The journey to recovering from cancer has been a long one for Rhettec Galaska.
For two-and-a-half years, the 11-year-old fought non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a common blood cancer that starts in white blood cells.
Rhettec finished his last chemotherapy session in June. And on Wednesday he became a member of East Carolina’s baseball team.
The Pirates’ program, which had established a relationship with Rhettec through Team IMPACT, a Boston-based non-profit with a mission to improve the quality of life of children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses, signed the fifth grader to a two-year contract that will allow him to spend time with the team.
Before his signing day, Rhettec’s parents had told him he’d be meeting with the baseball team, something that made him excited.
But the signing itself was something he knew nothing about.
When the family got to the school on Wednesday, Rhettec jumped out of his parents’ minivan, with his family trailing behind him. He wore a purple ECU shirt, two sizes too big, over a collared shirt. He also had on khaki slacks with brown shoes he says his mom made him wear.
After he walked up the steps of ECU’s Murphy Center, he walked down a long hall to double doors when he heard a loud applause.
The team was there, clapping for him. He smiled. He had just walked into his big surprise.
Rhettec had always been healthy.
The youngest of three boys growing up in Greenville, he liked playing sports – just like his older brothers. The worst that had happened to him were a few stitches and some bumps and bruises.
But in the winter of 2013, his parents, Jeff and Tommi, noticed Rhettec was having trouble breathing. Antibiotics didn’t help, tests were negative for viral infections and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
One day, Jeff and Tommi noticed an enlarged lymph node on the left side of Rhettec’s neck. The swelling went down with steroids but came back and grew larger when he was off the medication. Doctors recommended Jeff and Tommi take Rhettec to an oncologist.
“That was hard to hear,” Tommi said. “We fully knew what that meant when they said you’re going to meet with oncology on Thursday. We were like OK, this has shifted into something else.”
In February 2014, Rhettec had a biopsy. Two days later, Jeff and Tommi found out their youngest boy, who was 8 at the time, had cancer.
“I was probably in denial at first,” Jeff said. “I was just telling myself this can’t be true.”
Rhettec was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, “a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system,” according to cancer.org. It’s one of the most common forms of blood cancer. Most with the cancer first get an enlarged lymph node on their neck.
Rhettec said he didn’t know what cancer was when he was diagnosed.
But he knew it was serious.
He asked his parents: “Am I going to die?”
Rhettec started chemotherapy that February at the James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital in Greenville. The first nine months of the 32-month process were the most difficult.
He spent about 50 days in the hospital over the course of the two-and-a-half years he was going through treatment. He missed about four months of school. His white-blood cell count was often zero. Normal white blood cell counts are typically in the thousands.
During treatment, he lost weight and became so weak from the chemotherapy that he temporarily lost the use of his legs. Tommi carried Rhettec on her back so he could attend his older brothers’ soccer and hockey games.
“It was just really hard to do,” Rhettec said of the treatments. “And people who say they can do it, don’t know what they are asking for.”
“It was tough,” Tommi added. “He had a tough go in the beginning. Lots of headaches and having reactions to some of the drugs, because they are some heavy duty stuff.”
At one point, he spent 21 days in the hospital with a fever of 103.
“The biggest thing, I think, was keeping his spirits up so that he didn’t give up,” Tommi said. “And he didn’t.”
Outside of his family, Rhettec received a lot of support, including from his teachers and classmates.
When he thinks about it, he gets emotional.
One of Rhettec’s teachers created videos of the students sending him best wishes. His class kept a stuffed monkey in his seat when he wasn’t there. When Rhettec was able to go to school, the monkey, named Bananas, went home. His classmates helped him stay positive.
“I just remember all the cards from my friends saying that you can do this,” Rhettec said, his voice cracking and his eyes filling with tears.
In June, Rhettec had his final chemotherapy treatment. He’s playing sports again – flag football, baseball, soccer and basketball. And he’s happy he’s finally healthy again.
Rhettec said for him, being healthy is “a big mile point, and it’s something to know that all that hard work payed off.”
ECU’s newest player
Cameras flashed Wednesday as Rhettec sat at a table next to ECU baseball coach Cliff Godwin. The team was holding a mock news conference.
“We’re excited about his athleticism, we’re excited about his academics and what he does in the classroom,” Godwin said. “He’s a very strong student and a person who will represent East Carolina in a positive way.”
One reporter asked Godwin what Rhettec brings to the team.
Godwin said he can do everything.
“He’s a five-tool player, a guy who can hit the ball out of the park, run, a very good defender,” he said, as Rhettec pounded his chest and raised his fist in the air.
After answering the media’s questions, Rhettec signed his name, becoming a member of the team.
Rhettec will spend at least two years attending games, batting practices and hanging with the players.
“It helps me, it helps our kids put things into perspective,” Godwin said in an interview. “When you’re having a bad day and you look at him, and you go well ‘he’s had a lot worse days than we have.’ And striking out making an error, giving up a home run is not that bad anymore, because obviously he has fought for his life.”
As Rhettec took photos with the team, his parents and brothers sat in the front row. Their faces beamed with joy and they couldn’t stop smiling.
They were happy, too. It had been a long journey.