Coach meets fellow cancer survivor at basketball camp

DULUTH - Full of energy and flashing grins, the 9-year-old boy darted around the basketball court at the Bunten Park gymnasium on Thursday morning under the watchful eye of the veteran coach.

Weldon Gaffney, a rising third-grader at Mason Elementary, wasn't supposed to be there. Neither was the camp's namesake, longtime Duluth High School coach Joe Marelle. They weren't expected to be there, or to be alive.

They discovered their bond, as cancer survivors, this week at Marelle's annual camp. So instead of an initial meeting in heaven, two guys who beat the longest of odds got acquainted like many kids and coaches in a crowded gym.

"When I meet people that have gone through similar circumstances, especially if they're younger, they don't understand they're a motivation to me," said Marelle, whose story of beating both non-Hodgkins lymphoma and leukemia has been well documented in Gwinnett County over the years. "With modern medicine and the way they're able to treat things, it's good to see kids getting better. The fact that right now (Weldon's) having a normal life is remarkable.

"From a personal standpoint, once you have cancer you're all kind of in that fraternity together and you're going to be there the rest of your life. There are similar trials and tribulations you go through. The bottom line is he's an inspiration to other kids and other parents that there's hope. And don't give up hope."

To people like Marelle who meet him, Weldon is an inspiration. But the youngster doesn't think he's unique, most likely because he doesn't remember the battle he waged as a 3-year-old with acute lymphomic leukemia, the same cancer that claimed former Georgia Tech and Shiloh High basketball player Michael Isenhour in 2002.

He doesn't remember being sick. He has no idea his prognosis back in 2001 was likely death within four days.

All he's aware of is that he's alive now, and his family said he's taking full advantage of the unexpected gift.

"I like karate and basketball," said Weldon, who also is a Boy Scout. "I like to swim. I swim every day."

That he's doing so much, his parents added, is nothing short of a miracle. Actually two miracles.

Surprise from the start

Anthony and Ethel Gaffney have two older sons - their older children are now 27 and 21 - so a third child wasn't always in their plans.

A miscarriage of twin boys left such physical damage on Ethel that doctors told her there was a less than one percent chance she could have another child. Assuming that to be the case, she never thought about expanding the family.

But as the Gaffneys prepared to leave for a cruise, Ethel got a headache that wouldn't go away. It lasted for a week and only intensified by the day, so Anthony took her to the doctor.

As he flipped through a magazine in the waiting room, he expected to get news on his wife's headache. Instead the doctor walked out and said congratulations. The father-to-be thought he was talking to man sitting next to him.

"We were shocked," Anthony said.

Against the odds, Weldon was on the way.

"Weldon being here, being born at all was a miracle," Ethel said. "I told Anthony, he's here for a reason. You never know his reason for being here, why God wants him to stay here. I don't know his reason for being here. I'm just glad he's here. He's a miracle within a miracle."

Worst of news

When Weldon was a toddler, all appeared fine. His family noticed he had bruises up and down his arms, but doctors told them it was because children are prone to bruises from falling and other accidents.

But on Sunday morning, March 11, 2001, one bruise was too big to ignore. A fall in the church nursery left a large, discolored knot on Weldon's forehead, and the family quickly took him to the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta urgent care, fearing a concussion.

The CHOA doctors also ordered blood work, which the Gaffneys didn't understand until moments later when they found out why. The doctors feared leukemia and the tests backed up the diagnosis, so they immediately sent Weldon to CHOA's Aflac Cancer Center.

"By the time we got (to the cancer center, also on Sunday), the cancer cells had quadrupled (from the first test)," Anthony said. "Once the physician there looked at the test results they ran again, they took us over and said you might as well make funeral arrangements. That he would not make it past that Thursday, which completely threw us for a loop. He said they would do what they can to make him comfortable and start treatment."

The news struck Anthony particularly hard. He had just lost a sister to cancer, a disease that also took his father.

"I remember seeing (my father and sister) and seeing the things they had to deal with, just to make it through the day," Anthony said. "My prayers were, 'This kid's just started living. If it's got to be like that, take me.' We stayed prayerful through the whole thing and I believe our faith got us through."

Talking to God

The next few days were rough. Feeling helpless, the Gaffneys did all they could do - they stayed positive and prayed.

To get through, Ethel convinced herself that the leukemia was like a common cold, just give him some medicine and he'll be fine.

Doctors and conventional medicine spelled out a different path because they knew Weldon's odds. But the young kid was about to prove theories wrong.

He lived past Thursday and got another test the next weekend that showed the cancer had gone away. The child's doctors couldn't believe it.

"Of course Thursday came, Thursday passed," Anthony said. "They couldn't understand why this kid's still here. That following Sunday they ran the test again and couldn't find any cancer at all. The doctors were just baffled by the whole thing."

"That Sunday Weldon tried to pull all the IVs and tubes off of him," Ethel said. "He was like, I'm fine, get this stuff off me. He said, 'The angels told me I was fine.' The doctors ran in there, taped an arm down and ran the tests again and there was nothing.

"By then I'm like, 'What angels did you see?' They say miracles like that happen. He didn't know about that. He was only 3. We're not that hokey-pokey type of Christian family. We're just a basic Christian family. But when he was saying that, we were like, 'Is he talking to God?'"

Happy recovery

Because the leukemia was found in his blood and his spinal fluid, Weldon's next few months after his miraculous recovery weren't easy. Time spent with chemotherapy never is.

The injections in his back were painful, and the treatments wore him down. Yet his little body pushed on despite an initial prognosis that he was terminal, which got him visits from Falcons and Hawks players and the governor, as well as a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to Disney World.

"He's a fighter," Ethel said. "That little boy is a fighter."

The funny thing is, Weldon doesn't remember the fight. He has no idea outside of stories he's told or photographs he sees. Doctors told the family that the cancer treatments may cause memory loss, and that may explain why he has no recollection of his early fight for life.

"When you tell him he says, 'Not me. I didn't have that,'" Ethel said.

"He'll say I don't remember that," Anthony added.

Seeing him race after the basketball and fire up shots at this week's basketball camp, it doesn't appear that he ever had health issues. Gaining weight, a major problem before the leukemia diagnosis, isn't a problem.

He looks athletic and healthy, more than holding his own against the 20 to 25 campers his age.

"I'm still at awe," Anthony said. "Sometimes I'll see him smiling and the fun he's having, and the one thing that comes to my mind is, 'That's my miracle child.'"

It's a miracle that Marelle, who knows a thing or two about miracles, was happy to learn about this week. He shares a love of basketball with most of his campers, but his connection with one particular camper went deeper.

"When you get a kid like this, who has had a brush with cancer, who is smiling and life is good, it makes you feel really good to see that," Marelle said. "Because too often, a lot of kids who get to that point don't make it. I didn't know him until I met him at camp, but right now he looks like a typical young boy who is happy-go-lucky, loves sports and just loves life."