Sam Szabo was a typical, happy, energetic, 7-year-old boy. He loved playing video games, like Mario Kart and Just Dance. He loved building with LEGOs and riding bikes with his brothers, Josh (11) and Ben (9). Sam was a Boy Scout and won "Coolest Car" at The Pinewood Derby. He and his friends played together in the local soccer, baseball, and basketball leagues. Sam's favorite activity was swimming. He loved splashing the day away at Coulby Pool with his brothers and cousins. It was a real treat when his parents took him to Great Wolf Lodge or Kalahari. Sam aspired to be a chef – he was always dreaming up new dishes in the kitchen. His latest creation was "The S-Dog," a hamburger in the shape of a hot dog.
On April 9, 2011, Sam's life changed forever. After repeated visits to his pediatrician for a cold and fever that just wouldn't go away, the doctor ordered a simple blood test to see if Sam had "mono." Sam's blood was drawn and he and his parents went home to wait for the results. One hour later, the doctor called to tell them that Sam had been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). He needed to go to the hospital immediately, as there was something drastically wrong with his white blood cell count. Within the hour, Sam was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital.
There a team of doctors prepared Sam for his first surgery; a special port (or "portacath") was placed in his chest to assist the doctors in performing leukapheresis. This procedure draws the blood out of the body and separates the blood cells, in essence "throwing out" the bad blood cells and returning the good blood cells to the body. Thus began Day 1 of chemotherapy.
THE NEW NORMAL
Following Sam's diagnosis, he spent three weeks in the hospital, with limited outside visitors due to his compromised immune system. However, during this time Sam met many new people: oncologists, nurses and nurse's aides, fellows, residents, psychologists, nutritionists, social workers, and child life specialists. They all worked to help Sam understand his new "normal" life:
- No school
- No sports
- No visitors
- A port
- Many different medicines everyday
- Hair loss
As the list of changes grew for Sam, his family also had to adjust to this new "normal;" they learned to take life one nano-second at a time.
Even while facing all of these extremely difficult challenges, Sam remained his usual self: upbeat, witty, fun, and always engaging those around him. In fact, the smiley face in the SSF logo was painted by Sam on his second day in the hospital.
After returning home, Sam began outpatient chemotherapy treatments three times a week at the Cleveland Clinic. His cancer was in remission and Sam was handling the whole process remarkably well.
Unfortunately, sometimes during the course of treatment Sam would develop a fever, and have to be admitted to the hospital. These stays lasted from a few days to a few weeks, and Child Life specialists helped Sam get through it all. These specialists played many different roles in Sam's journey through cancer. They explained procedures and medicines in a way an eight-year-old could understand. Their art specialist would drop by to paint or work with clay, which was Sam's favorite type of visit!
In fact, Sam was in the hospital for Easter and Mother's Day, and with the help of the art specialists, he was able to create wonderful gifts for his family. On July 20, 2011, Sam spent his 8th birthday in the hospital due to another fever. He was sad and devastated that he could not be at home, enjoying a huge party with his family and friends, but Sam's Child Life specialist saved the day with a visit and surprise gifts. Throughout their days and nights at the hospital there was one place Sam's family knew they could go to grab a snack, a bottle of water, or just a quiet place to stay that didn't cost an arm-and-a-leg. They could even take a shower or wash their clothes. This special place was the Ronald McDonald Room. On certain nights, organizations would supply a whole meal for any family with a child being treated in the Children's Hospital. When Sam could not be disturbed in his room, the Ronald McDonald Room was a safe, quiet place that his parents could bring their other sons.
Sam's journey through childhood cancer was the beginning of a vision to help children and families face this disease with strength, support and encouragement. In his memory, Sam's family started the Sam Szabo Foundation in 2012 to help find a cure for pediatric cancer, and to support children fighting cancer today.
Sam was handling his new life pretty well. He started 2nd grade at home with a tutor, who worked very closely with his school, Notre Dame Elementary School. With the help of modern technology, Sam was able to "FaceTime" with his classmates, say "hi," and share a few giggles. He was looking forward to participating in his First Communion and maybe even going back to school after spring break.
Sam had finally decided on his wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation: an inground pool in his backyard, with a diving board and a waterslide down from the second-story deck of his house.
On October 22, 2011, Sam lost his battle with cancer and passed away, trying to fight off an infection after coming down with a fever just the night before.