On Feb. 19, Gemma Geary was enjoying sleigh riding with her niece, nephew and grandchildren.
Later that day, her world changed forever.
“I got home later, and my arm just went numb,” Gemma recalled. “I went to the hospital for a scan, and I was told they found a mass; I’m not a radiologist, but I could see it wasn’t good. It was a very aggressive form of brain cancer.”
Gemma was diagnosed with glioblastoma, indeed a very aggressive — and also the most common — form of brain cancer. Gemma and her husband, Butch, hail from Pottsville, Pa., about two hours northwest of Philadelphia. Their first stop to determine the next step was in Hershey, about an hour from Pottsville; doctors there told Gemma that the tumor was inoperable, and that they would treat her but the prognosis was not good.
The Gearys sought a second opinion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where physicians were more bullish in attacking Gemma’s brain tumor.
“The doctor told us, ‘This is what we do here. We’re going to take this out and that’s it,’” Butch said.
Doctors performed a craniotomy on March 15, in which they accessed Gemma’s brain via the skull to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Her medical team had hoped to remove half of it, but, as it turns out, were able to eliminate 75 percent of the tumor from Gemma’s brain. Rehab followed surgery, which was then followed by six weeks of treatment.
Meanwhile, the Gearys had to find a place to stay while in Philadelphia for treatment and recovery they longed for an environment that felt more like home during their extended stay in an unfamiliar city.
Enter Nick’s House in Swarthmore.
The couple heard about the home’s complimentary lodging service through a social worker at Penn, and after a short and painless application process, moved in at the end of April.
“We couldn’t have been happier here,” Butch said after he and Gemma had moved out at the end of May. “It was like going home from the hospital every day. Until you go down this road, you have no idea what it’s like. Nick’s House made things so much more bearable. The best part for me was coming downstairs to get coffee and breakfast and speaking with the other patients and caregivers about their days and treatments. Just talking about everything … the stories over the weeks kept coming, and every time we talked we found more commonality in what we were going through.”
It has been a hellish couple of months for Butch and Gemma, who also suffered a stroke following the tumor removal that confined her to a wheelchair. That being said, Nick’s House was a tremendous aid in her recovery, especially the elevator and handheld shower.
“The bathroom alone made me feel like a queen,” she said. “So warm, welcoming and cozy. When we would go home for the weekend, coming back on Monday would be something I would look forward to. Some normalcy helps with quality of life, and that’s what I’ve had here. When I’d come down the elevator and see Nick’s picture hanging on the wall, I’d just thank him. A place like this restores your faith in humanity.”
The Gearys felt welcomed not only by fellow Nick’s House guests, but also the Colleluori family, namely Cheryl, HEADstrong’s president and Nick’s mom. When Butch told Cheryl the couple preferred to move in on a Sunday to be ready for treatment Monday morning, she made it happen.
“She’s made it so cozy and adaptable, and she did so much for us,” Gemma said. “The level of helpfulness made me feel like I had a concierge at my own personal home. We’re thankful that as bad as this experience has been, we’ve made lifelong friends. HEADstrong is never out of our thoughts and prayers, and had I not been diagnosed we wouldn’t have been here to experience this little gem.”
In the most trying period of their lives, Gemma and Butch Geary still were able to focus on the positive; they realize a positive attitude is key to recovery, and were cognizant of the role HEADstrong and Nick’s House played in keeping their spirits high.
“Every night we watch the news and hear about all these terrible things going on,” Gemma said. “My question is, why can’t we hear about more things like Nick’s House? It’s been the most positive experience, a bright light in the most difficult time of my life.
“My home sweet home.”
The HEADstrong Foundation™ is a 501(c)3 committed to improving lives affected by cancer, founded by the late Nicholas “HEAD” Colleluori. The non-profit organization plays a vital role as a direct resource to families overcome by the hardships of cancer. HEADstrong provides a variety of services, which range from financial assistance to funding capital projects to peer mentorship and, most notably, HEADstrong operates Nick’s House™, a guest family home providing more than 2,555 nights of complimentary lodging and support to families displaced in the pursuit of life-saving cancer treatment. Today, Nick’s vision is being fulfilled through the relentless efforts of his family, athletes and supporters across the country uniting in the fight against cancer. For more information on the HEADstrong Foundation and how to donate, host a fundraiser or volunteer, please visit www.HEADstrong.org.