It was 6 o’clock in the morning and I awoke to the all-too-familiar sound of his cough. What would be revealed that day changed and shaped the aspirations of my whole family. We took my congested 16-month-old brother to our family physician, hoping to leave with a prescription to relieve him of his discomfort, but were instead given paperwork for admittance to Rady Children’s Hospital. The x-rays showed a mass in Conor’s chest. At the age of nine, I could not fully appreciate what this meant. What my mother and step-father learned that dark day, and the significance of which I was not able to grasp for years to come, was the grave news that my baby brother had neuroblastoma. The tumor was lodged precariously along the length of his spinal cord and nearly encircled Conor’s heart.
It wasn’t until several years later that I began to fully comprehend the profound stress my family experienced through this ordeal. I can still picture my weak brother curled up against the cold metal rods of his hospital crib, staring up at me as he clenched the silky blanket I gave him when he was born. Even though he was facing potentially fatal complications, my brother’s innocent laughter and smile lifted our spirits and gave us all hope in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation. He received chemotherapy over a course of twelve months, in adult doses that are usually lethal to a baby. My brother’s ordeal motivated me to want to help children like him.
I often questioned what good there could be in a world where an innocent, joy-filled baby could get cancer. Over time, and through the accelerated maturation process I experienced as a result of this crisis, I was able to find my passion at a younger age than most. I knew from age nine that I would work in some capacity in science or medicine, focusing my efforts on pediatric diseases.
Over the past eight years, I’ve experienced a myriad of reactions from my peers, as well as adults, when asked the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Often, the response of “pediatric oncologist” garners a polite smile, masking an underlying suspicion that this answer will likely change 15 times before I check into my dorm room freshman year. Until the summer before my senior year of high school, unless the source of inquiry was intimately familiar with my background, his or her reaction would be reasonable.
This past summer however, I began an internship with the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute, in a lab that conducts research on medulloblastoma, the most common malignant pediatric brain tumor. During the summer, I volunteered 30 hours a week and continue working there today. I can only hope that the hours spent learning molecular and cellular biology techniques will contribute in some way to more personalized therapies for children afflicted with these tumors. I have been fortunate enough to be trained in the techniques used by my mentor, a third-year doctoral student. This experience has only served to fuel my passion to work in this field.
I am thrilled to be actively involved in the scientific field and to be taking these first steps to achieve my goal. Today, Conor is a robust, active nine-year-old with no memory of his fragile first years of life and happily ignorant of the role he played in helping me find my passion.
Author: Grace Furnari
Editor’s Note: On December 16, 2017, Grace received her degree in Microbiology. One step taken on her road to becoming a pediatric oncologist.