Gabrielle DiMaggio thought her son Rocco had COVID-19 when she took him to the doctor’s office in May 2020, but he ended up being diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare cancer affecting the nervous system. He was just 2 and a half years old at the time.
“The physician assistant came back and said, ‘We just wanted you to know that we’ve contacted the oncology team.’ And that was the moment that I knew that our lives were about to change,” DiMaggio recalled. “We went from one day celebrating him being potty trained to the next day having to fight cancer with him.”
Rocco was soon in an ambulance on his way to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. That’s where DiMaggio first met Cassie DeMatteis, a pediatric oncology nurse.
“Sometimes I can’t even say her name without crying,” DiMaggio said. “I say Cassie is our angel on Earth. She truly is. That’s what she is to us.”
DeMatteis stayed at the family’s side as Rocco went through 20 hours of invasive surgery, 5 cycles of chemotherapy, 14 rounds of radiation, 5 rounds of antibody treatment, and 5 doses of a neuroblastoma vaccine as part of a clinical trial. It all happened at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when many restrictions were still in place. DiMaggio was Rocco’s primary visitor, and DeMatteis made the hospital feel welcoming.
DeMatteis was much more than a nurse when she was around. She was often a playmate to Rocco and a counselor and friend to DiMaggio. The pair even started calling each other “girlfriend.”
Nothing could be scarier as a parent, but DeMatteis was there to put DiMaggio’s cares at ease.
“She had all this energy. She literally lit up the room,” DiMaggio said. Her presence made DiMaggio feel that everything was going to be okay.
Now, Rocco is a happy, healthy 4-year-old boy that likes to ride his electric scooter. DeMatteis was delighted to see her young patient again now that his cancer is in remission.
“It’s smiling and being there for the kids, and connecting with the families,” she explained after reuniting with Rocco. DeMatteis said it is “the greatest honor” to be able to help kids in this way.”
The family has also created Rocco Strong Inc., a charity designed to help other children suffering from this rare form of cancer. They have already raised more than $165,000 in honor of Rocco’s cancer remission. The family and local community commemorated the occasion at the first annual Rocco Strong Gala in March 2022, where Cassie was recognized with special honor.
“I’m privileged to go through it with them,” DeMatteis added. “To watch (Rocco) grow up and to know we’ll be close from now until forever, too, it’s amazing.”