At 2 years old, while other children were playing outside and starting to explore the world, Morgan Zuch was isolated in a hospital room. It was 2000, and with a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, her life was lived inside.
Her next three years were a blur of chemotherapy, medication, injections and surgeries. Zuch was considered a “standard risk” patient, and the cure rate for her leukemia was about 80 to 85 percent. But she wasn’t allowed to play with other children or attend preschool, for fear that her suppressed immune system could turn a simple cold into a deadly infection.
Zuch’s mother, Nancy, said her daughter at times suffered the most from the side effects of the chemotherapy, which she said included severe leg pain, constant nausea, spinal headaches and night terrors. At one point Zuch stopped walking, talking and eating for two weeks.
At 5, she was in remission, a development her mother calls a “miracle.” At 10, Zuch was declared cured of cancer, but the experience forever changed the trajectory of Zuch’s life and that of her family.
Once unable to walk, she is now a co-captain of Bay Shore’s women’s crew team and is heading off in the fall to Marist College in Poughkeepsie on a rowing scholarship.
“Morgan has turned what could have been a death sentence into an incredible life sentence,” said her school guidance counselor, Danielle Gemellaro. “Morgan knows firsthand that we only have one chance to make the world a better place, and she will not let that opportunity slip away.”
Zuch has made cancer advocacy her mission. After witnessing their daughter’s early childhood whittled away within the confines of sterile hospital rooms, Nancy and Rod Zuch founded The Morgan Center, a Hicksville preschool for children ages 2 1/2 to 5 years old who have cancer. Since its inception in 2003, the nonprofit has helped more than 200 children and their families.
The Morgan Center has become a focal point of the family’s lives. Rod and Nancy run the organization and teach the preschoolers, and Morgan has been volunteering and fundraising for the center since she was a child. The center is open three days a week from September to June, and tuition and expenses are funded through private donations and fundraising.
“I love seeing the children and giving back, because I didn’t have this when I was little,” Zuch said. “It’s nice to see them have something that they can go to.”
This year alone, Zuch raised more than $23,000 for The Morgan Center through a social media awareness campaign she launched in the fall. The money was used to fund parties, field trips, graduation and an annual movie event that involves renting a theater so the center’s students can safely enjoy an outing to the movies. Zuch also heads the organization’s Junior Committee, which raises money and awareness, teaches the center’s students and acts as its spokeswoman.
Zuch is also an honor student, and admits that though she has little free time, she’s outside on the sand at Robert Moses State Park whenever she can.
At Marist, Zuch said she is looking forward to meeting new people, rowing and having the new experience that college brings. She plans to study education so she can teach at The Morgan Center and take the helm one day.
Zuch will soon don a cap and gown for her own graduation, but she’s also got a second graduation to attend. On June 8 she led the procession of 20 preschoolers graduating from The Morgan Center.
WHAT MAKES YOU EXTRAORDINARY: “I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve learned a lot through life through my experiences as a child to now. Not everything is easy. It’s not what happens to you in life, it’s what you do about it.”