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Gabe Angus and THON Express

This is the story of Gabe Angus and his family, the people behind THON Express. I hope you find it as inspirational as we do. 

All too often in our day to day lives we like to think of ourselves in control.  We plan our every moment and convince ourselves that we are not prone to harm.  This is folly of course.  We all eventually succumb to some kind of mishap or misfortune.  For most of us these mishaps are minor blips on the screen of life.  Yet for others the misfortune is deeper.  It is life changing.  It runs deep, all the way to the soul of our being.

One of those misfortunes has happened to us, and this is our story.  On a beautiful fall day we traveled to Penn State in State College to watch the Lady Lion field hockey team play.  My lovely bride, Connie used to be the goalie for the Lady Lions.  Our son Gabriel and our two daughters Veronica and Sydney were with us.  Gabe was four years old, Veronica was two and Sydney was a newborn.  It was a good game, and honestly I cannot recall who won, but I do remember that Gabe was so weak that I carried him all day.

He had been complaining about his legs feeling tired all summer and it seemed like his energy level had been dropping with each passing day.  Connie and I agreed to have him checked out the next day.  We went and had him checked out and they took his blood.  In the middle of the night the phone rang.  Those calls in the middle of the night are never good.  Gabe’s pediatrician told us we needed to get Gabe to Hershey Medical the very first thing the next morning.  Needless to say, we didn’t sleep very much that night.

We arrived at Hershey Medical the next morning.  They took his blood.  I remember it slowly filling up the vial.  It wasn’t the normal deep dark red that I was used to seeing.  It was more like cherry Kool-aid.  You could see right through it.  I knew in my gut that there was bad news coming our way.  At about five P.M. we got the news. Leukemia.  Connie almost fainted.  I grabbed her and took her to the hallway.  I asked her not to cry, and to remain strong for Gabe.  We both gathered ourselves and went back into the clinic room. 

Gabe was admitted that night to the 7th floor.  I spent the night with Gabe, and Connie drove home to our girls who were with their godparents.  The emotions were fast and overwhelming.  Was my son going to die?  Will this be my last night with him?  Am I going to be talking to him over a gravestone?  How are we going to pay for all of this?  Is our medical coverage going to cover part or all of his treatments?  What are his chances?  The list goes on and on.  All the while, I am worried for my wife, my daughters and our future.  In twenty four hours, everything that we thought was important was no longer relevant.  The only thing in that moment was the life of our son Gabriel.  Late that night after Gabe had fallen to sleep, I drifted off despite the beeping monitors and the worry that this may be the last day with my son.

The next day brought a new set of worries.  We didn’t know what kind of leukemia Gabe had.  There were two choices, AML and ALL.  Trust me, this isn’t a choice anyone should have to make.  Fortunately, for Gabe and us it was ALL.  His chances for survival were much better with ALL as apposed to AML.  This was as good a news as we could get, but the next news would change our lives forever.

A case worker by the name of Greg, who worked for the Four Diamonds Fund, told us that we would not pay a dime for Gabe’s treatment and that the FDF would pay for all expenses above and beyond what our insurance wouldn’t cover.  We had no clue what the FDF was, but what a relief it was to know that we could just concentrate on getting our son better and not worry about medical bills.  Most people would say this is the end of the story.  No.  It was just the beginning.

Gabe started his treatments.  At first because of his blood transfusions, he actually seemed better, but over the next thirty days his downward progression was steady if not frightening.  His hair came out in clumps on his pillow, and he refused to let us cut it.  His skin color became a sickly white, and his muscles slowly waned away.  He looked malnourished.  His preschool teacher came over to see him.  He was asleep.  When she saw him, she burst into tears and could not control her sorrow.  This was a common experience for us.  Someone would come over to help us, with meals, or help watch the girls, and when they saw him they would cry and we would console them.  Some would say that they were selfish, but we know better.  We knew why they cried.  Even though it was not their son or daughter, it could be.  The reality was too close to home, such sorrow.

One morning while I was in my office Gabe walked by and fell to the floor.  I had thought he tripped on something, but by the end of the day he could no longer walk.  The chemo had done him in.  It was quite awhile until he walked again.  I had to carry him everywhere including the potty where I had to hold him or he would fall off like a sack of potatoes.  Through all of this we tried to remain upbeat and positive.

Near the end of his first thirty days, Gabe became so weak that we had to feed him.  Wherever we put him, he remained, like a lump of clay.  There was no laughter at this point.  The only one that could even get a smile out of Gabe was little Sydney.  She would crawl up and tease him until he would laugh.  This was the hardest time for me.  To this day, I cannot recall those days without tearing up.  I don’t see this ever changing.

Gradually, over time Gabe got better.  Sydney and Gabe learned to crawl and then walk together.  I started Gabe with a walker that the FDF had paid for.  I would make him walk to the potty.  The first day I did all of the work, but each day he got stronger and over several week’s time, he no longer needed the walker.  After that we taught him how to go up stairs.

In the spring we got a strange phone call.  “Hello my name is Travis Hoffman and I am with the Student Red Cross club.  We are your Penn State Student organization.”  We didn’t understand at the time what that meant.  We did not know that each Four Diamonds family is adopted by a student organization and really becomes a family.  We did not know, that this group of kids from 100 miles away was going to change our life forever.  “Mrs. Angus what can we do to help?”  We were speechless.  Here was a total stranger offering to help us when quite frankly others were afraid to get near us.  We heard someone say once that having cancer is like being a leper.  Everyone knows it exists, but want you to stay in your cancer colony, as if they might catch it.  I suggested that several students come to our house to play with the kids.

About five students made the trip.  We went outside and played and played.  When Gabe got too tired to be on his feet, they carried him.  We laughed.  We laughed more in that one day than we had in the 6 months prior.  That day started a tradition of sorts.  Now, during several times a year we have the Student Red Cross kids down.  We make the now world famous Angus burgers and spend at least one weekend a year helping them raise money for the FDF.  They are our family now.  Imagine having all of your medical bills being paid for and gaining a huge family to boot.  Wow!

Gabe is nine years old now and is doing well.  In his second year of treatment while in training for a marathon in his honor, my wife and I came up with a crazy idea of running from Hershey Medical Center to Penn State’s annual THON dance which is where a lot of the funding for the FDF comes from.  We wanted desperately to give back, for saving our son’s life, for giving us hope, for giving us a family when we needed it the most. 

That crazy idea is now entering it’s fourth year.  It is called THON EXPRESS.  Fifteen runners carry letters of thanks from four diamonds families to the dancers at the 46 hour no sitting dance marathon in State College held every year in Feb.  The letters are put in a backpack and relayed the 135 miles nonstop through the winter night.  Each runner completes three 3 mile legs and the team runs together the last mile to the Bryce Jordan Center where they enter onto the stage to greet the dancers.  Our fundraising efforts have been modest, but our goal has been to raise awareness in the communities in which we run while trying to raise money for the FDF.

There is much to the Four Diamonds Fund which we could tell you.  Let us just say that there is almost nothing we wouldn’t do to pay it forward. 


135 miles in 24 hours FTK

Hank, Connie, Gabe, Veronica and Sydney Angus

Filed under Family Family Friday Family of the Week THON Express