Twelve-year-old John K. is one of those kids who is wise beyond his years. “We’ve been able to have adult conversations with him since he was 5,” says his mom, Gayle. And in a dozen years he’s faced some grown-up problems, including a broken elbow and a head laceration that required 100 stitches.
So, when he started feeling pain in his left leg in late 2020, it caused concern. “It felt like something was constantly hitting it,” John says. To learn the cause, his family turned to pediatric orthopedic surgeon Joshua Strassberg, MD, with Atlantic Health System. He delivered unexpected and troubling news: the pain was likely due to a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma.
“I tried my hardest to keep it together for John,” Gayle says. “But as soon as I got to the car, I cried the entire way home. We both did.”
Thankfully, John soon had a whole team on his side. Dr. Strassberg connected him with orthopedic oncologist James Wittig, MD, and pediatric hematologist-oncologist Stephen Halpern, MD, both with Goryeb Children’s Hospital. They saw John and his parents the next morning. “Knowing that the doctors took the time to squeeze us in and see us right away meant a lot,” Gayle says.
Dr. Wittig immediately put John’s left leg in an immobilizing brace to help limit damage from the mass growing on his femur. To save his leg, Dr. Wittig would perform limb-sparing surgery, while Dr. Halpern would lead chemotherapy treatments before and after surgery to try and limit the spread of John’s cancer, a Stage IIIB osteosarcoma that had metastasized to his lung.
“I probably asked 9,000 questions, and Dr. Wittig answered them all. We never felt rushed,” Gayle says. “And he spoke to John, not over him. He made sure we understood everything well.”
On March 4, 2021, after John had completed 11 weeks of chemotherapy, Dr. Wittig performed complex surgery on John’s left leg. He removed the cancerous mass and rebuilt John’s left femur using bone from his fibula, donor bone, metal rods and screws.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Wittig,” Gayle says, “John wouldn’t have his leg right now.”
John spent 10 days recovering in the Joan and Edward Foley Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Goryeb Children’s Hospital. The unit’s nurses and certified child life specialists—professionals who help children adjust to life in the hospital—helped him keep his spirits up.
“My nurses were fun and nice to talk to,” John says. “The child life specialists—I became good friends with them. They played card games like Monopoly Deal with me, and we’d play pranks on the other child life specialists.”
“The nurses were just unbelievable,” adds Gayle. “Almost all of them developed a one-on-one relationship with Johnny. They even gave me their personal phone numbers to call if my husband and I had questions or needed any clarification after they left Johnny’s room.”
By the end of March 2021, John was back home. While the surgery had removed all of the cancer in his leg, the three nodules in his lungs remained. He continued chemotherapy through early August and started intense physical therapy (PT) three times a week. By early September, he could take off his immobilizing brace and start putting 30% weight on his left leg during supervised PT sessions.
While John isn’t yet ready to return to playing youth football—he’ll likely need a couple years of recovery first—he’s feeling much better and starting seventh grade at East Hanover Middle School. He and his family are grateful for the care they received at Goryeb Children’s Hospital.
“Living with cancer is like living a nightmare,” Gayle says. “But we learned there are people out there who would give you the shirts off their backs and love their jobs. The support of our family, friends, our community and the team at Goryeb, they helped restore our faith in humanity.”
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