Families affected by cancer spend 'Sundays at the Park' with Orioles

Jonathan Gitelman was a family man who loved baseball, especially the Baltimore Orioles.

In 2010, the Clarksville resident was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia – a rare form of cancer in the blood and bone marrow; however, Gitelman’s father, Joseph, said it never impacted his son’s love of family or the sport.

Jonathan Gitelman lost his cancer battle at age 46 in February 2016. He is survived by his wife, Amy, and two children, Lucas, 16, and Hannah, 14.

“He was a tremendous Orioles fan,” said Joseph Gitelman, 77, of Columbia. “He really liked baseball because, from a young age, my grandson played baseball and Jonathan coached the team.”

To honor his son’s memory, Joseph Gitelman said he started a program through the Champions Against Cancer charity organization, called Sundays at the Park, to give young children and their families, who are battling cancer, a worry-free day at Camden Yards. The application process for Sundays at the Park requires families to share how cancer has affected them, brief references from non-family members, contact information and three choices for a ballgame date.

Champions Against Cancer provides support to children, ages 21 and under, who have a parent or guardian who’s been affected by cancer. Wrapping up its first year on Sunday, Sept. 24, Sundays at the Park offers families field box tickets for seats behind the Orioles dugout and $10 food and drink vouchers for each person.

The organization partnered with the Baltimore Orioles to have family pictures taken on the field before the game and give children ages 14 and under the chance to run the bases after the game.

Amy Champion, president of Champions Against Cancer, said Jonathan Gitelman, who was a senior financial analyst at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, was a strong supporter of the organization before his death.

Champions Against Cancer was established in February 2015 by co-founders Doug Silverstein and Tim Finkelston in memory of Champion’s husband, John, who died at age 46 after a 10-month battle with lymphoma. The organization not only provides emotional support to children who have or had a parent with cancer, Champion said, but also awards scholarships to high school seniors and takes families to and from hospital visits.

“My children and I know exactly what it’s like to go through that,” Champion said. “It really hit home that [Sundays at the Park would be such a great way for families to get away from it all, drive up to Baltimore, sit in the stands, eat a hot dog and have some quality family time that doesn’t have anything to do with cancer, chemo, radiation or anything like that.”

Greg Bader, the Baltimore Oriole’s vice president of communications and marketing, said they work closely with organizations supporting childhood cancer research and helping families affected by cancer, including Casey Cares, the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, the Cool Kids Campaign, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Champions Against Cancer.

They also work with Major League Baseball in recognizing Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month throughout September.

“Whether it is hosting pediatric cancer patients for a special visit at the ballpark or having one of our players visit children and their families at the hospital, we are always looking for ways to brighten the lives of pediatric cancer patients and their family members,” Bader said.

Gitelman pitched the idea to Champion, Silverstein and the rest of the board of directors in October 2016, and it was approved shortly after Jonathan Gitelman’s death.

“From the get-go, we thought it was a terrific idea,” Silverstein said. “This came from his own experiences with Jonathan and what Jonathan and his kids valued with that time together. It’s a program that I hope will continue next year.”

Family support

His son was not alone during his five-year cancer battle, Gitelman said. As the aggressive leukemia began taking its toll, the family met with his doctors at the Sydney Kimmel Comprehensive Center of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and learned the best form of treatment was a bone marrow transplant. Doctors used bone marrow from Jonathan Gitelman’s mother, Margaret Gitelman, for the transplant in 2011.

“The bone marrow killed the cancer, but it didn’t take, so he needed to get a stem cell transplant,” Joseph Gitelman said. “He went back to work and he was fairly functional for three years.”

When the cancer returned, Gitelman said the doctors diagnosed his son with a different form of cancer, donor cell leukemia. Jonathan Gitelman’s treatment proceeded with chemotherapy and another bone marrow transplant in 2015.

“It took, but then there were all kinds of complications,” Gitelman said. “[Jonathan] was in the hospital for about two months straight and slowly went down hill. There’s only so much chemo that the body can take.”

 

Joseph Gitelman purchased a $3,250 package for four field box seats to 13 Sunday games this season, and he donated two of the tickets to six games. Champions Again Cancer then bought an additional two tickets to the same 13 games — about $1,625 — and included parking, so families could attend a Sunday ballgame together.

The Baltimore Orioles also gave families souvenir baseball hats. Four tickets were awarded to families for six games, Gitelman said, and two tickets were awarded to families for seven games.

Columbia resident David Scheerer, 50, said his daughter, Emily Brown, heard about the program through an employee group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where she works as a cyber security engineer. Scheerer previously worked at APL — most recently for technology development for special operations — before going on long-term disability.

He said he was diagnosed in November 2013 with soft tissue sarcoma, a cancer that affects bone or muscle tissue.

“It was quite a shock initially,” Scheerer said. “I had fallen while hiking and came down on a rock. I thought, ‘Oh, I have a sore spot and the blood didn’t get absorbed.’ I had done different things, like physical therapy, and eventually doctors were going to try to break up what we all thought was a pool of blood.”

Instead, lab results found a tumor in his left hip, he said. Scheerer continues treatment, including chemotherapy, surgeries to remove tumorous sections and radiation as well as clinical trials at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute.

Scheerer said he was given a 12- to 18-month prognosis to live at one point during his battle, but he’s beat the odds despite “tremendous uncertainty.”

“Was I going to be at my daughter’s high school graduation? You’re back and forth and in and out of the hospital for treatments and appointments,” he said. “It disrupts schedules.”

Scheerer and his wife, Joanna, have nine children; two have graduated college, two are in college, two in high school and three are home schooled. He said Brown, his eldest daughter, encouraged him to apply to Sundays at the Park to take her younger siblings to an Orioles game.

Since the Scheerer family has children between ages 8 to 25, Gitelman said, they were awarded four tickets to two Orioles games in May and September.

“This is one of the things that I think is so beautiful,” Scheerer said. “The program takes care of you so well [and] they’re lovely tickets and great seats. It’s a first-class experience. Sundays at the Park is absolutely wonderful and fantastic.”

“It was fun,” added Isabel Scheerer, 8, the youngest Scheerer who attended the ballgame on Sept. 3. “We got tons of yummy food. We got candy, nachos, crab fries and soda.”

Fulton resident Peter Mattejat, 55, said his family was also awarded tickets for Sundays at the Park in August. Mattejat said he knew Jonathan Gitelman, who coached one of Mattejat’s children in baseball.

Mattejat said his wife, Laura, died in 2014 after a one-year battle with lung cancer.

“With stage five cancer, your back is pretty much up against the wall, so we talked about how my sons and I recovered and moved forward” in the application, he said. “Joe helped create this opportunity in memory of Jonathan as well as to help people with families who are struggling with cancer, whether they are going to treatments now or dealing with the aftermath. My son is a baseball junkie, so we were very happy to get the tickets. It’s important that we have these Sundays at the Park to at least be positive.”

Joseph Gitelman said the success of Sundays at the Park is “moving” and all families who applied were “deserving and very appreciative.”

“It’s a nice way to keep Jonathan’s memory alive,” Gitelman said. “It helps people and gives them a time out to enjoy the game. I just think it is a good thing. It turned out really well.”

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