A group of ducks flying together are called a flock. But what do you call two ducks pairing up to fight childhood cancer?
The Tennessee-based nonprofit provides stuffed ducks to children battling cancer at medical facilities across the country, including Penn State Children’s Hospital in Derry Township.
That’s where Duck Donuts founder Russ DiGilio and Gabe’s Chemo Duck founder and CEO Louise Sipos gathered to announce their partnership.
In addition to hospital officials, lawmakers and business officials, they were joined by Sipos’ teenage son, Gabe, whose battle with cancer began before he turned one, and who was inspiration for the charity.
“We’re humbled that this means as much to you as it does to us,” Sipos told DiGilio.
A tiny patient
Born on New Year’s Day 2002, Gabe was diagnosed with a soft tissue tumor in his sinus cavity shortly before his first birthday. After weekly chemotherapy treatments for nine months, 30 radiation treatments and numerous surgeries, Gabe was declared cancer-free just before his second birthday.
During those treatments, Sipos bought Gabe a little stuffed duck to take with him, and dressed Gabe up like a doctor, with glasses and a little stethoscope. The duck was his patient.
“It was, in the beginning, a bit of a joke,” she said.
But in their efforts to make Gabe feel comfortable, medical staff thought it might help to explain to him what was happening by demonstrating on the duck.
It helped, and the duck became Gabe’s constant companion.
Sipos took to dressing up the duck in hospital attire, and one of the doctors suggested she consider doing the same for other children. That’s how Gabe’s Chemo Duck was born.
Since the charity was founded in 2004, more than 30,000 Chemo Ducks have been distributed worldwide, and more than 120 hospitals participate in the program.
“The ducks become an instant friend to the children who receive them, and even come with matching bandanas for the duck and the child,” said Ashley Kane, child life program manager at Penn State Children’s Hospital.
Sadly, Sipos pointed out, the demand is not abating. In 2016, an estimated 10,380 children under the age of 15 were diagnosed with cancer in the U.S.
Worldwide, every three minutes a family is told their child has been diagnosed with cancer, and one in five children with cancer will die of the disease.
“When I first met Lu Sipos and saw what an incredible difference her organization is making in the lives of pediatric cancer patients, I knew we wanted to join forces to make sure every child and family facing the unimaginable would have access to a Chemo Duck,” DiGilio said.
“By adding our support and resources to Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program, we want to help make a difference in the lives of children and families who are on an unthinkable journey. Our partnership will enable children’s hospitals nationwide to freely distribute Chemo Ducks to every child who needs one, without worrying about budgets or selective distribution,” he added.
The effort was lauded by Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries, who presented a commemorative proclamation, as well as state Sen. Mike Regan (R-Cumberland County).
Dave Black, president and CEO of Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp., praised Duck Donuts for its #quackgivesback initiative, designed to support charitable community causes, such as the Chemo Ducks.
“We often hear in this day and age that businesses don’t do enough,” Black told DiGilio. “We could not exist without the business community, and you’re the very best that the business community has to offer.”
A Cumberland County resident, DiGilio spent three decades of his working life in the health care field, most recently overseeing the management and development of nursing and assisted living facilities.
Duck Donuts, which started as a vacation getaway project by DiGilio and his family in the seaside town of Duck, N.C., now has 36 stores in 15 states, with 117 more planned.
The company’s headquarters and training center are on the Carlisle Pike in Hampden Township, Cumberland County.
Some of the most emotional moments on Friday came from the youngest voices, leaving a room full of business people and reporters stone silent.
“I’ve grown up with Chemo Duck, and it’s always been a part of my life,” Gabe told a packed media room at the hospital on Friday.
“I thank Duck Donuts for allowing us to be here. It really helps us spread a beautiful message that we’re trying to send to kids with childhood cancer.”
One of those kids is Lily Jordan, a Camp Hill Middle School student who was diagnosed with bone cancer when she was 12.
“Immediately it turns into a terrifying world of doctors, terrifying machines and needles,” said Lily.
But she also praised “the amazing staff at Hershey Med,” and Chemo Duck.
The staff said she was welcome to a duck, though of course she didn’t have to take one if she felt “a little old” for a stuffed toy.
“I said yes,” she said. And Lily also took one for her best friend, who was feeling anxious about visiting her in the hospital.
Now 14, Lily is again battling the disease, but maintains an active school and social calendar.
“I just want to say thank you,” she said to hospital staff, Sipos and DiGilio.
“It’s doughnuts, and little ducks, and it’s awesome.”