Twenty-five years after their sons were diagnosed with leukemia, the Masserys and Donnellans remain close friends -- and the two young men are now long cancer free.
A lasting friendship for two families
PICTURE OF HEALTH: From left, Dina, Anita and Matthew Massery, with Weinstein and Max, Suzanne and Gerry Donnellan
Anita Massery smiles at a young MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) patient as the child marches down the hallway, banging loudly on a plastic drum, soaking in the applause from the small group gathered in the lobby of the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology. Anita spies the girl’s mother and quickly offers a wide smile along with some reassurances. “This is my son,” she says, pointing to the 27-year-old man seated nearby. “He was diagnosed with leukemia 25 years ago and look at him now – he’s fine.”
Suzanne and Gerry Donnellan join the conversation. “And our son,” Suzanne adds. “He was also treated for leukemia at the same time. But now they are the picture of health – and the treatments didn’t even stunt their growth!”
The waiting room erupts in laughter as the two young men – Matthew Massery and Max Donnellan – stand, their 6-foot-4 frames towering over their parents. It is a quick exchange, but the story behind it is 25 years in the making.
Lexington residents Suzanne and Gerry say the fear, confusion and constant concerns they faced were simply overwhelming after Max, then 3 years old, was diagnosed with cancer in 1987. Anita nods – living in the adjacent town of Winchester, her family was experiencing the same nightmare after her 2-year-old son’s diagnosis the same year.
“Thankfully, at one appointment, our nurse told me she knew of a wonderful family in a nearby neighborhood that we had a lot in common with,” Suzanne says. “She said that they were going through the same thing.”
The families met and instantly became friends. Throughout the many ensuing years, the friendship has grown into that of family – their discussion weaves into one shared paragraph: “The boys grew up together. They are friends, our families are friends, and their daughter is like an older sister to our daughter. We’ve gone through births, and unfortunately, deaths. We’ve seen marriages and high school and college graduations. We’ve been through jobs and so many holiday dinners and cookouts,” they say. The list continues.
“Oh we’ve got stories,” Gerry laughs. “We’ve got 25 years worth of stories.”
Gerry says one of the most important elements of the families’ relationship was the shorthand they developed. “We didn’t have to explain our feelings. I remember talking to other friends and families and when they asked how Max was doing, we’d say, ‘He’s great.’ But we were still terrified. We were still waking up in the middle of the night, worrying. For us there is nothing like this friendship. It’s someone who knows what’s going on without ever having to say anything. It’s really anchoring.”
After years of treatments at MGHfC, Max and Matthew are long cancer-free and now only return every few years for checkups – this year on the same day, their appointments running back-to-back. “In our Pediatric Hematology-Oncology clinic, we see families become close,” says Howard Weinstein, MD, chief of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology. “But in terms of sustainability, this situation is truly unique. It’s really wonderful.”
Both families credit MGHfC with providing responsive, individualized and compassionate care that helped them manage the difficult times. “It was a tough time, but being here really made the difference,” Anita says. She glances at her son and Max sitting in the waiting room – similar to where she once sat, waiting and worrying two decades ago. “One of our MGH doctors told us these children grow up to be very special people. And I believed him.”
“It is so true,” Suzanne says, linking her arm through Anita’s. “It really gave us confidence and we believed it was going to be OK. And it is.”
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