A Christmas miracle? NJ girl’s cancer in remission after meeting pope
Gracie West of Freehold has spent the last two years in a fight for her life. On Saturday night, the township's bravest paid the 12-year-old a visit to award her for unwavering courage.
As she exited her home Saturday night, Gracie - whose father, Donald, is a member of the Freehold Township Independent Fire Company - was greeted by a street lined with township firetrucks during the department's annual Operation Santa program.
"It filled the entire street and the trucks just looked so pretty with all the lights," Gracie said.
Riding one of the trucks was Santa and as she waited alongside the street, firefighters greeted the young girl to present her with a plaque to acknowledge her for the bravery she's shown since her initial cancer diagnosis and through months of treatments. The plaque reads: "Grace West, we truly admire you for your bravery and courage."
Two years ago, Gracie - who also goes by the nickname Cookie - was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as Stage 4 neuroblastoma. Like so many cancer patients she endured tests and treatments as the illness took its toll on her young body. But then things started to change thanks to a visit to the Vatican.
Through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Gracie and her family traveled to Rome where she had an opportunity to meet Pope Francis. An embrace, a handshake and a few prayers from the pontiff later, the West family headed back to New Jersey so that Gracie could continue cancer treatments. That was one year ago, and since then, the family has experienced what they believe is a miracle. Gracie is now cancer-free.
The bright, energetic pre-teen said she just knew that seeing the pope was a life-changing experience.
"It was just so peaceful there. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done,” Gracie told NJ 101.5. "It was the closest thing to God and that’s really important to me and my faith. It was like a moment stopped in time. After that I just knew everything was gonna be better."
She said learning that she was in remission was a huge relief.
"It feels like the whole world is lifted off your shoulders," the seventh-grader said.
But through it all, she said, the fire department was there, doing whatever they could to make her smile and make things a little easier for her and her family. In the early stages of her treatment, Gracie faced an extended hospital stay. She couldn't wait to get home and when she finally did, she arrived to find that members of the department had taken time to decorate the house as a "welcome home" gift.
She said she was honored when members of the Fire Department stopped to present her with the plaque. But more importantly, when asked if she had a message for the firefighters, Gracie said she's grateful that they've been with her and her family throughout her journey from sickness to health.
"Thank you for everything that you did and everything that you’ve done for me," she said. "I’m so grateful that you're part of this miracle and part of my life and it just felt like I wasn’t alone."
Gracie also acknowledged her school and members of the community who were also supportive as she struggled to beat the cancer.
But Gracie's journey isn't over. She still has to endure more medical treatments to keep the cancer at bay. In the meantime, she and her family are channelling their energy into paying it forward. They've started the Cookie's Crumblers Foundation - an organization they started to help other children battling cancer.
Toniann Antonelli is the digital managing editor at NJ 101.5. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.