By: Jen Russon
The Panthers made Coral Springs Charter School history when the varsity football team played an undefeated season in 2015. In the fall of last year, ninth grader Matthew Gordon was lucky enough to play for the team as a running back, but in December found out the devastating news: that he was diagnosed with cancer.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I just want them to know I’ll recover,” said Matthew, 14, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
The most common cancer among children, ALL has an 85 percent survival rate among patients who get chemotherapy and radiation, like Matthew is getting with treatment lasting up to three years.
Described by Assistant Principal Jodi Robins as “a student first and then an athlete”, young Matthew has so much to strive for that Robins felt compelled to share her stellar opinion of the Coral Springs Charter School student with the doctors helping to save his life.
Matthew’s mother, Jamilah, gets choked up describing the day the family found out he had leukemia. The diagnosis came after months of doctor appointments, referrals, invasive tests and blood work, which began in the fall after he began to feel ill.
He had been leaving school sick, losing weight and sleeping too much. Two weeks before Christmas, their world came crashing down when Dr. Anne Schaefer, a specialist in pediatric hematology and oncology, called them on their way home from Joe Dimaggio Children’s Hospital. She was gentle and kind when delivering the news, but it was still awful to hear.
“We were driving back from Miami after more tests. The doctors still thought he could have a viral infection; then she called and said, ‘I’m sorry, it looks like Matthew has leukemia,” remembers Jamilah.
At first, the whole Gordon family panicked. Matthew’s younger sister, Madison – a fourth grader at Eagle Ridge Elementary was petrified, as was the teen’s father, Kevin. They had good health insurance and an excellent team of doctors to get them through it.
“Like most people, we didn’t know much about leukemia when we found out Matthew was sick,” said Jamilah.
She admitted at first, everyone – including Matthew – assumed he had just been handed a death sentence. It also felt grotesquely unfair. His heart and soul had been with his football team, and not only was that ending, but so was the immense pleasure their happy-go-lucky son had taken in being a regular kid.
“He just wants to see his friends again – go back to school,” said Jamilah.
Gradually, they learned what they would have to do to ensure their son received the best treatment possible and make a full recovery. First and foremost, he would have to avoid exposure to germs; this meant home-schooling.
“Matthew is so smart. We looked into the Florida virtual school’s hospital bound program and decided it wasn’t challenging enough. He’s taking honors classes from home now. We’ve also become a movie family – we have a movie night several times a week,” said Jamilah.
She described how wonderful people have been since learning of her son’s illness. Her co-workers at Darby Dental Supply in Deerfield Beach, pooled their money and donated a Nintendo Switch. Now Matthew has something to do at the hospital during his long and intensive treatments. Jamilah said he loves searching up exotic recipes and trying his hand at making them. They also continue to make the best of being cooped up, but find it hard.
The Gordons miss being out and about in Coral Springs – the place they have called home, since Jamilah graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1995. As a family, they used to make an annual trip to Disney World around Spring Break, or close to Matthew’s March birthday.
This year, they know Matthew will not turn 15 anywhere near Orlando – but they hold out hope that by the early months of 2020, they can pack their suitcases.
And it does look like the tide is turning.
On January 15, they learned Matthew’s bone marrow test came back showing no leukemia cells.
“Matthew has an open dialogue with his doctors. He wants a career in medicine himself – has always wanted to be a pediatric cardiologist,” said Jamilah.
She recounts what a great relationship her son has with the sizable medical team caring for him at Joe Dimaggio. Jamilah said the nurses on the fourth floor of the hospital – the oncology unit – collect spare change in a jar all year. They call it “pennies from heaven,” and at the end of the year, the jar is given to a new patient in their ward.
This year, it was Matthew who received the jar. The teenager indicated it gave him a renewed sense of hope.
“He brought home pennies from heaven on New Year’s Eve, and said ‘Mom, we’ve got to call everyone we know and ask them if they have any loose change!’” said Jamilah, adding that Matthew shared the money with his sister, and is looking forward to collecting change for whoever the next lucky patient is.
“It’s important to Matthew to pay it forward,” said Jamilah, who shared that he is very much aware of the sacrifices being made to pay for his treatment.
The family’s insurer let them know they reached the cap on coverage for medicines, which ease the worst part of Matthew’s ordeal: throwing up.
“He doesn’t want people to think he’s brave. I asked him how he feels – if the nausea from his treatments scare him, and what he thinks about his hair falling out, and he said, ‘I just want to live. I want to have fun. That’s anybody. Anybody would fight for that.”
To help the Gordon family with medical expenses, donate to the “Help Matthew Tackle Cancer” fund by clicking GoFundMe.
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.