The Catie O'Brien Family
The Catie O'Brien Family Story

Catie O’Brien was just finishing first grade when she began to experience terrible pains all through her body. Her parents Christine and Kevin had no idea what was causing this relentless pain; heat and ice didn’t help at all. After nearly a month of sleepless nights and several trips to the pediatrician, the O’Brien family found themselves at Hershey Medical Center, knowing that something serious must be overtaking their daughter.

“We had this kid who’s in so much pain she can’t do anything, and she’s trying to distract herself. She had a hula hoop in one arm and a book in the other. She wouldn’t sit or lay down; she would only stand to eat food. That’s not natural,” remembered Christine. The team at Hershey did an MRI as Catie writhed in pain and found a tumor in her spinal column. A sedated MRI and surgery to remove the tumor followed, relieving much of Catie’s pain.

Christine’s first experience with Four Diamonds was during the family’s second day in the hospital. Greg Baiocchi, a longtime Four Diamonds social worker let them know that they wouldn’t have to spend one minute thinking about anything except their daughter. Medical bills and other needs would be taken care of. The O’Briens gratefully accepted this offer as a comfort to their family.

A few days after Catie’s surgery, her parents were relieved to see her feeling much better than she had in the weeks leading up to her hospitalization. Unfortunately, Catie’s journey was not over. Her parents quickly learned that her tumor was cancerous, qualifying as brain cancer due to its location in her spinal column. It seemed impossible to reconcile this information with the girl that they saw in front of them.

“As a parent, it’s almost like you have a force field,” Christine explained, “Someone tells you that your kid is sick, and it bounces right off. You hear “malignant”, and you just can’t accept it. Then there’s a vocabulary you have to learn. Lesion. Tumor. Mass. They all mean the same thing…can’t we just use one word? You don’t want your kid to have any of it.”

At the time, Hershey Medical Center didn’t have the resources for Catie’s treatment, so she was sent to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and then to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital before finally being sent home. However, her parents firmly believe that the surgery she received at Hershey granted her the most quality of life.

Catie allowed her wisdom to shine through regardless of where she was in her journey. The family lived in hospital adjacent housing, where Catie received overloads of gifts on a regular basis. After writing a thank-you note for each one, Catie took these gifts to the front desk where she requested that they be distributed to anyone with birthdays or special occasions coming up who otherwise might’ve received nothing at all. She embraced her Hershey heritage, gifting Hershey merchandise to all her St. Jude doctors and nurses before she left the hospital for home. The O’Brien family even sent Hershey kisses to the staff on Catie’s 21st birthday.

Everyone from the community gathered up and down Catie’s cul-de-sac to welcome her home. Catie’s classmates even compiled a book about what they did over the summer to let her know they were thinking of her. “I honestly believe that all that support stems from the fact that THON is so visible in this area,” remarked Christine.

The O’Brien Family now works with a Hershey Bereaved Family Group alongside other families who have lost a child to cancer. Here they once again met Greg, the same social worker who they met at the time of Catie’s diagnosis. They waited until their five other children were older to attend their first THON, where the whole family was “so blown over”.

Family Hour was particularly impactful for the O’Briens. “When those families got up to speak, there were fifteen thousand people in that arena,” Kevin remembered, “You could hear a pin drop. The level of respect was incredible to see.” They had worried about attending THON as a Bereaved Family, but those fears quickly melted away. “We didn’t feel out of place or unwelcome, we just felt so humbled,” said Christine.

Although the O’Brien family was not involved in THON during Catie’s treatment, they recommend involvement to another family. “Some families might be concerned that getting another person involved would result in just another person to experience heartbreak if things don’t go well,” Christine elaborated, “I would tell them to accept an organization and get connected with the students. Don’t be concerned with what college students are supposed to be doing.”

The O’Brien family is happy to have THON as part of their life, and they intend to come back in the future. “I want to go back just to support you all,” said Christine, but then admitted, “and also because the açai bowls were pretty great.” The family is happy to whole-heartedly support an organization that they once knew so little about. “I feel like I came to understand THON backwards,” Christine remarked in conclusion, “I should’ve been more aware, but I wasn’t. I was on the receiving end of your kindness and generosity first, and I’m so glad that it was there.”