Few things in this world cause greater heartbreak than watching a child facing an illness that would test even the resolve of grown men and women. Cancer is the worst offender. The mere word sends stabs of fear shooting into one’s heart. Treatments are often long and painful with no guarantee of success, and for children, long hospital stays can be hard to explain. Afflicted children and their families find themselves clinging to their faith in God and the aid of their religious communities to keep them strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Two young people within the Diocese of Providence have recently been fighting this battle against different forms of cancer. They are not alone, however. Parish and school communities have rallied around these youngsters, assisting them in their times of need.
For the Guzman family of St. Paul Parish in Cranston, three-and-a-half-year-old Elias’ (Eli) acute lymphoblastic leukemia manifested as a severe illness in December of 2021. Though Eli had gone into remission, the difficult-to-defeat disease re-emerged 10 months later. Over the last two years, Deacon Paul Shea, assigned to the parish, stated that he has “grown very close” to the family and that Eli’s parents, Jeffrey and Rosemary, “have tremendous faith; that’s what’s gotten them through it” – along with parish support.
“One thing we did here [at St. Paul] was host a bone marrow event. People came in for a swab to see if there was a match,” he said.
Another such event had been held in Warwick, but unfortunately, neither resulted in a match. Since Jeffrey and Rosemary both proved to be a 50% match, as close as doctors could find, his dad chose to give his own marrow for a transplant in mid-May. Prior to the transplant, the toddler underwent chemotherapy and three days each of brain radiation and full-body radiation at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Before the family headed to Boston for Eli’s treatment, the parish hosted adoration times specifically dedicated to praying for the Guzman family and recited a special rosary, evening prayers and Benediction on Eli’s behalf. Some parishioners also sent the family monetary donations, toys and other gifts. Additionally, many within the parish prayed to Blessed Carlo Acutis, a young Italian boy who also had leukemia, to intercede for him.
Deacon Shea described Eli as a “happy-go-lucky” child and recalled meeting him at age two.
“When he was first diagnosed, Jeff came into the rectory … he asked me to go pray over him.” Praying for the small, sedated child lying abed, he said, “was an amazing thing.”
Throughout the long days of waiting and praying in hospital rooms, Deacon Shea and Julia Bradley, director of faith formation at St. Paul, become bulwarks for the Guzman family. The two visited the Guzmans in the hospital and Deacon Shea frequently called Jeffrey to lend moral support. “I considered it part of my mission, making sure that they were ok.”
The entire Cranston community has shown support for Eli and his family, including his former day care. A St. Paul parishioner who is a nurse answered Jeffrey’s questions and gave him medical advice.
Eli twice defeated the cancer ravaging him, with a successful bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, though, his small body was left too weakened to fight off a lung infection that claimed his life on July 8. Though there is great sadness in the loss, Deacon Shea remarked that, “Now we’ve got a little saint.”
In the case of Julia Duggan, a routine doctor’s appointment revealed a lump in her abdomen in February. Neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer, attacks the developing nerve tissue of young children. After learning about her diagnosis, the staff and students at Monsignor Matthew F. Clarke Catholic Regional School in Wakefield united around the five-year-old girl.
Principal Dr. Arthur Lisi spoke to the Rhode Island Catholic about the many ways his school generously supported Julia and her family.
“On Friday, April 21, the students, faculty and staff held the most successful dress down day in school history for pre-K student Julia Duggan. Our dress down day raised $6,610,” he said.
From the youngest to the oldest of the 365 children enrolled at Monsignor Clarke School – starting at 18 months old – students learn about Jesus and how to emulate him. Each day starts and ends with prayer, and one of the school’s core values is service, or as Lisi pointed out, “It’s about how we put our faith into action.”
The community has demonstrated that value through its “We Stand with Julia” campaign, utilizing social media to spread awareness and raise additional funds to help defray treatment costs for this “sweet kid.”
Lisi proudly reported that $17,550 in total was raised and a check presented to the Duggan family “to help with expenses while Julia fights for her life.” This included a moving act of Christian charity when a kindergarten student won the Feinstein Golden Ticket and $500 to donate to a charity of her choice.
“She chose to donate it to the Duggan family,” Lisi remarked.
Julia, though too weak to attend her preschool graduation due to a treatment the week before, began kindergarten this fall with her classmates. Her family has been part of the Monsignor Clarke School family since 2019, with older sisters Kaitlyn, a graduate, and Ashley Foley, a sixth grader, also attending.
Lisi stated that Julia is well-known around campus.
“She’s in the hallways, students give her high-fives.” She was even featured on local news station WPRI’s “Small But Strong” segment on June 12.
Her battle is also far from over, as she underwent a 12+ hour surgery in New York in June to remove the tumor from “her main arteries, lymph nodes, kidney, liver and pancreas with no impact to any organs, which is amazing,” according to her mother, Melissa Duggan.
For about a month following surgery, Julia underwent intensive chemotherapy to treat any remainders of the cancer.
“It was a very difficult recovery, and we were there for about a month, but Julia continues to be strong,” her mother told the Rhode Island Catholic.
Melissa happily reported that Julia is considered cancer-free, following updated CT and MIBG nuclear imaging scans taken over the summer a few weeks after surgery, along with a bone marrow biopsy.
But, as neuroblastoma has a high relapse rate, Julia will continue to receive medical care from specialists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Treatment involves five cycles of immunotherapy for six to eight months, or until she remains clear.
The treatment “essentially trains her immune system to fight any cancer cells that try to come back,” according to Melissa, along with radiation.
Before the Duggans left New York, the doctors gave Julia one final dose of chemo since she had a great response, but in the past couple of weeks she was struggling to recover and was back at Hasbro Children’s Hospital getting blood, platelet and nutrition infusions as she recovered.
Going forward, Julia will receive five cycles of immunotherapy, with every cycle entailing a week in New York with hourlong painful infusions each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In between treatments, Julia will attend school. Members of the Monsignor Clarke School will continue to pray for her throughout this time.
“It’s right there, very public, we talk about it, say a special prayer” for Julia, Lisi said. “The students are very giving; they want the best for her. … We put our faith in God, in Jesus, and trust that everything will turn out okay.”
Lisi has another reason to be proud of the compassionate nature of his school community, as their generosity extended not only to the Duggan family, but also a former teacher who lost her home to a hurricane in Florida last year, where she now lives.
“The school, alumni and community raised $16,297 for the teacher and her husband,” he said.
Through prayers and acts of generosity, the people of St. Paul Parish and Monsignor Clarke School embody the words of St. Paul when he told the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.”