Update: Grayson Gilbert has been selected as the Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day for March 28, 2012.
When Grayson Gilbert was in treatment for a rare form of pancreatic cancer, he didn't doubt for a second that he'd be OK. It did, however, take a little help.
In 1995, Gilbert had been diagnosed with pancreatoblastoma, a cancer so rare in children that his case was only the fifth on the books. Doctors at Hopkins began aggressive chemotherapy and surgery, entering uncharted territory for a patient so small. Doctors even had to perform a Whipple procedure, removing his gallbladder, bile duct, some of his stomach and nearly all of his pancreas, leaving Gilbert with a patchwork digestive system and various complications over the years. He spent a year in the hospital.
The subject of a famous Baltimore Sun photo, the then-6-year-old Gilbert is seen placing a note at the foot of “Christus Consolator”—Christ the Divine Healer—the iconic statue in the rotunda at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“Dear Jesus, This is Grayson,” read the note, written in the 6-year-old's shaky handwriting. “If you could, just heal the other kids. Thank you very much.”
At 22 years old, the Towson High graduate and Towson University senior, in surviving so long, has proven himself right and baffled most doctors. He joined in several fundraising efforts in recent years for “the other kids,” and now he's started one of his own.
Grayson and a group of friends founded Inspirational Medicine in January. The nonprofit seeks to connect ailing children with their heroes, be they athletes, authors or artists.
This is the kind of mentoring that found itself in the spotlight on NFL sidelines this past season. Players like Tim Tebow and Ray Lewis make an effort to reach out to children in need, through various charitable organizations. After the Ravens' stinging January playoff loss to the New England Patriots, Lewis put things in perspective, telling teammates about a City College student he had been mentoring who passed away just before kickoff. Lewis had promised the boy's mother he would be back to see him after the game.
“There's a 17-year-old kid that was waiting for me to come speak to him, but a game pulled me away from that, from ever making his eyes see my eyes,” Lewis said, according to Baltimore Magazine.
That spotlight, Gilbert said, helps other athletes realize the sort of impact they can have. And with new technology like Skype, it's easier than ever for celebrities to make a difference.
“If you have a positive attitude and your hero tells you, ‘Don't give up, you're going to do well,’ and … a child hears that from, like, Michael Jordan, he's going to take that to heart and say, ‘I'm getting better dude, like no questions asked,’” Gilbert said.
Gilbert carries the scars and side effects of his battle. He developed Type II diabetes at 18, has fought off varices (venous ulcers) the last several years and now takes 80-100 pills each day. But with his easygoing grin and confident outlook, you'd think he was just another college student.
When he was in the hospital, Gilbert was faced with grim realities every day. Many kids on his floor who he got to know didn't make it. He resolved he wouldn't be one of them.
So who was Gilbert's inspiration?
It shouldn't be that big of a surprise. With the same bald head (a result of the chemotherapy) the same steely determination and the same love of baseball, the young Grayson Gilbert idolized the Iron Man himself, Cal Ripken Jr.
Before a surgery, through several degrees of family connections, Gilbert received an autographed picture from Ripken, who wished him well.
Months later, Gilbert was sitting in Ripken's Aberdeen office after shooting a Children's Miracle Network advertisement with the Orioles great, and the two just chatted about life and baseball, Gilbert said. At one point, Ripken went to his desk and grabbed a ball.
Ripken told Gilbert that whenever he had a big decision to make—whether to make an investment, end The Streak, retire—he'd step over to his desk, pick up the ball, and toss it into the air.
He'd catch it—sometimes behind the back to test his reflexes—and whichever way it landed would help him make his call.
So he gave the ball to Gilbert, but not before the two went outside and played the most memorable game of catch in Gilbert's young life.
That ball, worn down with the marks of plenty of big decisions, now sits on Gilbert's desk as a reminder of the strength that kept him going during some of his toughest years.
Finding a New Cause
Gilbert is used to supporting causes. In the years since his diagnosis, he's worked with Children's Miracle Network and other charities to raise money for Hopkins and cancer research. He even owns two of the "Miracle Ties" he drew for the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
He remembers walking around his Ruxton neighborhood, knocking on doors to collect donations the old-fashioned way, not long after his treatment.
“They saw my bald head, obviously I'm not trying to scam them,” he joked.
But now that he's a bit older, Gilbert said, it's time to do something on his own.
Late last year, he talked with high school friends, like Coleman Bass, now Inspirational Medicine's president and COO, about starting a nonprofit. Bass, also from Towson, took the idea to friends and classmates at Dickinson College.
“After I was done, people were asking questions, wanting [my business] cards,” Bass said of one pitch to the school's pre-law society.
Ben Weissman, one of Bass' friends at Dickinson, signed on as board chairman.
“For me it came down to two things. One, the idea's brilliant,” Weissman said. “But two, the fact that two seniors in college started an organization out of thin air.”
Right now, Bass and Gilbert are in a holding pattern as their IRS paperwork worms its way through legal channels.
The important thing, however, is making sure through any way possible that children know that much of recovery is mental. Gilbert's a living testament to that.
“I feel like the mind can control almost anything,” he said. “If you overcome cancer, cancer is just something that is that major challenge in your life that if you overcome it, what do you have to overcome after that?”