Stony Brook cancer survivors receive college scholarships

Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School student Rachel Ragone Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School student Rachel Ragone at her graduation in 2014. Photo Credit: Handout

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For Rachel Ragone, school came first, and no matter how tough things got, giving up was not an option. That work ethic pushed her to fifth place in her class of almost 300 students at Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School.

When she was diagnosed with cancer in her junior year, her determination did not falter.

"I don't think I ever even thought of feeling sorry for myself," said the 18-year-old Manorville resident. "I just knew that I had to not think like that and to just be positive."

Her mindset paid off. Despite two semesters of home schooling between chemotherapy and radiation sessions to treat her Ewing's sarcoma, Ragone maintained her class ranking.

Now, six months cancer-free, she is preparing to start college at Fordham University, her first-choice school, and is a recipient of the Daniel Brooks Memorial Educational Award for cancer survivors treated at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.

The award, a four-year grant totaling about $2,500, is named for a former cancer patient at the hospital who died in 2002 after he was struck by a car in Poughkeepsie. This year, a record 39 students received the Daniel Brooks award, up from four when it was first given in 2003.

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The recipients will be recognized Tuesday at an annual ceremony. Marguerite Pearlman, Brooks' mother, attends every year. She said she always sees brightness in the students' eyes.

"They all have this same aura about them," she said. "They didn't give up on life."

'Really optimistic'

Syracuse-bound Kyle Gutman, one of this year's awardees, will be there Tuesday, only days after his last treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. The Stony Brook staff and his family celebrated with him on Wednesday as he rang a bell in honor of the occasion -- a ritual in many cancer centers.

Gutman, now 18, would not even take time off from classes at Cold Spring Harbor High School. Though he lost his hair during chemotherapy, his mother said, he put on a different hat each day and kept to his regular schedule.

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"We were all weeping nonstop," said his older sister, Jillian, "but it was Kyle who kind of pulled us all through it. He was really, really optimistic."

Gutman said he told himself, " 'OK, it happened. So just finish it, get through it.' "

Gutman has only known Dr. Robert Parker, Stony Brook's director of pediatric oncology, and his team for six months. Others, like Alexis Alpert, 19, of Ronkonkoma, and Maria Garcia, 18, of Brentwood, have known him almost their entire lives.

Diagnosed and treated at young ages, award recipients Alpert and Garcia remember cancer through the eyes of young children: not being able to swim in the summertime, showing up at kindergarten without hair, or crying when forbidden to eat fast food.

But, said Alpert, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8, "Not all of it's bad."

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She also remembers birthday parties at Stony Brook and close relationships with caregivers.

Now a sociology student at Suffolk County Community College, Alpert is transferring to Stony Brook University to complete her bachelor's degree. Then she plans to go for a master's in social work.

"The scholarship means everything," she said of the Daniel Brooks award. "It helps so much with tuition and books. It'll help me pay for my textbooks, probably for two semesters."

Garcia was diagnosed at age 2 with rhabdomyosarcoma, which caused a tumor to grow in her neck. She said the Stony Brook nurses were like family, even helping her parents, emigrants from Colombia who had only been in the country six months, to learn English.

Now Garcia wants to become a nurse. She has completed one year at SCCC and hopes to transfer to Stony Brook next year.

"I would say that it's all as a consequence of what I've experienced," she said.

Parker remembers treating Garcia when she was a toddler. He is happy that she is pursuing a career in health care.

"Not only did we do something right by her from a medical standpoint, but we presented her with a model of the profession that was attractive to her," he said.

Plan is to give back

Dylan McGovern, 18, of Blue Point, who was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at 2, also is considering a career in medicine.

He begins science classes at Stony Brook University this year and thinks he might like to study oncology. The school is providing an additional $1,000 to award winners who enroll there.

"I would definitely want to give back," he said, especially to the Stony Brook Cancer Center. "They helped me so much, and I got through this. I think it would be great to help others."

While McGovern looks forward to new challenges, Nick Franzi just hopes college will bring a return to normalcy. He said he can't wait to begin studies at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue and to make new friends.

"I just look forward to pretty much being back to normal and getting off of my medications and all my fluids and everything," said Franzi, 18, of Lake Grove, who temporarily lost mobility in his legs after treatment in 2012 and still is recovering.

He expects to undergo a kidney transplant before his criminal justice studies begin in the fall.

As for Ragone, her mother said, attending Fordham in the Bronx and exploring New York City will be a dream come true.

"I don't know what the future's going to hold," she said, "so I want her to fulfill her dreams while she can."


DANIEL BROOKS' 'LIFE WISH'

The Daniel Brooks Educational Award was created in 2003 in memory of a Stony Brook University Hospital cancer survivor who died a year earlier after he was struck by a car.

Marguerite Pearlman, his mother, recalled that when the Make-A-Wish Foundation came to the family's door in 1995 to ask what the then-17-year-old cancer patient would like to wish for, she was surprised by his response.

Her son, she said, made a "life wish." He asked for a new computer, secure in his belief that he would be off to college in the fall.

Brooks, a special education student, had always fought for his education, working hard to keep up with his peers in elementary school. He was in high school when he was diagnosed with leukemia, and still graduated on time. Later, he attended Dowling College and schools in Arizona and Florida, earning degrees in elementary education and special education.

Brooks then worked with the Stony Brook Cancer Center to develop a school re-entry program. He provided insight, both as a former patient and as a special education teacher, on how to help young cancer survivors reintegrate into their lives.

"It was incredible how he really did reach out to people," said Debra Giugliano, the head of the program.

The awards are provided largely through the Sunrise Fund, founded in 1999 by two parents of children who were treated for cancer at Stony Brook. The Suffolk Chapter of the Knights of Columbus is a major donor to the fund.

Pearlman said there could not be a more suitable award named for her son, and each year she enjoys meeting the new recipients.

"It's just such a beautiful thing to see that they're not missing out because they had cancer," she said.

-- PORTIA CROWE

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