Towson cancer survivor to be honored for inspiring fellow cancer victims

For the Towson Times
Gilbert's journey started when he was a very sick 5-year-old boy whose spirit remained strong.

As he approaches his 26th birthday, Grayson Gilbert has faced more medical problems than most people who are two, or even three, times his age.

Yet the Towson resident's penchant for striving to make the most of every moment has served him well and contributed to a sunny disposition.

Because of what he has been through, and whom he has helped during his journey, Gilbert will be presented with the Children's Hope Medal of Honor by the World Health Foundation at a ceremony on Sunday, Dec. 13 at Grace Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St., at 11 a.m.

The honor is bestowed on those who, "whether it is lending a shoulder to lean on, standing up for the underdog, finding an 'angel' to fund a transplant, or making a child's dream come true," do "whatever it takes to keep hope alive for both the child and their parents," according to the organization's statement about the award sent to Gilbert. "Heroes are committed to creating happy lives for children, so that every child can grow up healthy and loved, while living each day with pride and dignity."

Gilbert's journey started when he was a very sick 5-year-old boy whose spirit remained strong.

That's when his battle against pancreatic cancer, which is as legendary as it is lengthy, began.

After his mother discovered an unusual rigidity to his stomach that turned out to be a bulging grapefruit-sized tumor called a pancreatoblastoma, Gilbert was the first pediatric patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital to have his gallbladder, half his stomach and 80 percent of his pancreas removed in what is known as "Whipple" surgery.

Through the ensuing decades, many operations, procedures, blood transfusions and chemotherapy followed the youngster, who still managed to be a shining example of someone with a fierce will to live — for himself and others — through all of the agony and uncertainty.

Despite dealing with his own health problems, the Towson High and Towson University alumnus is a beacon of optimism to those around him.

Among his other initiatives, Gilbert founded the Inspirational Medical Foundation, a social media support system for sick kids.

"I always had my family there for me when I was sick," said Gilbert, referring to his parents, Jodie and Steve, and his brothers, Wesley and Harrison. "Some of the other kids in the hospital didn't have anyone visiting. Social media can provide that for people who don't have much support."

From his earliest stay in a hospital, Gilbert sought out fellow pediatric patients to spread his message of hope.

"He can change the environment in a patient's room in a matter of minutes," Steve said about his son's effervescent personality. "He'd bring them bubble gum and make sure the kids would interact with each other, and then they'd feel a lot better about themselves."

His own prognosis was bleak, yet an undying faith in himself and others never wavered.

Captured in an iconic photo by Baltimore Sun photographer Jed Kirschbaum, Gilbert's uplifting spirit was on display for the Mother's Day edition of the paper in 1996.

The image shows the youngster, hat in hand, clothed in sweatpants and an orange Towson rec baseball T-shirt, raptly studying the massive 6-ton sculpture of Jesus "Christus Consolator" ("Christ the Divine Healer"). The sculpture has stood in what is now known as the Billings Building in the original Johns Hopkins Hospital since its dedication a century earlier.

A few months after the photo was taken, Gilbert left a note at the sculpture's feet, that read, "Dear Jesus. This is Grayson. If you could, just heal the other kids please. Thank you very much."

While he often prayed for others, some dedicated physicians at John Hopkins Hospital have done a pretty good job of bringing what some might call divine intervention his way.

One in particular, Dr. Walter Pegoli, now the chief of pediatric surgery at Golisano Children's Hospital and professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, is credited for saving Gilbert's life.

His Whipple surgery had to be done in stages after Pegoli discovered that a major blood vessel called the portal vein had been invaded by the tumor.

"His clinical condition would not allow us to continue," Pegoli said. "We were not optimistic. After we monitored him overnight, we decided to operate again to see if we could salvage the vessel. That's when we found out some collateral vessels were starting to work. Usually, those vessels aren't big enough to carry blood like that, but his did. I had never seen anything like that before. Most people with that condition develop portal hypertension and don't survive."

Asked if he would call the event a miracle, Pegoli said that "you can call it anything you like. I just find it remarkable."

Gilbert and Pegoli had an emotional reunion last year in Rochester.

"After what he's dealt with through the years, a lot of people would have given up," the surgeon said. "It has a lot to do with his outlook. He's just the greatest kid on the planet."

Gilbert said that he had not seen the physician for more than 18 years.

"He was just so happy to see me spreading my wings," Gilbert said about the reunion that included Pegoli's wife and family, and Gilbert's girlfriend, Sarah Becker. "And it was so nice to catch up with the person who saved my life."

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