Children's Emergency Department is now located in Children's Tower: 1001 E. Marshall Street.

Learn more
View alerts close
September Calendar Kid: Jonathan’s undefeated record against cancer
September 11, 2023
CHoR patient Jonathan driving and smiling

    The beginning of a years-long battle to beat neuroblastoma

    At 9 years old, Jonathan Fitzgerald was the goalie on his soccer team and a football quarterback. Normally an active kid, when he started having trouble walking, his mom, Keondra, grew concerned.

    Keondra took Jonathan to the nearest emergency room, but tests didn’t show anything unusual. As time went on, his pain grew worse, and walking became more and more difficult. His mom, a nurse, brought him back to our ER. At this point, a CT and MRI showed a tumor on his spine.

    Jonathan went into emergency overnight surgery to have the tumor removed. Pathology tests confirmed what Jonathan, Keondra and their care team were hoping against. On June 28, 2016, Jonathan was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare type of pediatric cancer that develops in nerve tissue.

    Jonathan’s multi-year battle against cancer and journey with our nationally ranked oncology program at CHoR began. He started chemotherapy, requiring hospital stays of 3-5 days each time. He also underwent radiation and weekly clinic visits with his oncology team. He couldn’t go to school and was too weak to walk so he relied on a wheelchair to get around.

    A pediatric cancer care network at CHoR and beyond

    While Jonathan and his mom were in the midst of their most challenging times, they were surrounded by a built-in support network at CHoR. Our team includes folks from child life, pastoral care (chaplains), social work, psychology, education and many outside organizations that are designed to support the needs of kids and families facing cancer. These comprehensive services are unique to CHoR and play a vital role in helping our patients and families heal from something as major as a cancer diagnosis and treatment. One of the many CHoR team members Jonathan has grown especially fond of is child life specialist Katie Barber.

    “I've known Jonathan for seven years. He’s quiet, unassuming and soft spoken. He has an awesome smile; and when you can get him laughing, it's the best,” said Katie. “We've spent a lot of time talking about video games, shoes, school, his rabbit – anything and everything. I think being a consistent presence has helped Jonathan, and Mom, through many difficulties.”

    Families are dealt far more hurdles than those strictly health related during cancer treatment. Keondra also cares for her now 6-year-old grandson, so she has been grateful for the RMHC Sibling Center at our Children’s Pavilion where he can play and have fun while she focuses on Jonathan’s appointments.

    “Oh my gosh, they take care of you so much,” said Keondra of the whole CHoR team. “You can always talk to someone if you need to. Then there’s ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation, Connor’s Heroes, Lighthouse Family Retreat and Ronald McDonald House. You’re going through a lot, but there are always people there to help.”

    ASK and Connor’s Heroes help local families facing childhood cancer through guidance, support, events and more. Lighthouse Family Retreat provides restorative retreats and helpful resources. RMHC Richmond offers comfort, support, temporary housing and meals for families of children in the hospital.

    Robyn Dillon, licensed clinical social worker on our oncology team, has been integral too, helping Jonathan and his mom with transportation, community resources and support services. She’s also celebrated many milestones with them over the years. One of the most tremendous milestones was when Jonathan beat his cancer. Unfortunately, the celebration was cut short when his neuroblastoma came back with a tumor on his neck in 2021.

    Our oncologists are part of a national network of teams who conduct research and participate in clinical trials to provide the latest and best-proven treatments. There were no local active trials for Jonathan’s specific type of cancer at the time, however, so they partnered with colleagues in other states to ensure he could benefit from the best available experimental treatments. This collaborative relationship works in reverse when patients at other hospitals travel to Richmond to benefit from expertise only our team can provide.

    Robyn helped the family coordinate travel to and from these institutions.

    Defeating cancer…again…and enjoying all life has to offer

    Jonathan has continued coming to CHoR for his ongoing care and chemo. Today, he’s doing great and is once again cancer free!

    “We beat cancer again! We did it,” Keondra said with a sigh of relief.

    Aside from a recent trip to the ER because Jonathan wasn’t feeling well (all tests came back clear!), he now only comes to CHoR every six weeks for outpatient check-ins with his oncologist, Dr. Madhu Gowda, and nurse practitioner, Tom Brunner.

    “Jonathan is a fighter who never gives up. He has had several big setbacks in his treatment, and he and his mother never give up fighting and never give up hope,” said Tom. “And Jonathan is one of the nicest young men you could ever want to meet despite all of the side effects of the chemotherapy medications he has received over the years. He almost always has a smile on his face and is grateful for the successes in his treatment and the care he receives here at CHoR.”

    Jonathan has returned to school three days a week, with instruction at home the other two days. He’s also working with a personal trainer to get back to running – a huge step considering he wasn’t sure he would even walk again.

    CHoR patient Jonathan with his dreadlocks before cancer“He’s a teenager so he likes to game. He likes music. I catch him doing little dance moves on the side,” said Keondra. “He still loves sports too, but he’s not into them as much as he was because he can’t do everything he used to. That’s why we got him a personal trainer. I’m so proud of his strength and courage.”

    Jonathan is also glad to be going back to the barbershop again. When he was first diagnosed, he was worried about losing his dreadlocks. Now, he’s thankful to have enough hair growing back that he’s had three haircuts since finishing chemo.

    “The barber was so happy to see us again,” laughed Keondra.

    Moving forward, giving back after cancer

    Jonathan and his family love participating in all the activities through ASK – from pool parties to the fundraising walk at The Diamond to help give back to an organization that has done so much for them.

    “My wish for Jonathan is to just be Jonathan. I want to watch him grow and flourish outside the CHoR walls. He has missed so much being in treatment and really deserves that opportunity,” said Robyn.

    He seems to be doing just that! He began his junior year of high school last month and is working on learning to drive. Mom is looking forward with hope while remembering how far they’ve come.

    “CHoR helped us a whole lot. I don’t know what I would do without them. They got Jonathan back together again.”

    Learn more about our nationally ranked oncology care at CHoR.

    Subscribe to our blog

    Sign Up