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Friends and family call him “Gregory the Great.” With good reason. Gregory Meecham is a remarkable child. Only 11 years old, with dark brown hair, warm eyes and a ready smile, he lives life with flair. He’s smart, funny, athletic, generous, and creative. The kind of kid who can finish a year of schoolwork in a few months—all while fighting a long, hard battle with cancer.
“I was sporty,” Gregory says, speaking of life before cancer. “I was fast. I didn’t tend to get sick.” He was a third-grader at Park School, living in Baltimore with his parents, Paul Meecham and Laura Leach, and his little sister, Alessandra, when he began experiencing a series of unexplainable symptoms. “I threw up, I had a tummy ache, I was in a lot of pain.” The doctors thought he might have appendicitis, but tests revealed a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his belly, pressing on his internal organs. Quickly he was transferred by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Hospital for surgery.
What did Gregory think of all this? “I thought it was pretty exciting,” he says. “I thought I’d be able to miss a few days of school.” He grins at his mother. “And watch television.” Laura rolls her eyes. “Television is a bit of a no-no in our house,” she explains. The Meecham kids spend their time reading, playing outdoors, and exploring their creativity—developing skills that would play a key role in Gregory’s recovery.
Gregory still has the Snoopy pajamas he wore when he went in for surgery. The initial results were promising. A biopsy suggested he had Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that is highly curable. Soon however, the Hopkins physicians realized Gregory’s disease was actually a more troublesome type: mature B-cell lymphoma. “Years ago, “ Laura says, “they wouldn’t have known the difference. But nowadays they’re able to do DNA analysis, which revealed a different genetic component.” Despite treatment, the residual mass left after surgery continued to grow.
“I didn’t know what cancer was,” Alessandra says. A lively, outgoing girl with long blonde hair, bright eyes, and an infectious smile, she was only 6 when her brother became ill. She remembers how life in the household changed as her mother spent months in the hospital with Gregory. “We could not get this boy home,” Laura says. “He spiked fevers, had complications.” Eventually Gregory required a second surgery. Then the doctors began preparing him with extra chemotherapy and radiation for a bone marrow transplant. “We had no other option.”
Traditionally bone marrow transplants depended on finding a matched donor for the recipient: a parent, sibling, or even occasionally stranger taken from a bone marrow registry. In Gregory’s case, there were no complete matches. However physicians at Johns Hopkins have pioneered a new kind of transplant, the haploidentical, or half match. Combined with an innovative use of chemotherapy, it has led to stunning successes. Parents or siblings can provide half matches. In Gregory’s case, his mother was chosen as his donor. Soon he was receiving extra chemotherapy and radiation in preparation for his bone marrow transplant.
“The transplant went really well,” Laura says. Gregory rang the Japanese temple bell in the basement of the Weinberg Building at Hopkins twice, celebrating the end of his radiation therapy. The cancer appeared to be gone, but once again complications set in, and the family struggled to get him home. “He had a bad case of graft vs host disease,” Laura says. “He was quite sick.”
“I don’t follow the rule book,” Gregory says. His mother smiles. “Gregory’s doctor says that he always learns from his patients. But in Gregory’s case, he learned a great deal.” By the time Gregory finally came home, he had missed nearly a year of school. Park School insisted on doing everything possible to keep him on track. “The school arranged for a tutor,” Laura says. “His teachers went above and beyond, visiting him in the hospital, even when he was too sick to study.” Gregory set to work with determination, putting his love of reading and creativity to work. “By the end of June he was back to grade level, and had even surpassed it in math.”
Nowadays Gregory sports a cast on his arm. He broke his arm playing soccer in the backyard with his dad. The injury is a definite downer for a boy who planned to spend the summer outdoors, playing tennis, and pursuing the sports that he loves. But Gregory grins. The injury is a sign of how far he’s come. “I’m getting my stamina back,” he says, “and in a few weeks I’m getting a cast I can swim with.”
“Cancer,” Laura says, “has made Gregory fearless.” Gregory has his own words of wisdom to share. “Stay positive. The more you’re happy, the more likely it is to turn out well.” Gregory should know. He’s a remarkable child, on the road to achieving remarkable success.