nap, hugging a pink stuffed bunny and with a yellow pacifier spinning in her mouth. "I want mama," she
Still groggy from her nearly four-hour nap, the quiet toddler picks up Andrea's cell phone and begins playing "Stack the States," her favorite game. Kissing Natalie's head, Andrea continues, "How do you explain to a baby why she has to go through this? She
Andrea asks Natalie to show me her port. Natalie looks up at me, still sucking on her pacifier, and pulls the collar of her sundress back, exposing the surgically implanted access point for her chemo treatments. Starring at Natalie's cherubic face, I'm stunned that she appears completely unfazed by what she just showed me.
I'm without words as Andrea goes on to tell me about the routine visits to the clinic for IV and spinal chemo treatments, blood transfusions, blood counts, and the scariest day of all, when Natalie fell into a vegetative state due to the drug Methotrexate mixing with her brain fluid.
This was the Gorsegners' "new normal."
Difficult as all of this was for everyone, the family felt grateful that Natalie's prognosis was good. Although there were many scares and trips to the emergency room over the 10-month isolation period, her doctors remained positive that Natalie would be okay.
This July, Natalie entered the maintenance phase—IV chemo just once a month, rather than weekly, along with daily oral chemo at home, through November 2014. And she will be able to start preschool again this fall.
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JUST ONE DOLLAR
While Natalie is in maintenance, Andrea is just beginning her fight.
As a way to deal with Natalie's diagnosis, she threw herself into learning everything she could about pediatric cancer. Along the way she discovered some startling facts.
According to The Truth 365, a documentary produced by the Arms Wide Open Childhood Cancer Foundation, just 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute's funding is allocated to support pediatric cancer research. Approximately 13,500 children are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States, and seven die every day. However, in 20 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one drug specifically for pediatric cancer.
In January 2013, Andrea started a Facebook page, Infinite Love for Natalie Grace, where she began educating her followers about these realities and documenting Natalie's daily treatment through her passion for photography.
ABOUT 13,500 CHILDREN ARE DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER EACH YEAR IN THE
"It took off!" Andrea exclaims. "People shared it like crazy. It was literally happening as we were watching it." By that night the photo had been shared a few hundred times. Today, it has been shared more than 1,600 times with nearly 170,000 views. "It was
In the first week alone, they received 50 to 60 letters. Since then, donations and letters from all over the country have hit the Gorsegners' mailbox. "People inbox me all the time about doing fundraisers. It's so exciting to pick up the mail," Andrea says.
By the end of July, the fundraising effort had brought in $31,332.10 toward its $50,000 goal, which they are striving to hit before Natalie's fourth birthday, on Sept. 28, 2013. Coincidentally, September is also Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
"Do I want to find a cure?" she asks. "Absolutely. Do I think it's going to happen with $50,000? No." But, she adds, "$50,000 can support a clinical study, and that can save a life."
As Andrea begins telling me about a new online donation page – www.willyousendusadollar.com– Hannah interrupts, whispering in her mommy's ear loud enough for me to hear. "Mommy, I want to give my piggy bank and my tooth fairy money," the big-hearted 6-year-old says. Leaning in to give her a kiss on her forehead, Andrea replies, "You're my sweet girl, Hannah."
Dan is in the kitchen preparing a snack for Natalie. Looking up and smiling as Hannah runs off to play, he says that he had a difficult time when Andrea first began the fundraiser because she spent so much of her time working on it. "Then I saw the impact she had on people, and how much good she was doing," he says."People respond to her. I know how wonderful she is, but it's great to see that other people see it as well."
For Andrea, the fundraiser is her therapy.
"This is my way of fighting cancer. I can't control the cells in Natalie's body, but with this, I feel like I'm kicking cancer's butt," she says.
After the Sept. 28 deadline passes, Andrea plans to keep going. While she intends to get her photography business off the ground eventually, she says she knows she was meant to lead this cancer-fighting effort.
As Natalie walks back into the dining area to show me her Belle doll, her favorite Disney princess, Andrea smiles, looking around the room at her family, and says, "I know what's important now."
SHAVE FOR A CURE
When Taylor Mitchell '14 walked into Associate Professor Elizabeth Kiddy's class on March 18, 2013, jaws dropped.
The tall, slender woman with the long blond hair had shaved her head. But she wasn't making a fashion statement. Mitchell submitted to the clippers at "Shave for a Cure," a childhood cancer awareness event held in her hometown of Millville, N.J. The event was a fundraiser for St. Baldrick's Foundation, an organization that funds childhood cancer research grants, in memory of her best friend, Marshall Smith.
When Mitchell and Smith were high school seniors, Smith was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that started in his knee and traveled to his lungs and brain. He died on Feb. 22, 2013, at the age of 22.
For Mitchell, an early childhood education and Latin American studies major, shaving her head was one way of grieving for her friend. "It makes me feel closer to him. It makes me feel rejuvenated and better about the future," she says, though her goal is to raise awareness and funds for research. "I hope it inspires people and makes them more aware. There are so many kinds of cancer. Any hope, any donations are welcome. Everything helps."
Kiddy, who also serves as Mitchell's adviser for Latin American studies, is proud of Mitchell's stand. "She makes a pretty strong statement about the need to do something about these diseases," Kiddy says.
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