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Sam’s Story

Meet Sam, an incredibly talented 19-year-old athlete who, over the past seven years, has not only conquered a blood disorder but two types of cancer with a positive attitude, strong faith, and a remarkable sense of humor. This journey has shaped Sam into becoming a humble and focused young man with maturity far beyond his years. As his dad, Jeff, says, “He really is one in a million.”

In 2017, 12-year-old Sam was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease in which the body stops producing enough new red blood cells. To combat this blood disorder, Sam underwent chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant, provided by his younger sister, Grace. While his body worked to accept the new immune system, Sam spent several months in isolation, causing him to miss a full year of sports seasons and in-person school.

Then, in 2021, when Sam was 16 years old, he noticed a small bump on his ribs. His family and care team assumed Sam had cracked a rib in football, and the lump was caused by it healing improperly. For nine months, through a full football and basketball season, Sam persevered through the discomfort in his rib, playing despite this slowly growing mass that eventually reached the size of half a tennis ball.

At Sam’s four-year transplant checkup, the doctor looked at the bump and didn’t like what he was seeing and conducted a more thorough examination of the mass. Shortly after this appointment, Sam was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of cancer that begins as a growth of cells in the bones and the soft tissue around the bones. His treatment required nine months of chemotherapy, ten sessions of radiation, and surgery to remove the tumor and three of his ribs.

Throughout his treatment, Sam was absolutely determined to continue living life as normally as possible despite the challenges. When he wasn’t in the hospital, he attended school and continued playing basketball. There were several days when he would receive his chemo and then, a few hours later, be at a practice, ready to go. Sam reflects that playing basketball felt like breathing through a straw. “But I just wanted to play. I didn’t care if I scored or not.”  He could only play a few minutes at a time, but he put his whole heart into every game and every practice. That season, Sam played a total of fifteen games. When he couldn’t physically manage to play, he still showed up to cheer on his team and contribute however he could.

Sam’s basketball coach remarked in an interview, “If you are ever having a bad day, I want you to come to one of our games and watch Sam. I promise you; your day will be better when you leave.”. Toward the end of the season, Sam’s dad called the coach on the way to a game with the best news his team could hear: “We just got the results. Cancer free.” That incredible season, Sam not only became the all-time assist leader and one of the leading scorers in the program, but he also beat Ewing’s sarcoma.

In 2023, one year after completing treatment, things took a turn for Sam. His friends and family noticed that he appeared tired and pale, and something seemed off. At this time, he was still undergoing routine blood work, so when the results came back abnormal, additional tests were ordered. Soon it was confirmed. Cancer had returned, this time in the form of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, likely a result of one of his chemotherapy drugs. He immediately underwent an initial round of chemotherapy followed by yet another bone marrow transplant, this time from his younger brother, Joey.

During the long days at the hospital, Sam approached his treatment with the same optimism and determination as before. Visits from friends helped take his mind off things, and he’d keep himself moving whenever he felt up to it—working out or walking the halls encouraging other kids receiving treatment. “He never let people feel sorry for him, and 99% of the time, you would have no idea what he was going through. What other people from the unit saw in Sam was hope. Even when he wasn’t feeling well, he wouldn’t show it, and it gave other parents hope.”

Though he appeared strong on the outside, Sam reflects that the toughest part of receiving a bone marrow transplant was the mental aspect. He was used to being active all the time, even during his last bout with cancer, but now he was so frequently confined to his bed, unable to leave the unit, and missing out on his senior year of high school. But still, Sam maintained his ever-positive outlook and sense of humor, trying to “take everything as a joke”. Sam stated, “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it. You have a choice. You can either sit around and cry or get after it. I probably spent more time laughing on the MACC floor than a person should.”

Sam recalls treating the nurses like big sisters, often pranking them into thinking he had escaped from the unit. When he and his dad, Jeff, got stir-crazy in their room, they would wander into the family lounge and hang out with their new friend Jon, another dad supporting his teen through a bone marrow transplant. Jeff noted, “In that third stint, we needed Jon. He has a gift for connecting people and just making people feel better.” In that lounge, they found camaraderie watching sports, joking around, and embracing humor to get them to the other side of their circumstances.

Currently, Sam is almost a full year out from receiving his last bone marrow transplant and has been living life to the fullest- coaching basketball, enjoying time with his friends and family, and attending his first year of college at Marian University. This fall, he will be transferring to Viterbo University in LaCrosse. Sam plans to pursue nursing with the hope of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse and working in the MACC Fund Center where he spent so much time as a teen.

Jeff reflects that those years spent in and out of the MACC Fund Center were the “best and worst seven years of his life.” He said, “It’s so humbling to have so much support from so many and to feel so much love all around. Everyone in that unit comes together, all barriers down. Just go to the floor for one day. It doesn’t matter what you believe or your race or your socioeconomic status or any other differences. You only care about your kids and other people’s kids getting better. If there is heaven on earth, it’s the HOT unit. Everyone is rooting for each other. It’s the best and worst place we’ve ever been.”

Thank you for supporting research. Thank you for giving hope.

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