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By Kathryn Menue


BELVIDERE – On Sept. 5, 2014, Melissa Gilbertson experienced every loving mother’s worst fear: her son, Joey, 9, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was in the third grade.

After one long year of chemotherapy, an erratic school schedule, and numerous doctors’ appointments, Joey is finally getting back into the swing of things at Seth Whitman Elementary School where he has just begun his fourth grade year.

“His prognosis is great. He’s in remission, and the type of leukemia he has, has a 93 percent survival rate,” Melissa said.

Joey’s mother did say that he has “a long road” ahead of him. Although Joey is in remission, the type of leukemia he has is “acute and aggressive” from all of the tiny cancer cells “hiding in his body.” Joey needs three-and-a-half-years of chemotherapy to help fight off all of the cancer cells that are “hiding.”

Melissa said that Joey has to go for a big dose of chemotherapy every three months and he takes an oral dose every night.

Even through all of the struggles, Melissa said that Joey “always had a certain light” about him throughout his run with leukemia. A part of Joey’s light has come from the love and support the faculty and students of Seth Whitman Elementary.

Throughout the past year, all of his fellow classmates have helped Joey along and supported him through his battle with cancer.

Melissa said that the students have gotten “a feel for him” and know when he needs to sit out in gym or recess and that the other students will sit with him too.

The children also help him carry his backpack on days where Joey feels weaker and will volunteer to be his “elevator buddy” when he needs to travel up and down stairs.

Melissa said the best part is just how these “small children are so kind” to him. Even throughout the year when Joey’s appearance would change from the chemotherapy toxins working their way through his body, none of the children made him feel different. They just accepted him for who he is.

Melissa and the faculty at Seth Whitman really worked together to educate all of the children on Joey’s condition while he was out of school for two months during his third grade year, so that everyone could be prepared for the change when he returned to school.

“They [the other students] did a great job,” Melissa said. “No one said how his appearance has changed.”

Even while he was away, the students made sure to show their support for Joey by making him cards and sending him “sweet messages” on the Facebook page the Gilbertson family made for Joey.

When Joey returned, he showed his pride of battling cancer by wearing his “Mighty Moose” T-shirt as much as he could.

Joey’s mother said that the T-shirt, “Mighty Moose” (since Joey’s nickname at home is Moose) came from a fundraiser to help pay for his treatment.

Joey’s fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Morey quickly took notice of Joey’s unique shirt and wanted to show her support for Joey and his family by having the same T-shirt made for everyone in her fourth grade class.

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, everyone in Mrs. Morey’s fourth grade class, including Mrs. Morey, wore their own “Mighty Moose” T-shirt as a special surprise for Joey. On the back of the shirts, it says, “Together we can beat this” across an orange/gold ribbon, which stands for leukemia awareness.

Melissa Gilbertson was so touched by the gesture, especially since Mrs. Morey bought the T-shirts with her own money.

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When Joey and Melissa walked into the room, Joey was quite surprised.

“I haven’t seen a smile like that on his face in a long time,” Melissa said and that it reminded her of Joey before he got sick.

Melissa said that Mrs. Morey’s gesture “obviously broke my heart into a million pieces.”

Melissa said that everyone at Seth Whitman has been “amazing.” The school has worked with her, and the school nurse, Sally Blake, has been a good “friend” throughout the journey.

Melissa would call every day and Blake would tell her whether or not it was okay to bring Joey to school based on the absence level and would often talk with Melissa more as a friend than just a school nurse.

“She is a wonderful and special woman. The school and kids are lucky to have her,” Melissa said.

Blake continues to be a kind friend as Joey’s stamina is still not up to the level of the other children. He still has a hard time making it a full day at school and some days he does “overdo it” and then needs to take a couple of days to recuperate.

But, on Sept. 22, Joey got to celebrate a special day of support with his class, which came at the perfect time since his “one-year cancerversary” just passed on Sept. 5 and since September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

Melissa would love to get the word out about childhood leukemia in the area since she says there isn’t a lot of support at home in the community. Most of the support groups, awareness groups, and financial support groups are either in Madison or Chicago where the facilities to treat leukemia are located.

“It’s not a big thing in the community,” Melissa said. “You don’t see a lot of gold ribbons in the community.”

Maybe, the Gilbertson family and the growing support from Seth Whitman and the surrounding area can help change childhood leukemia awareness in this community and throughout the northern Illinois region.

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