It would be easy to meet Gabe Panzarello and think he’s a regular, happy 8-year-old.
You would be half right. Yes, he’s a happy child, but he’s had anything but a regular life.
It’s not a life his parents, Danielle and Derek Panzarello, would have chosen for him. But Gabe might have helped pave the way for other children to live healthier, happier lives. And for that, they can all be proud – and thankful.
Gabe was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after his first birthday. He spent the next four years undergoing chemotherapy treatments and battling cancer. Gabe went on a “Star Wars”-themed Make-A-Wish trip shortly after he turned 5 years old.
“We got clearance just beforehand that everything was OK and that he was done with all the major chemo,” Danielle said.
For the next several months, the Panzarellos enjoyed a period of normalcy.
“He’s my first kid … and we had that little teaser period
where we thought, ‘OK, we’re remembering what it’s like to be normal again,’”
Danielle said. “But then, ‘Hah, no you’re not.’”
Around Christmas of 2018, the Panzarellos learned that Gabe
had relapsed. It was a devastating blow.
“When they said I had cancer again I was like, ‘What … did
you just say? Are you kidding me?’” Gabe said.
After digesting the news, the Panzarellos were offered the
opportunity to take part in a study that would use the drug Blinatumomab for
Gabe’s treatment. He would be the first St. Luke’s patient to be given the drug
as part of a worldwide trial seeking to expand the purpose of Blinatumomab and
incorporate it into standard treatment for relapsed leukemia.
“We had to make a choice, which was super empowering and
super terrifying at the same time,” Danielle said. “As a parent, part of you
goes, ‘You’re not going to use my son as a guinea pig.’ But everyone was so
good about answering all of my questions, even when I asked the same question
more than one time.”
One of the St. Luke’s staff members answering those questions was Amy Stukenholt, a clinical research coordinator. A big part of her role is to serve as a liaison between the St. Luke’s clinical team and families of patients.
“The goal of the study is to see just how effective this drug is,” Stukenholt said. “The drug is infused three times for 28 days of continuous infusion.”
That meant Gabe spent 28 days at St. Luke’s three separate times.
“He was treated like a little prince, because the staff knew he was going to be there for a month at a time,” Danielle said.
As grueling as those three months were, Danielle said it helped that Gabe felt pretty normal through most of the study.
“There was definitely a difference between the first treatment and this one,” Danielle said.
Added Gabe: “I knew I was sick, but I still felt good. I still felt like I had all this energy.”
Fast forward to today. Gabe is in maintenance and feeling like, well, a normal 8-year-old.
“We’re very hopeful and positive,” Danielle said. “So far, everything is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. … I have every reason to believe that this time the leukemia is gone.”
The Panzarellos will continue to hope for the best - while also hoping Gabe’s journey benefits other children.
“Gabe has talked many times about how he’s happy that he’s helping other kids,” Danielle said. “It feels good to him that he’s participated in this study. … He’s like, ‘Wow, what I did helped other people.’”
And Stukenholt said that is exactly the point of studies like the one in which the Panzarellos participated.
“I started as a nurse … but I always knew I wanted to do research,” she said. “Research is how big problems get solved.
“It’s absolutely incredible that we can offer these opportunities at St. Luke’s. The studies that we’re doing are using the same care as any big cancer center in the country. (Patients) don’t have to move. They can still live in Caldwell or Fruitland and they’re getting truly top-of-the-line treatment, the best the world has to offer. I think that’s pretty incredible, to be able to do this for a family.”
Gabe loves sloths, and Buddy the Sloth has been with him throughout his treatments for leukemia. Gabe's mother, Danielle, sewed magnets into Buddy's hands so he could grab the IV pole.
During Gabe's first monthlong stay at St. Luke's he worked with a music therapist and they came up with a song about a sloth and made a stop-action video to go with it.
Chris Langrill is a writer and copy editor for the St. Luke’s Communications and Marketing department.