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Like Mother, Like Son: Childrens Hospital helps two generations battle cancer

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

By Johnna A. Pro, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Erica Gevaudan knew by the expression on Dr. Edward Gotkiewicz's face that something was dreadfully wrong with her 2-month-old son, Nicholas, who was having a routine checkup.

"When he started feeling his belly, he was visibly shaken," Gevaudan recalled. "He said, 'I want you to go to Children's Hospital. Tonight.' I said, 'Is it a mass?' "

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Erica Gevaudan, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was 15, holds her 10-month-old son Nicholas, who has undergone surgery and chemotherapy to remove a cancerous tumor in his abdomen. Both were treated at Children's Hospital, and Gevaudan will tell her story on tonight's telethon to raise money for the hospital's Free Care Fund.
The telethon will air tonight at 7 on KDKA-TV 2.

It was the first question that came to mind, and for Gevaudan, 31, it was an obvious one to ask.

Sixteen years ago, she also had been diagnosed with cancer. She understood the implications and the odyssey that she, her husband, Ryan, and Nicholas were about to embark upon if her pediatrician's fears were correct.

By 10 p.m. on that night in April, Dr. Michael Wollman, the same pediatric oncologist who has monitored Gevaudan's health since her teen years, showed up at Children's Hospital.

"He told us that he was home with his wife getting ready to watch 'Judging Amy' and he said, 'I can't let those kids sit down there without going to feel that baby's belly.'"

Wollman's fears were the same as Gotkiewicz's and by 4 p.m. the next day, the Gevaudans had the answer they dreaded.

Nicholas, all 16 pounds of him, was carrying a solid tumor the size of an orange lodged in his abdomen near the right kidney. But despite Gevaudan's fears, her own cancer and treatment had nothing to do with Nicholas' cancer, because his was different from hers.

"Dr. Wollman said, 'Erica, it's just really bad luck.' "

Gevaudan made the same decision her own mother made more than a decade ago. Nicholas would be treated at Children's Hospital.

"I want Dr. Wiener," she said.

Eugene S. Wiener, Children's Hospital's medical director and chief of surgery, was the man who saved Gevaudan's life so many years ago. She wasn't trusting her newborn baby to anyone else.

"I've known Dr. Wollman and Dr. Wiener the better half of my life," she said. "I told my mom, 'You had to take that leap of faith. I'm so thankful I didn't.' "

Today, after months of chemotherapy and two surgeries, Nicholas' tumor is gone and the 10-month-old is the picture of health as he plays in the family's Mt. Lebanon home.

Tonight, Gevaudan will share her story when KDKA-TV broadcasts the 50th anniversary of the Children's Hospital telethon to raise money for the Free Care Fund.

Although the Gevaudans didn't need to tap the fund -- their insurance paid for Nicholas' care -- Erica believes it's time to come forward and tell their story, if only to give other parents hope and learn about the resources available at Children's Hospital.

Wiener asked her to tell her story because it represents the generational impact that the hospital has on the region. She readily agreed.

"How do you thank somebody for not only saving your life, but the life of your son," she said.

Because Children's Hospital treats all children regardless of their parents' ability to pay, the fund provides health care for families who are uninsured or underinsured.

"No other community supports the health care needs of children like this community does," Wiener said.

The Free Care Fund dates back to 1933 when an editor at The Pittsburgh Press started a drive to raise money for the hospital. Since then, the region has raised about $64 million, including $1.7 million last year.

Organizers hope to top that amount this year during tonight's telethon from 7 to 10 p.m.

The Gevaudans hope so, too. They know the importance of Children's Hospital.

"You know, other than people I went to high school with, no one knows I had cancer. It's just not something I talk about," Gevaudan said. "But I guess this is my time. If we can help people in similar situations see there is hope, then I'm happy to step forward."

Johnna Pro can be reached at or 412-263-1574.

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