It began as pain in Claire Grassoâ€™s legs when she was 3 years old.
Within weeks, â€˜itâ€™ became her familyâ€™s nightmare and a 26-month roller-coaster of medicine and emotions.
â€˜Itâ€™ was leukemia.
â€œWe moved here from New Jersey in May 2016,â€ recalled Claireâ€™s mother, Kimberly Grasso of Marietta. â€œMy husband Rob had transferred to a new job. We were getting used to the area, but we didnâ€™t really know anyone.â€
Grasso enrolled Claire in a local preschool that August, hoping her daughter could make new friends in the neighborhood.
â€œClaire had been there a week when she started sniffling and coughing. I thought, â€˜Well, kids are in school and they get sick,â€™â€ Grasso said. Then, about a month after starting school, Claire started complaining that her legs hurt. Grasso wondered if they were growing pains, noting her daughter hadnâ€™t experienced any kind of accident or injury.
â€œOne day, we were playing and she dropped a toy. She said, â€˜Mommy, can you get my toy?â€™ I said, â€˜You can pick it up.â€™ Thatâ€™s when Claire said she couldnâ€™t, because it hurt to bend down.â€
Throughout the rest of that day, Grasso randomly dropped a few items around the house and observed her daughter. â€œI said, â€˜Claire, could you pick that up for me?â€™ She couldnâ€™t. If I dropped it near the coffee table she would lean heavily on it to get down and then get back up, but otherwise she wasnâ€™t able to do it.â€
Claireâ€™s pain baffled her dad, too.
â€œShe couldnâ€™t really point to where it hurt,â€ Rob Grasso said. â€œSometimes it was her knee, sometimes her leg or her hip or her ankle. Still, I thought it was odd.â€
A â€˜troubling rashâ€™Kimberly Grasso shared their observations with Claireâ€™s pediatrician, who thought Claireâ€™s discomfort could be caused by constipation. The doctor was more concerned with a faint rash on Claireâ€™s face and ordered bloodwork.
The next day, the doctor called and urged Kimberly Grasso to take her daughter to the hospital immediately to rule out a bowel obstruction.
â€œI took her to Childrenâ€™s Heathcare of Atlanta, and her doctor had called ahead to let the staff know. It wasnâ€™t normal, because they started an IV on her right away,â€ Kimberly Grasso said.
Rob Grasso met his wife and daughter in the emergency room, where they waited together and kept Claire still. Thatâ€™s when Kimberly Grasso noticed the rash had spread to Claireâ€™s legs and arms.
Then, a physician told the family about the bloodworkâ€™s results.
â€œShe said there were â€˜blasts in her blood,â€™ and they were fairly certain of a leukemia diagnosis,â€ Kimberly Grasso recalled. â€œI remember saying, â€˜No, we are here for an X-ray for bowel obstruction.â€™ The doctor said, â€˜I understand and Iâ€™m sorry â€” but this is bigger than that.â€™â€
Kimberly Grasso had learned a few weeks earlier that she was pregnant with her second child, Chase.
â€œI was at about nine weeks. As Claire sat on my lap in the hospital room, I remember thinking, â€˜Am I blessed with this pregnancy because Iâ€™m going to lose my child?â€
Rob Grasso tried to stay calm.
â€œI asked every question I could think of except the obvious one. â€˜Will she be OK?â€™ I was deathly afraid of what the answer would be. I asked the doctors what we were supposed to do, just go home now? The doctor tried to keep from laughing. He said, â€˜No, sheâ€™ll be here for an undetermined amount of time and starting treatment as soon as we determine what kind of leukemia it is.â€™â€
Hospital staff becomes familyTreatment wound up being 26 months of daily, then weekly and then monthly infusions â€” with multiple hospital admissions.
Kimberly Grasso vividly recalled Claireâ€™s first of many nights at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Scottish Rite for blood transfusions and chemotherapy treatments.
â€œIt was 12:18 a.m. I watched her nurse hang bags of blood for Claireâ€™s first transfusion. There were no words to describe what I was feeling. I had nobody to talk to, we had no family here and we didnâ€™t know our neighbors. Rob didnâ€™t know his new coworkers very well because he traveled a lot. We felt very isolated, except for the Realtor who sold us our house. We were shell-shocked and in denial. It was like we were outside the situation looking in,â€ she said.
â€œOver 26 months of Claireâ€™s treatments, the staff at the cancer center became the people we knew best,â€ Rob Grasso said. â€œThey were like family. They were almost all we had. Theyâ€™re there because itâ€™s their calling in life. They knew how to manage the parents â€” when to hug us and when to hold our hands. … They were very human, not clinical. They got us through this. The kindness that we were shown still brings us to tears,â€ he said.
Claire rang the bell at the Aflac center in December 2018 to celebrate her final chemo treatment. She will continue to see cancer specialists for two years before transferring to a survivor clinic that helps patients with the after-effects of the disease and treatments.
Claire and her parents will be featured on the WSB Care-a-thon July 25 with an on-air interview.
â€œIf thereâ€™s anything we can do for the center, we do it,â€ Rob Grasso said, noting his daughter has been face of the Care-a-thon for Atlanta-area Kroger stores. He speaks at charity events for the hospital and the family donates to the cause as well.
â€œItâ€™s all about the treatments and the children,â€ he said. â€œClaireâ€™s oncologist told us, â€˜Weâ€™re good at this. Itâ€™s what we do, and sheâ€˜s going to be just fine. You guys â€” itâ€™s going to take years off your lives. But Claire will be fine.â€