By Ed Morrone
When Mary Mancino and her husband of 27 years, Larry, were accepted to stay at Nick’s House Swarthmore during Larry’s treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, it was always assumed the two would be living there together.
However, like life in general, cancer is in the business of throwing curveballs. In this case, complications with Larry’s treatment kept him in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) for almost two months, instead of the initially anticipated seven to 10 days.
This development meant that after visiting Larry at HUP each day, Mary would be returning to Nick’s House alone.
“Nothing has gone as planned,” she said. “Everything has been topsy-turvy since we got here.”
Larry Mancino was initially diagnosed with lymphoma in 2010, and following chemotherapy and radiation, life went on. Then, in 2016, the same form of the disease returned; Larry had a bone marrow transplant and was starting to feel like himself again until a routine scan in Sept. 2017 revealed another relapse. After having been treated near their home of Bethlehem, Pa., oncologists suggested the Mancino’s head to HUP for CAR T-cell therapy, in which patients are treated with a modified version of their own T cells that are specially engineered to attack the cancer cells “in a Pac-Man effect,” according to Mary.
Larry was admitted to HUP on June 7 and got his cells on the 12th; after that, “a storm hit him, and hit him hard.” So instead of going from HUP to Nick’s House for 30 days and then back to the Lehigh Valley for rehab, the Mancino’s were plunged into a sea of uncertainty.
According to Mary, the homey, welcoming feeling of Nick’s House, as well as other guest families going through their own cancer journeys, is what got her through the most difficult times.
“Just the personal touch of being here, it feels like a home and not a hotel,” Mary said. “Being here alone, it gave me that warm feeling. Coming home from the hospital every day, I knew there would be people sitting at the kitchen island to embrace me and ask me how my day was. Not a text message or a phone call, but real human touch. There’s no comparison to be able to live in this type of environment; seven or eight weeks later, for me it goes beyond the house: this has become my community.”
Mary recalled a Saturday dry run at Nick’s House before Larry was admitted to HUP, and instantly felt a bond with the other guests. One family immediately greeted her on the porch with an offer of a cup of coffee or tea, and another has a son being treated at HUP for the same form of cancer that Larry has.
“I knew immediately that it was going to be OK, because there was a closeness and common bond,” Mary said. “That bond brings people together in a spiritual way. I have real people here to support me, and I can give it right back. I wouldn’t have had that experience if not for Nick’s House. When your spouse of 27 years is unresponsive and hooked up to all that machinery, there was always someone to welcome me home and give me emotional support. I needed that. It gave me the renewed spirit to carry on.
“I was in a fog in those initial ICU days, a disbelief, and everyone here carried me. It was a ‘we’re in this together, us thing,’ the human touch and care.”
Not only did the families lift Mary up, but so too did those at the HEADstrong Foundation. She knew right away Nick’s House was the place for she and Larry. Mary’s late father was named Nick, like HEADstrong’s founder; Nick Colleluori and Larry had the same kind of lymphoma, and one of Larry’s grandsons is a lacrosse player, just like Nick.
“I said ‘Larry, we have to stay here,’” Mary said. “There was an instant connection. The first time I met Cheryl, she gave me the biggest hug when I didn’t even know this woman. She embraced me, and it was a bright spot amongst the curveballs.
“The foundation is a blessing. Just the caring … it will always have a place in my heart. They have hearts of gold, and you can tell it’s their life. It’s a love that carries on, and this house … they’ve turned this gem into a true jewel. I have such a great respect for them, and always will.”
The good news is that Mary has since moved out of Nick’s House with hopes of Larry entering rehab as soon as he is strong enough; however, part of her will always wish her husband got to experience what she did at Nick’s House.
“I wanted so much for him to be in this healing environment, even if just for a minuscule minute,” she said. “I wanted him to live it, so he would know this is what got me through. Nick’s House and the people, it was all one big, warm hug, a place with a solid structure that can get you through a really rocky time.”
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.