by Melissa Begley
As I sit with the Bergs in their backyard paradise complete with lighted overhang, comfortable couches, a flat screen, and a Jacuzzi, they seem like a regular family on a random Friday night. I guess in some ways they are. The beautiful 19 year old Marina stares at her laptop and mumbles as she tries to decide which kind of sushi to order. Dad Brian gets annoyed that she keeps interrupting the conversation. Ten year old Logan hurries outside with his gaming headset still intact to see what all the laughter is about. Mom, Theresa, seems calmer and more at ease than I’ve seen her in almost three years. And of course, the reason for our gathering tonight, 16 year old Collin, sitting comfortably with his fleece blanket and cell phone at the ready, can finally be declared a Cancer survivor.
I met Theresa when her son Logan went to preschool with my son, Jack. I only knew Theresa for about a year when I had another baby and I remember being so grateful, but also surprised, when she delivered chicken parmigiana to feed my family of six. I’ve often contemplated having more babies to get my hands on some more of that delicious dish, but I digress.
My point is that it comes as no surprise that Theresa, Brian, and children wanted to celebrate the End of Collin’s Treatment with a party to thank the community.
Let me back up to October 7, 2015.
Collin recalls, “I woke up. I felt terrible. My knee hurt. I couldn’t breathe.”
Mom chimes in. “Collin texted me from upstairs, which was not like him, and said, ‘I don’t think I can go to school. My knee really hurts.’ I didn’t think much of it. He had a baseball game the night before. I figured it was just that. Then the phone chimed again, this time proclaiming ‘My leg really hurts.’ I went upstairs to look and he had dots from his knee down to his foot. I learned later that these were broken blood vessels beneath his skin called petechia.”
Theresa had initially planned on taking Collin to the pediatrician, but then decided that Collin’s pain level combined with her inability to focus on anything other than that merited ambulance. With Brian away on business in Lake George and Marina already off to the high school for her day, Theresa called her parents to stay with Logan until it was time for him to get to Sandshore Elementary School. The ambulance brought Collin and Theresa to Morristown Medical Center.
Upon arrival, the doctors looked at Collin’s leg and thought it could be an autoimmune disorder and then sent blood out to be tested. The ER doctor said it looked like leukemia, but needed to get confirmation from the oncologist. Within 20 minutes, they had confirmation of the diagnosis they did not want to hear: Collin had leukemia. Dad Brian arrived in time for the next step which was a bone marrow aspiration to determine the subtype. The subtype was found to be Pre B cell ALL Philadelphia chromosome positive. This is the reason for the aggressive treatment that Collin would soon be starting.
When asked what the scariest part of his treatment was, Collin describes the aforementioned scene. He describes his scariest time was “on the way to the hospital was when dad was on his way from Lake George. I didn’t know what was in my future. I knew I would have to go through a whole bunch of stuff, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was upset, but at that moment I knew nothing about cancer. I couldn’t process it. I didn’t know anything about leukemia. I didn’t know what to think or how to feel.”
Collin wound up having to undergo three phases of treatment. Phase I was to last 17 months and was the most aggressive protocol. Dad explains how this entailed inpatient, week long hospital visits where Collin would stay for five days at a time. He would have oral chemo, IV chemo, and endured every side effect that was a remote possibility. Brian says, “Then he would go home for a week or so, and then come back and do it all again. He was 100 percent bedridden and so tired and so sick.” Brian is an even keeled, preppy, baby faced guy who you would be hard pressed to hear a negative word from, but as he describes what Collin had to endure, his face contorts and he looks like a different man than the one I’m accustomed to seeing.
Theresa interjects that this was the worst part of the treatment not just because of all the pain and discomfort that Collin had to endure, but because it disrupted the whole family. Theresa was lucky because she had so many people surrounding her to help get Logan and Marina to their after school activities. It was important to Theresa for the other children to stay as close to their routine as possible.
During this first and worst phase is when Mt. Olive started to come together to support Collin. Collin remembers how “the entire street was decorated in orange” when he arrived home from his first treatment. Logan’s Cub Scout Pack 62 of Budd Lake organized a meal chain so that during those first several months, Theresa could rest easy knowing that her children and husband were taken care of in that department.
But the mental toll that it took on Collin was difficult to witness as well. In addition to the physical daily beat downs, he had no school to go to and escape for, and was away from his friends. Once he felt the pain was almost approaching a manageable place, he had to go and do it all again.
During this first phase, Collin went to ICU three times, once for a toxic reaction to his medication which left him non-responsive and nonverbal. Brian says, “He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t string sentences together, he was curled up in fetal position for three days.” Theresa adds “I didn’t think you would ever come back.” For me, the scene freezes, and I wonder if Collin had ever heard his mother say those words before.
The next trip to ICU started with an awful headache that the doctors thought was simply a result of a spinal tap, but turned out to be a subdural hemorrhage. The doctors performed two different brain surgeries to install a drain in his head. This was most likely a side effect of one of the medications.
The third time in ICU was supposed to be an easy day and just a clinic visit. However, Collin spiked a high fever, his blood pressure dropped and he quickly went septic. Thousands of people die yearly from sepsis. This ICU visit was another instance that they didn’t think Collin would come back from.
He also contracted mucositis during this first phase, which can be described as sores that go from stomach to mouth. The only treatment is to manage the pain with morphine for days at a time. Theresa looks at Collin and says, “You have to deal with side effects because you don’t have a choice.” I can’t help but imagine this must have been a mantra of sorts during all of these terrifying months.
Phase II was the first part of maintenance. Theresa explains, “This was supposed to be little easier, but was not as easy as we’d hoped.” There were still hospital stays and oral chemo, and throughout Phase II, Collin had eight or nine bouts of CDiff, which are intestinal infections that take a week to get over.
Phase III was Clinical Maintenance. Collin would go to Morristown once every four weeks in the clinic for a quick IV push of Vincristine, steroids, and oral chemo. This is when family life got a little easier. His last day of Clinical Maintenance was June 20.
I ask Collin what his take away is after surviving this truly awful experience. What knowledge did he have to share with others? He gives advice that can be applied to all aspects of life. He says, “People want to help. If you ever think you might want to reach out, go for it. Most of the time people will say yes.”
I ask him to explain about some of the cool things he was able to partake in as a result of his cancer. He details some of the experiences that were set up through various charities, his dad’s work and family friends. Some highlights include taking a trip to “Good Morning America” to see Kenny Chesney; attending multiple baseball games including a Yankee opener; speaking on “WPLJ” as a beneficiary of their “Apple a Day” program; attending preseason training camp in Florida; receiving messages from Pete Rose and Bucky Dent; meeting NJ Devils players and NJ Jets players; being an honorary captain for a Jets game; and meeting his broadcast idol Michael Kay. He explains these events would give him something to look forward to. He recalls thinking, “If I get through this week, I get this fun thing afterward.”
Collin also details more of the heart-warming actions as well. Brian’s company, Publicis Media, created a video filled with positive messages for Collin in all the different countries where offices are housed. The people in the video wore orange, encouraged him to keep up the fight and sent positive messages.
At MOHS, the students gathered for a photo in the orange Collin Fights T shirts. At Halloween, Collin was too sick to go out, so his neighborhood friends brought their treats to him for a Reverse Trick or Treat. He recalls the players wearing orange on the football field. He remembers the cheerleaders wearing orange bows. He mentions an Orange Out on the basketball court. He remembers a photo of the St. Jude CCD students wearing orange and offering prayers. Receiving all these messages and photos were a great way for Collin to pass the time during the more challenging parts of the treatment when he could do nothing but sit and wait to heal.As we talk about his journey and his parents fill in some of the details, he really listens. It seems to absorb. He may not fully grasp how difficult this was on his parents, his sister and brother, but some of it registers for sure. I see it in his expressive hazel eyes. He knows that while he was the one fighting the battle that you could see commemorated on cars throughout the town, his parents would have gladly tagged in if they could.
But none of that matters on June 23.
I arrive to a sea of orange. Some wear T shirts from a run that people ran in his name. Some wear Collin Fights shirts. Some wear shirts that they received that day.
I see a bunch of familiar faces at the party which takes place at the high school. Food is everywhere. Joe’s Pizzeria from Kenvil provides the pizza. This place is owned by Larry Faraci, Theresa’s brother. Larry took the pizzeria over from Joe Faraci, Theresa’s dad. WPLJ was there to provide the music and some fun activities for the kids, as well as giveaways. There were two giant cakes, Philly Pretzels, cookies that Collin’s grandmother made and more cookies that Theresa’s sorority sisters from Cornell sent that read #collinsfight.
The thing with Collin is he just seems so unaffected. He’s just a regular guy now and seems to have put it all behind him. When I roll up on crutches, he open-mouth laughs good naturedly at me because he saw me yesterday, he knows the story, and he knows I’m just a knucklehead. But then he’s concerned, and asks if I’m going to be ok.
If I’m going to be ok.
The day is reminiscent of a wedding. It whizzes by. Groups of people who haven’t seen each other in a bit are happy to catch up with something wonderful to celebrate. Like a wedding, Brian and Theresa make their rounds and thank everyone for coming and for the role they played in supporting Collin in the last few years. I recognize faces young and old from church, the soccer and lacrosse fields, the Mt. Olive schools, and friends and families of all three Berg children are present and accounted for as well. People play corn hole, have a pseudo-football game with a tennis ball and randomly dance.
I see a man walk into the party area with a boy in his arms. The boy looks pale and thin, and as they walk by, he looks asleep, but too old to be carried in this way. I’m worried. I try not to stare, but I’m a far enough distance away that I think I can get away with it. The parents who are with him don’t seem alarmed. They find a seat in the bleachers and Brian speaks easily to the dad. He makes him feel at home and chats. Theresa and the boy’s mom talk somewhere else. I learn later that the gentleman carrying the boy worked at the high school and the young man has special needs.
I think of Collin and the different ways he looked throughout his treatment: thin, like this young boy, bloated with chemo, hairless at times, and I realize how lucky we are to be here today, celebrating that Collin is finished with his treatment and celebrating that Collin is here.
Theresa tells me, “We wanted to have this party to thank everyone. If the community hadn’t been as supportive, I don’t know that we would be here. We really relied on a lot of different people. I know they stormed heaven for us. Now it’s about saying ‘thank you,’ and having fun, and celebrating that we can call him a survivor now.”
As I struggle to corral the Bergs together for a family photo under the arch of orange and white balloons, I get Brian and Theresa together for a moment before the kids arrive for the shot. Brian hugs Theresa and says, “We made it.” That’s it. What other words could really sum it up though? For the couple who have been together since the end of college and have known each other since they were five years old, are any other words anything but superfluous? The kids traipse over and I’m smiling at their normalcy, their teasing, and the hiding of a slice of pizza behind Collin’s back for my picture, and I grin like a villain unveiling his evil plot. I know that this is all they wanted: A regular life complete with arguing about where to stand and laughter because Collin crammed a half a slice of pizza in his mouth without a thought.
I’m elated that they got their regular.