Among the most memorable on-air guests during the first WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon — a live, 36-hour broadcast held each summer to benefit Dana-Farber patient care and research — was Todd Schwartz, a 19-year-old patient in Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic. Here, Todd’s mother, Janet Schwartz, reflects on her son’s appearance that day in 2002, his cancer journey, and how he inspired a major Jimmy Fund Clinic initiative.
Todd loved Boston baseball, and he loved sports talk radio. Our family would leave a Red Sox game, get in the car, and he would immediately call WEEI and wait on hold until being put on the air live to share his insights. If we got all the way home before he got on, he would make us sit in the driveway until he did. He had the gift of gab, and dreamed of being in the media.
In December 2000, when Todd was a high school senior and about to turn 18, he started having stomach pains. He thought it was appendicitis, but within 24 hours of first going to the doctor we were at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center learning he had rhabdomyosarcoma — a cancerous tumor that grows in the body’s soft tissues. As soon as we heard the diagnosis, Todd just looked at the oncologists and said, “All right, let’s do what we need to do.”
His primary doctor was Loren Walensky, MD, PhD, and he and Todd’s entire care team at the Jimmy Fund Clinic became like part of our family. Todd was one of the few older teenagers in the clinic, and a lot of the time he was there for infusions or other treatment, he played with the younger kids or did magic tricks for them. Todd was a people magnet, and it didn’t matter what age you were. It was just something he would say, or the sparkle in his eye, or the way he looked at you. Everybody connected with him immediately.
Todd loved the staff at the Jimmy Fund Clinic, but noticed the activities there were geared to the younger patients. So he started razzing Lisa Scherber, who runs the clinic’s programs and activities, about doing different things with older teenagers in treatment. “You need to take us away,” he’d tell her. “We’re not little kids; we’re almost adults.” I’m sure Lisa thought he was crazy — patients needed to be near their doctors and nurses, so going on trips seemed impossible — but she’d laugh and tell Todd she’d think about it.
We wanted Todd to stay close to home for college, so he went to UMass Amherst that fall and Dr. Walensky arranged for him to get infusions at the health center right on campus. Todd showed up at his dorm, a short, skinny, kid bald, and within 10 minutes he was hosting a party in his room. His friends at home and school all knew about his cancer, but they also knew he didn’t like talking about it. He just wanted to be one of the guys, and he was.
Todd’s cancer went into remission, but when he came home the next spring we found out he had relapsed. This was 2002, and when he was asked to be on the radio-telethon that summer he couldn’t believe his luck. This was his big chance, and he was going to do it no matter how he was feeling. His interview slot was on his treatment day, so he arranged to be at the clinic early in the morning so he could get down to Fenway Park in time.
When Todd got on the air, one of the interviewers asked how he was doing.
“I’ve actually had a lot better of a reaction than anticipated, and a lot of kids don’t have it that way,” he said. “Compared to some of the kids, I’ve had it easy.”
Then he made an appeal that all his friends at UMASS “better call in” with donations for the Jimmy Fund. They sure did.
As I sat there watching and listening to him, I was so happy — and proud — for Todd. And now, when I think about it 20 years later, I’m prouder than ever. He knew he had relapsed, but he just believed things were going to be OK because he’d beaten it before. One of the radio guys was so impressed by Todd that he joked about him taking his place on the air someday. I’m sure he could have.
That fall Todd went back to school as a sophomore, but his condition became so serious that he had to come home. He passed away on November 19; when I saw Lisa Scherber right after that, she told me she was going to make Todd’s dream happen. The next summer, Lisa and a group of teenagers from the Jimmy Fund Clinic, along with some doctors and nurses, flew out to Baltimore for a Red Sox-Orioles game. Now the clinic teens make trips every winter to Red Sox spring training in Florida, and there are other teen-only trips and events and a special space for older kids in the clinic. That’s part of Todd’s legacy. So is our Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk team; Team Todd is celebrating our 21st anniversary this year.
When I watch or listen to the Radio-Telethon now, it’s still hard because we’ve lost Todd. But even though there are still too many stories of loss, there are also happy moments of survivorship. Todd’s cancer is still a hard one to cure. But at some point, I think, my brain went from just hoping for a cure to this: “If you can’t cure it, what can you do to have a quality of life that allows you to live with it?” So I’m always hopeful for that.
Hear more from Janet as she returns for this summer’s WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon presented by Arbella Insurance, on Tuesday and Wednesday, August 23 and 24. You can also get involved in fundraising in support of patients like Todd by registering for the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai this fall.