Depending on when you’re reading this, Gianna “Gia” Maria Smith is either sleeping in; watching cartoons; playing with her brother and sister; being sniffed by her cat, Woody; or guarded by her dog, Artie.
But more than likely she’s in the arms of her Mom or Dad.
The really good news is that Gia is home and free to be just Gia.
I became acquainted with Gia’s story and her extremely rare cancer diagnosis, embryonal botryoid rhabdomyosarcoma, a few months back. Yet I had never had the pleasure of meeting the Munroe Falls toddler in person until a few days ago.
The place — all too familiar to Gia and her parents, Derek and Erica (Pennino) Smith — was a room on the oncology floor at Akron Children’s Hospital where she was hunkered down for a little over 17 hours. Doctors tagged it her final lap, her last chemotherapy session in her race to defeat cancer.
Having heard about the rough times, I chose to be an eyewitness for the good time.
Gia’s family has been holding their collective breaths since Nov. 4, 2011, when she was diagnosed, one of only 350 patients annually in the United States.
Erica Smith has become a virtual medical encyclopedia on her daughter’s rare cancer and a copious note-taker. She was wearing the same light-blue Super Gia T-shirt as everyone else in the room as they surrounded the bald-headed wonder, now 2 years 4 months old.
“Gia was diagnosed with both Stage 3, because the tumor couldn’t be removed by surgery, and Stage 1, because there was no metastasis [it hadn’t spread],” Erica Smith said.
Even though the tumor disappeared in February, the protocol demanded that the chemotherapy continue several months longer.
Despite all of the emotional, exhaustive floor-walking, down-on-their-knees prayer and pleading with God, the Smiths count themselves blessed a thousand times over, for the fact that most of Gia’s chemotherapy was outpatient, and for the one true gift — they still have her.
Finally it was week 46. A final countdown that happily did mean “over and out.”
So the Smiths, along with Brenda Pennino (Gia’s maternal grandmother) and Leanne Lattimer (Erica’s best friend), decided for the sake of Gia’s happy memory book to have a bells-and-whistles celebration. “Gia’s Graduation,” they were calling it.
And what a milestone to trumpet! That long-awaited green light to freedom, untethered by medical protocols, CT scans or machines that monitor and beep; medicines intended to make her well but still made her feel not so good; interrupted sleep to be poked and prodded.
Gia’s oncologist is Dr. Stephanie Savelli and her surgeon is Dr. Timothy Pittinger, both at Akron Children’s Hospital. She earlier completed seven treatments of high-dose radiation with Dr. Mitchel Fromm at Akron General Medical Center.
“When she would take the ambulance to Akron General for the radiation she would clench a pack of Oreos to her chest,” her mother reminisced.
The Smiths’ thank-yous to the doctors and the support staff are endless.
Erica Smith — who is never far away from the thick binder of information about her daughter’s condition — is very grateful to the nurse practitioner who so patiently “went through it with us over and over again … She basically held our hands through every step.”
No more cancer
Even though Gia will need to report back to the hospital from time to time for procedures and checkups, and she still has the medical port (a tiny, under-the-skin appliance to transport medicine through her veins), she is considered cancer-free, and the celebration has begun.
Gia’s last day at the hospital featured several cakes — one with the phrase “Fight Like a Girl: 46” — and visits from the University of Akron women’s basketball team (which has cheered every step of the way), members of the hospital’s Doggie Brigade (Lacy, Cracker Jacks and Spats), and hospital volunteers like George Vasile.
The 76-year-old Vasile of Massillon — himself a cancer survivor — has volunteered at the hospital for 10 years, all of them on the oncology unit.
Thursdays with George were always so special. “There have been days when she did not feel well and George would stay with her a couple of hours, bringing her finger puppets and just doing whatever,” Erica Smith said. “He’s amazing!”
“The support we have from all of the people who have been praying for Gia has been extraordinary … One of them was Lori [Wunderle of Norton] who [with husband Greg] donates well-stocked, soft-sided cooler/care packages to families with sick children to help make their hospital stays more manageable. The Wunderles’ son Anthony lost his battle in 1998 to childhood leukemia. He was 4½.
“Another was [former high school classmate] Mandy Seymour of Stow whose baby daughter Quinn died in April at 8 months of a rare disorder. She actually gave me a CD of Quinn’s favorite lullabies.”
Leanne Lattimer of Cleveland, Erica’s friend and a regular at Gia’s bedside, shrugged off accolades from the Smiths saying, “Erica and I are like sisters, and I would do anything for this family.”
“She’s done everything from receiving my sad phone calls to wiping Gia’s butt,” Erica Smith said.
Getting back to normal
As their departure from the hospital in a decorated van neared, the Smiths were making new plans: Daddy’s birthday celebration later that evening.
Halloween plans are already in the works for Mom, Gia and big sister Samantha, 5, to dress as kitty cats, and 3½-year-old Derek Jr. and Dad to go as dinosaurs.
“But mostly we’re looking forward to spending Christmas Eve and Christmas together as family,” Erica Smith said, Derek nodding in agreement.
“We’ve had to isolate Gia for so long. We haven’t been in public places for close to a year. We’re just happy to be finally going home,” she continued.
The Smiths were quick to say that the fanfare wasn’t for them, but to help fill Gia’s scrapbook.
“We want to raise awareness about this cancer — RMS — and funds to cure it,” the Smiths said. “And we want to show other families who will be us someday but don’t yet know it, that there is hope!”
Grandma Pennino has written to television’s Ellen DeGeneres, hoping to see Gia dancing with Ellen on her show.
In the meantime, Gia and family draw hope from watching a YouTube video, performed to Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger by patients and staff on the hematology/oncology floor at Seattle Children’s Hospital (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihGCj5mfCk8).
Gia even knows some of the words.
After all, it has been her journey for so long.
Friends have set up a Gia Smith Benevolent Fund at FirstMerit Bank to help with the reality of living with cancer and anything it takes to make her Stronger.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.