Grayson Gilbert — O's and Ravens fan, blacktop basketball player, honors high school graduate, college guy — exudes the kind of health anyone might envy, in or out of a hospital.

"I think I've always had a one-day-at-a-time attitude, and that's really helped, what with my [illness]," he says.

Even at 6, when things were worst, he remembers having a certainty he would be well again, as though he were sidelined with a cold or the flu and just waiting for it to pass. But as he grew older, he learned to build optimism and fortify the positive as though he were lifting weights.

It was work, and he had help.

Take those 12 months he spent at Hopkins after his Whipple's. With grudging permission from doctors, Steve often drove Grayson to Towson to play baseball in his beloved rec league. One day "the kid with cancer" clubbed a pitch over the outfielders' heads and, rounding the bases, ran out of steam at third. Players from both teams carried him across the plate, and weeping parents gave him an ovation. "You have to have positives to focus on," he says with a smile.

In the early days, family members took to walking him round and round the ward — a ritual he turned into an art form during countless hospital stays over the years. First he did eight laps in honor of Cal Ripken's uniform number. In later visits, for other maladies, he did 52 for Ray Lewis, then worked up to 86 for Todd Heap. "Stay active and focus on the next good thing. If they tell you, 'do this, and you're closer to going home,' do it," he says.

As time passed, he shared what he'd learned with others. A year ago, hospitalized after a major bleeding incident, he was on one of his walks around the ward when he met Jamahn Lee, a leukemia patient.

Grayson shared his medical past, engaged Jamahn in sports talk, told him all he'd conquered. "Having leukemia is no fun, but what he's been through has been so much worse," says Jamahn, now 16 and in remission. "He seems not to worry about it. When he says, 'push through, it's going to get better,' you're not going to argue."

Kirschbaum's photo didn't hurt. When it ran in The Sun, editors were flooded with emotional letters. Strangers contacted the Gilberts to offer encouragement. Representatives of the Children's Miracle Network — the international organization that raises funds for sick children — contacted Grayson.

Before that year was up, the nonprofit named him its Maryland ambassador. They flew the Gilberts to Florida, where they stayed at Disney World, met celebrities and spoke with others in their situation. The kid with cancer had another new lease on life.

Six figures

A copy of the photo stands on a shelf in the Gilberts' living room, a constant reminder that even in the midst of disaster, there's hope.

Steve lost his job in an industry cutback two years ago. The family, now on food stamps and public utility assistance, is at risk of losing their home.

"Every dime we've ever made, we've put back into [Grayson's] medical care," he says, estimating their total out-of-pocket costs at well into the six figures by now.

If he earns more than $2,300 in a given month, Gilbert says, the family could lose what health insurance Baltimore County Social Services provides.

Grayson's parents are lifetime Christian believers, regular attendees at Grace Methodist Church on Northern Parkway, but they still find themselves wondering, at times, whether it's true that things happen for a reason. Then they look at their son.

After Florida, he got it into his head to raise money for cancer research to "help the other kids." He started making drawings. They came to the attention of officials at Jos. A. Bank, who put them on a line of neckties. Over the last decade, Grayson and other patients from Johns Hopkins Children's Center have designed "Miracle Ties" that have raised tens of thousands for the Children's Miracle Network.

RE/MAX American Dream, a local affiliate of the real estate firm, also came calling. A decade back, company reps wanting to back the Miracle Network asked Hopkins to recommend a spokesman. When the hospital suggested Grayson, it stirred something in Kathy Nosek, a company official.

She well remembered the Kirschbaum photo and had always wondered what became of the boy in it. "When we met Grayson, he was a frail little thing, but he has the heart of a lion," she says. He has attended eight straight charity golf events for the company, helping drum up nearly $200,000 for the Network, and two years ago spoke to a thousand people at the national RE/MAX convention in Las Vegas.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," says Nosek, adding that Grayson refused to cancel even though he was so sick he could barely leave his hotel room. The weekend netted $350,000.

"All the pain this guy has been through? Grayson is my hero," his father says. "I look at him and think, 'if he can keep going, so can I."

Celebration

Grayson Gilbert still faces an uncertain medical future. The varices could flare up, as could many of his prior conditions if he doesn't stay on top of them.

Dy says his condition is stable, that no road map exists but that Grayson should live a long life. "No doubt," agrees the patient, who aims for a career in public relations or films someday.

And the statue? Grayson isn't ready to ascribe it magical powers, exactly, but it was always an inspiration, in a way.

Long ago, probably during his first stay at the hospital, Grayson remembers seeing a doc in his surgical greens jumping up to give it a high-five. "I thought that was cool," he says. "I thought, 'I'll do that someday.' But it was way too high to reach."

One day a year ago, about to return home after one more hospital stay, he made the jump himself. His palm met one of the Divine Healer's. He hasn't been back since.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com