By Laura Kaae
Killeen Daily Herald
SAN ANTONIO – You may say many things about Patrick Mancuso, but he'll cut you off if you call him something he's not.
He's a die-hard New England Patriots fan (go, Tom Brady!).
He's a motivated defensive end for the Eastern Hills Middle School football team.
He's a hardworking 14-year-old who mowed enough lawns and walked plenty of dogs to pay for his own Xbox 360 game console last summer.
And he's the life of the party when he can get his nurses and medical technicians from the pediatric wing jamming to Rock Band with him into the wee hours of the morning.
He doesn't even mind when you say he's stubborn – he knows it's true.
But don't dare call Patrick a sick kid.
"People who are sick have a fever or a cold," Patrick says firmly.
"I'm not sick. I have leukemia. I just had one little cell who had too many babies."
Until a few months ago, Patrick was one of the healthiest kids his mom, Simone Mancuso, has ever known.
"He was always a healthy child," she said. "He never got sick, not even a broken bone. The worst thing he ever had was strep throat."
But last November, Patrick's glands began swelling. He also started experiencing pain in his shoulders, hips and knees.
Trips back and forth to Darnall Army Medical Center on Fort Hood became a weekly occurrence.
Growing pains, the doctors thought. Inflammation from a football injury maybe.
But Patrick kept getting weaker and losing weight. In three weeks, he lost 18 pounds.
On Dec. 4, during another hospital visit, doctors took a few blood tests before sending the family back home.
"We were just about home when we got a phone call telling us to come back to the hospital immediately," Simone recalls.
Within a few hours, Patrick would be transferred by ambulance to Wilford Hall Medical Center on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The 14-year-old who had never before so much as broken a bone suddenly had acute myeloid leukemia. Cancer.
It was news Simone said she could barely comprehend.
"It was overwhelming," she said. "I kept thinking they made a mistake.
"It hit me when he was (at Wilford Hall) in the ICU, the doors opened, and I saw him surrounded by eight or nine doctors and nurses, and I realized it was real."
Maj. Vinod Gidvani, the chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at Wilford Hall Medical Center, explained that acute myeloid leukemia is a rapidly progressing form of cancer that originates in the bone marrow.
Patrick was transferred to Wilford Hall so he could work with pediatric sub-specialists like Gidvani.
"One cell is malignant, and it overtakes the bone marrow," he said. "There are about 500 to 700 cases diagnosed in children per year."
Initially, Patrick was given chemotherapy, which Gidvani hoped would kill the malignant cells.
Since that December day, nothing has been the same for the Mancuso family.
Patrick has had to stay in the hospital most of the time since his diagnosis. Because he is at high risk for infection, he's not usually allowed to leave. Instead of hearing frequent trains wailing through Nolanville, Patrick now watches Air Force planes cruise past his room on the pediatric unit.
His days have changed from playing football and doing homework to having blood drawn and his vitals read by members of his medical care team.
The Xbox 360 he bought sits near the foot of his bed, under a giant television where he plays video games with his family or anyone else on the unit who will play with him.
The friends he used to see every day now send cards but rarely call. Patrick thinks they might be too scared and might not know what to say to him.
Despite the changes he's gone through, Patrick maintains he wasn't too fazed by the news of his leukemia.
"I just thought, 'Oh, great, here is something I need to deal with the next six to nine months,'" he said. "I just will deal with it and get through it."
Life for Patrick's parents has changed drastically, too. Both split their time between the hospital and their Nolanville home, their other son, Philipp, 12, as well as their full-time jobs.
Patrick's father, 1st Sgt. Michael Mancuso, Alpha Troop, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, will spend a few nights either in the hospital room with Patrick or at the hospital's Fisher House, a place on military bases where families can stay free of charge when a family member is being treated, while Simone stays home.
Then, the parents switch places. Michael will make the three-hour trip back to Nolanville to be with Philipp and go to work as Simone drives down to be with Patrick.
"The military has been so good about giving him enough time to be with Patrick," Simone said.
She also said her employer, Freedom Suzuki-Subaru in Temple, has been extremely understanding about giving her time off to be with her son.
Though the month of December was challenging, the Mancusos were hoping the chemotherapy would help. However, that wasn't the case.
"His body didn't respond to the initial round of chemotherapy," Gidvani said.
So, in January, Patrick began his second round.
Two weeks ago, the family learned that Patrick would need a bone marrow transplant. The way a transplant works, Gidvani explained, is old bone marrow is killed off by the chemotherapy, and the new bone marrow is given in its place during a transfusion. The new marrow then makes new, healthy cells for the person.
Frequently, a family member will have the same bone marrow type as the cancer patient. Because no one in Patrick's family is a direct match, the Mancusos are asking everyone in the community to get tested to see if they might be a match for Patrick.
The best-case scenario would be if Patrick finds a match within the next few weeks and has a transfusion about a month from now, Gidvani said Friday.
"No one will have the same bone marrow, but somebody out there has a match that's close enough," Gidvani said. "There is a good likelihood there is something out there for him. Somebody out there has it."
Patrick said he just hopes people will be able to take a few minutes to donate.
"If they are not a match for me, maybe they can help somebody else," he said. "It's bone marrow – it grows back."
As he waits for a donor, Patrick spends his days planning for the future.
He can't wait to play football again.
"I'm going to be the first NFL football player to have had AML as a child," he says matter-of-factly.
"This (leukemia) is just a fly on my back."
Contact Laura Kaae at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7464