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Commitment

Ben Yankelitis ’16, Pat Ferraiolo ’15

Despite being sidelined by cancer for a year, senior Mason Abate will play baseball at Elizabethtown College next year.

AbateThe 5 foot 9 inch right-handed pitcher has “good direction toward home plate,” resulting in a 79-81 MPH fastball, according to Prep Baseball Report. He mixes in an 11/5 curveball and a changeup, and exhibits “quick feet and short ball-to-ear release on pickoff attempts.”

“He loves baseball,” said Fred Hilliard, head baseball coach. “He loves the statistics, he loves watching it, he loves going to games, and I love that about him.”

On December 29, Mason Abate announced his commitment to play college baseball at Elizabethtown College.

“When I was in sixth grade I knew I wanted to play in college,” Mason said. However, the journey to college baseball that he saw as a sixth grader at Malvern was not the journey he ended up taking.

On February 1, 2013, Mason was diagnosed with leukemia.

Leading up to that unforgettable day, Mason had experienced some medical struggles which included a 106 degree fever on Christmas 2012.

He went through a few blood tests at Paoli Hospital where they discovered that his hemoglobin levels were low. More intensive blood tests were then conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After the blood tests were positive for leukemia, Mason had to go down to CHOP that night.

“He set his mind to fighting and winning,” his older brother, Parker Abate ’15, said.

The support for Mason’s fight came immediately. February 1 was a Friday, and on Monday February 4, Father Flynn announced Mason’s diagnosis to the school at the chapel service.

The crowded chapel was hushed as Father Flynn spoke. Students stared blankly at Flynn’s podium with their mouths slightly open. Mr. Legner did not have to remind everyone to be quiet in the place of worship. The community filed out of the chapel completely silent.

However, it did not take long for students to respond. The hashtag “#prayersformason,” was a trending topic in Philadelphia that night on Twitter. The message of hope was shared by many, even by those without any connection to Mason or Malvern. Celebrities Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Claude Giroux, Katherine Webb, David Boreanaz, Evan Turner, Hoodie Allen, Ben Davis, Ryan Nassib, and Waka Flocka Flame all tweeted their support.

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The student in the St. Augustine statue wears a #prayersformason shirt. / B. Yankelitis

 

“All the tweets helped me a lot,” Mason said. “I also got a bazillion texts and it actually got irritating to a point. I got so many, my phone would die in thirty seconds.”

Over the duration of his treatment Mason even received support from the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Chuck Pagano, a fellow cancer survivor. Mason also received support from his favorite baseball player, Andrew McCutchen, who wore a #prayersformason wristband to honor Mason during a game.

Yet for Mason, it was his faith that helped him the most through his treatment.

One of his mom’s friends gave him a copy of the serenity prayer. He taped the prayer to his bedside to help him through what he was about to endure.

Mason remembers saying to himself, “I’m gonna beat this, I’m gonna play baseball again.”

Mason was facing threScreen Shot 2016-02-21 at 12.06.59 PMe rounds of chemotherapy as a freshman in high school. After the third round, he would be tested and if all looked good he would have only one more round. If not, he would have to have a bone marrow transplant.

Senior Jake Mullan, one of Mason’s best friends, remembered what it was like seeing Mason during this time.

“I visited him in the hospital, and before I had an idea of what it was going to be – really gloomy and a low vibe,” Mullan said. “But when I saw him, he was smiling ear to ear, and seemed very happy, despite the circumstances.”

It was this optimistic mindset that showed Mason’s strength and courage.

“He has an incredible drive that has kept him going through the best and worst of days,” Parker said. “I’d like to think that I would have been just as strong and determined as he was, but I’m really not sure.”

Mason’s message for himself during everything was normalcy. He relied heavily on a “recurring theme of keeping things normal.” Even though he was sick he wanted to act like it would be ok.

“My whole family was freaking out and I knew if they saw me being ‘chill’ and normal, they would not freak out,” Mason said. “That comforted me, so in a weird way I was able to comfort myself.”

He kept it “normal” in a lot of ways.Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 2.43.14 PM

“They let me bring my Xbox, which was cool because it helped me stay connected with my friends,” he said.

Mason video chatted with a close group of friends constantly.

He also tried to stay physically active. “[My mom] got on my butt to do physical therapy,” he said. “The whole time I just wasn’t laying in bed. I actually got to do stuff.” He fondly recalls playing floor hockey in the hospital hallways.

The nurses at CHOP also played a role in Mason’s journey. “They were awesome as they made it seem like we were just friends hanging out at a house,” Mason said. “It wasn’t just ‘I’m gonna do this and leave.’”

Mason vividly remembers one nurse who played video games with him. He had brought his Playstation 2 in and the nurse recognized the James Bond game Mason was playing. “It was his favorite game, so he just sat down and started playing,” Mason said.

After keeping it normal for three rounds of chemotherapy, Mason was eager to continue the process, especially after a call from the hospital while he and his mom were shopping at Target.

They told him they did not think he would need a bone marrow transplant.

However, Mason said they found the smallest bit of leukemia in the final tests.

For insurance reasons Mason had to be transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to continue with his treatment and have his bone marrow transplant performed.

A bone marrow transplant consists of replacing damaged or destroyed bone marrow, soft and fatty tissue in the bone which produces blood cells, with healthy bone marrow cells.

To do this, there must be a donor of the healthy cells that match the makeup of the cells of the patient.

Mason did not know they had begun to look for a donor yet, when one day family walked into his hospital room and told him they had been tested. Parker was a 0% match. His sister Mackenzie was a half match.

His oldest sister Morgan was a perfect match.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, 70% of patients do not find a match in their family.

“I was so excited,” Mason said. “It was so relieving that we found a perfect match.”

The bone marrow transplant was successful. On June 17, 2013 he was released from Johns Hopkins.

But he still could not return home. He had to stay in Baltimore for another month because his caregiver had to be Johns Hopkins. Mason and his mom stayed in a hotel using his dad’s travel rewards and a Johns Hopkins rate at the hotel.Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 12.00.23 PM

He still had to take precautions in his daily life because his immune system was weak after the bone marrow transplant. He could not go anywhere. He had to eat lettuce washed by his mom with gloves on, and his food had to be boiled.

Mason kept fighting and finally returned home to Malvern on July 19, 2013.

While he suffered through that life threatening situation, Mason also had to deal with continuing his freshman academics.

When Mason was a freshman, Mr. Valyo was the Head of the Upper School. “My role really was to facilitate that process with the teachers,” Valyo said. “He worked closely with the teachers between treatments. When he was not gravely ill, he was kept up to speed.”

While Mason was out, the teachers and the administration tried to lessen the stress of school while still providing the education he would need for freshman year.

“We gave them a lot of freedom as far as time was concerned,” Valyo said. “We tried not to give really specific deadlines; he did a phenomenal job to stay current and kept up the pace.”

Logistically, Mason attended many classes via Google Hangouts or Facetime while using Google Docs in the hospital.

“It was really hard,” Mason said. “Every time a nurse came in I had to mute myself.” He was often tired because of the treatments during class.

But Jake had the opportunity to be with Mason on the webcam a lot, and always tried to brighten his day and keep him alert.

“It was fun. Teachers, please don’t get me in trouble – I might not have kept him completely focused all the time,” Jake said. “It helped keep him involved and we all enjoyed it.”
Mason’s courage and determination to be normal through everything helped him overcome the struggles of sitting in a class from miles away.Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 12.11.22 PM

“What I admire most about him is how resilient he was and how he just overcame adversity which was really extremely impressive, especially for a freshman,” Valyo said. “This 14-year-old young man was on a mission to beat cancer, which he did, but also to excel academically.”

One of the “MVPs” behind the scenes of Malvern that helped facilitate this process was Mason’s freshman counselor, Mrs. Colleen Lewis.

“She was my ‘right hand man’ in this whole thing,” Valyo said. “She was the liaison and the conduit with having us all work really well together between the family, the teachers, and myself. She was the nucleus and did a phenomenal job.”

In addition, all of Mason’s teachers helped him through the process. They tried to make the experience as smooth as possible for him: let him deal with his treatment first, then worry about school.

“We ranged different plans individually with his freshman teachers and the parents,” Valyo said. “We tried not try to overburden him with six specific deadlines in one week. Rather, we spread it out throughout the year and try to schedule due dates in little doses.”

Head of Upper School, Mr. Ron Algeo, also played a role in getting Mason back to school and keeping him up to speed.

“We have to have policies to be able to help keep the school streamlined and efficient,” Algeo said. “But, we try to look at each case individually and what is best for the student. With Mason, we thought that he had a proven track record of success and hard work and maturity when it comes to academics.”

Algeo believed that Mason was responsible enough to handle both the treatment and this new form of education due to his hard worth ethic and proven track record.

“One of the things that I really respect about Mason is his authenticity,” Algeo said. “He is very, very genuine. If he is sharing his thoughts about something, they are real. Not pretend or fake. He shoots right from the heart, and when you do that, you earn a lot of trust in people.”

Mason returned to school at the end of the third quarter sophomore year.

It was a significant change of pace for him. He had to follow a new schedule, and felt he was often caught up in the joy of simply being back with friends. He had to find a way to get back in the rhythm of things.

He found that rhythm through baseball. Mason returned to the diamond on Malvern’s junior varsity team as a sophomore.

“It was the best feeling,” Mason said. “It felt amazing to be able to play again and just have fun with it and not have to worry about a bunch of other things.”

“He was thrilled to be back out there with his peers,” Hilliard said. “Just seeing him with the guys, picking up his glove, it felt like he was back in his element.”

Mason said he could not remember his first game back because he was keeping it normal. It was just another game for him.

In his junior year, Mason was on varsity and finally got to play with Parker again.

“Being with Mason on the baseball field was an incredible experience my senior year,” Parker said. “It was so comforting knowing that I had my biggest supporter on the same field and in the same dugout.”

Mason’s journey was a time of growth for him and his family. In the darkest of times, he stayed strong. His relationship with his brother, Parker, grew as a result.

“Mason’s diagnosis turned my world upside down,” Parker said. “My perspective on things changed. When something that drastic happens, it makes you realize how fragile life is.”

Parker said he spent as much time as possible with Mason during his months in the hospital. “It was tough with baseball and school, but I made it work because he was on my mind every second of every day,” he said.

Together, they played around together like they were kids and tried to have as much fun as they could.

“Movies and video games were always a go-to in the hospital,” Parker said. “Our relationship grew simply by hanging out, and putting all the bad stuff aside. We focused on laughing and having a good time with one another.”

Parker said that Mason is now his best friend.

“Before his diagnosis, I did not tell him that I loved him nearly enough. Now, we say it to one another at least once a day. Our relationship has grown so much from February 1, 2013 to now.”

Mason has taken all he has learned about cancer, faith, family, care, and love and brought it to Malvern.

He is a leader of the Malvern Blood Drive, and gave a moving speech during his junior year at a chapel service urging students to give blood to help others. According to the American Red Cross, many of the 1.68 million people expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2016 will need blood, sometimes daily, during their chemotherapy treatment.

He has also shown great leadership as a MECO leader.

Mason was elected as a captain of the baseball team through a team vote.

“What he gives you every time he goes out there is his best effort,” Hilliard said. “What he gives you every practice is an attitude, a work ethic, and a winning mentality that makes us stronger as a program.”

Mullan will also be a captain with Mason and is grateful he gets to have Mason by his side.

“Mason has an energy that no one else has,” Mullan said. “He is one of the most inspirational people that I have ever met because he went through everything he went through, and is still the happy and energetic person he is today.”

Even with all this experience, courage, determination and wisdom, the decision to choose a college was still difficult for Mason.

MasonThe recruitment from Elizabethtown started during the summer before his senior year after he impressed a few schools at a showcase.

He finally narrowed down his choices to Elizabethtown and Albright College. “I prayed real hard about it,” Mason said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

After a session of prayer one day, Mason walked outside, looked to his left, and in a tree saw two blue jays.

Elizabethtown’s mascot is the Blue Jay.

About Ben Yankelitis

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