A Second Chance at Life
As a 16-year-old, Giselle Gomez was always on the go. A junior at her Chicago high school, she took AP and Honors courses, was captain of the soccer team and even had a job. With her eyes on college, the next task on her list was taking the SAT. But the day she showed up to take the test, the young woman who was typically full of energy suddenly had none.
“That day I didn’t feel like I was in my body,” Giselle recalls. “I wasn’t myself.”
A visit to the nurse’s office turned into a trip to the clinic, where her mother, Luz Gomez, worked. There, she took a hemoglobin test. The results revealed a serious problem.
Rushed to the nearby emergency room, Giselle was experiencing migraines and had trouble breathing. With her condition quickly deteriorating, doctors in her hometown hospital had to move fast. She underwent two blood transfusions, as her platelet count dropped to nearly zero.
“She couldn't sleep because her lungs were filled with water,” says Luz, describing her daughter’s night in the intensive care unit. “I was worried she was going to have a heart attack.”
Giselle’s condition eventually stabilized, but her recovery had only just begun. Soon after, doctors identified the culprit of her troubling symptoms: Giselle had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Chemotherapy would begin immediately.
Her first round of chemo was unsuccessful, and a bad reaction to her second treatment nearly killed her. During that time, there were many rough nights.
“The first time I saw her breaking down really bad, she woke up and had a really bad anxiety attack and asked, ‘Mom, am I gonna make it?’” Luz says.
Next, they tried immunotherapy, which seemed to work. But Giselle was not yet in the clear, doctors cautioned. Unfortunately, based on her reaction to treatment, they said, there was a strong likelihood that her cancer would return. They recommended a bone marrow transplant, which marked the beginning of a journey that would take her 90 miles north to the MACC Fund Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Wisconsin and into the care of specialists from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW).
Luz remembers doctors asking her if she was willing to take her daughter to Milwaukee for treatment.
“If you send me to Washington, I’ll go there,” she remembers responding. “Just send me to the right place.”
Affiliated with the National Bone Transplant Registry and Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin, MCW and Children’s were definitely the right place.
MCW is one of the leading centers worldwide for research on blood and marrow transplantation, as well as home to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research (CIBMTR).
There, Giselle would have access to state-of-the-art care and sophisticated and innovative treatments that are a trademark of specialists at MCW and their academic medical center partners. Enhancing the delivery of new treatments is powerful philanthropic support from the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer (MACC). For more than 40 years, the MACC Fund Research Center at MCW has accelerated the discovery of new tools and new ways of healing for patients and families facing pediatric cancer and blood disorders.
Things moved quickly for Giselle, and two weeks after her initial visit with oncologists and other specialists in Milwaukee, her mother received a life-changing call.
“Ten out of 10,” says Luz, recalling a call notifying her that a donor had been found. “[They] told us it was a perfect match.”
Admitted to the hospital the week before Thanksgiving 2018, Giselle and her family would spend that holiday at the Ronald McDonald housing eating cheeseburgers instead of turkey. A few days later on November 29, Giselle underwent a bone marrow transplant led by Julie-An Talano, MD, professor of pediatrics at MCW.
“It was the opportunity for Giselle to live again,” Luz says.
A week before Christmas, Giselle went home.
“Her counts were good, she looked good, she was happy,” recalls her mother.
There have been challenges since then. Trips from Chicago to Milwaukee every other day for treatment, brief stays at the hospital, and other hard times. But there have been many highlights as well. Giselle’s soccer and school community held fundraisers and other events on her behalf. She was named queen at homecoming and manager of her school’s soccer team. She was also able to build friendships with the many doctors and nurses who supported her at Children’s Wisconsin and an affinity for the city she now calls her second home.
“I can now say that Milwaukee is my home away from home and has a soft spot in my heart,” Giselle says. “It’s good to have that support in the back of my head and to have been able to build friendships with people there.”
In March, Giselle graduated from high school with her class and had the opportunity to meet her bone marrow donor. Through Make-A-Wish, she was offered a dream trip to Spain, though that vacation is on hold for now due to the pandemic.
Having moved on now to the next chapter in her life by enrolling in community college, Giselle says she is eager to shake her notoriety of being what she calls “the cancer girl.” Although she is anxious to move on, she does recognize that her story of survival could serve as inspiration to others and that her experience will always be a part of who she is.
She is also extremely thankful for the fresh start she was given.
“What I went through made me realize that life isn’t promised,” she says. “You have to really live every day.”