It was summer vacation, and Zac Gossage, 6, a Central Elementary student, had been complaining that his legs hurt.
As children sometimes do, Zac’s mom, Stacy Tooley, said she thought her son might be exaggerating his symptoms to get out of cleaning his room.
But as the days progressed, Zac wasn’t acting like himself.
“He was lying around not doing much,” Tooley said. “He was pale and he had no color in his lips.”
Zac was brought to Urgent Care, where they learned that something was wrong with Zac’s blood and he was sent to Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
It was there that Zac’s mom, stepdad Chad, and his dad and stepmom, Cliff and Kristy Gossage, were all brought into a room and told that Zac’s hemoglobin, or his red blood cell count, was at 2.4, well below the average of 12 to 14.
Tooley noted that at a count of 2, the brain begins shutting down.
“They said it was critical and he would need a blood transfusion,” Tooley said. Zac had two blood transfusions that night.
Meanwhile, a hemoglobin specialist would be called in to look at the blood to determine the cause of the low count.
Later that evening, all four parents were pulled into a room and told that it was likely that Zac had leukemia.
Just days later, their fears were confirmed when a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Zac had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) Type B.
“At first it was a shock,” Tooley said. “The first week was the worst as far as being a parent goes.”
After more than a week in the hospital, Zac was discharged and the family set to making life as normal as possible for him.
In the beginning, there were a lot of appointments — Zac had a port put in his chest, which connects to a main vein so an IV can be placed quickly, and had his first chemotherapy treatment the day the cancer was confirmed.
In August, Zac started first grade in Mrs. Adrienne Koester’s class. Zac was still getting chemotherapy, but didn’t want his friends to know he was sick.
“If you would bring it up, he would shut down,” Tooley said.
But it was in the first grade classroom where Zac found the most comfort. He loves school so much, that he would only miss when he had lumbar punctures, which take most of the day.
During a lumbar puncture, spinal fluid is removed to be sure there are no cancer cells in the spine.
Not long after school started, Zac’s hair began to fall out and he decided it was time to share what he was going through with his friends at school.
Koester sent home a note to parents and talked with the children in class about cancer.
“Children are remarkable, you just have to give them a chance to be,” Koester said.
During the discussion, one classmate said “I’ll stand up for Zac,” Koester said.
“They were ready to be everything Zac needed in a friend and to support him,” she added. “They absolutely embraced every bit of it.”
At first, Zac wore a hat to school, but it didn’t take long before he went home and told his mom that he didn’t need it any more.
Making a Difference
One friend, Vincent Butterfield, decided to shave his head “so Zac wouldn’t feel like he was the only one without hair.”
Vincent also crocheted scarves and sold them to help raise money for Zac’s family. In all, he made and sold more than 20 scarves and donated more than $200 to the family.
Vincent was honored at the December school board meeting for standing up for his friend.
“I’m very proud of Zac, of his friendship and belief in Vincent and the greatness that friendship brings to their lives,” Cliff Gossage said.
After the school board meeting, Butterfield was nominated for the KSDK Channel 5 “Making a Difference” segment.
News anchor Mike Bush visited the school, interviewed both Zac and Vincent, their parents and Koester.
The segment aired Sunday, Jan. 19, and Monday, Jan. 20.
From there, the two boys’ story has circulated the news circuit locally and nationally. The story also aired on the “NBC Nightly News” Thursday, Jan. 23, and was on The Today Show Friday, Jan. 24.
Zac is now in remission, but will continue to get chemotherapy for the next two years.
He currently gets a treatment every 10 days at the Cardinal Kids Cancer Center at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
“It’s amazing to be able to see how strong a child can be,” Tooley said.
If Zac is feeling weak the day after a chemo treatment, he has a Little Red Flyer scooter at school he can use in the hallway and to get to the playground for recess.
“Zac is just a walking, living message of how courageous one can be,” Koester said. “It really puts everything in perspective. You think you might be having a bad day, then you look at Zac, who is fighting for his life, and he still has a smile on his face. He has such a happy heart and he is so brave.”
Koester, who has been a teacher for 10 years, the last seven in the Union School District, has never had a student with cancer.
Zac, though, has brought the whole class together.
“We are a family. We love each other and we treat each other like family and friends,” Koester said. “He has brought us together.”
Overall, Tooley said she has learned not to judge people, because you don’t know what they’re going through.
“Listen to your kids,” she said. “Had I waited one more day, he wouldn’t be with us anymore.”
Tooley thanked the community for its support and prayers for Zac over the past several months.
How to Help
There are two Facebook pages dedicated to Zac — “Team Zachary” and “We Got Your Back Zac.”
Bracelets and T-shirts are for sale at stlphc.com, and all proceeds will benefit Zac.
A link for financial donations can be found by clicking the “We Got Your Back Zac” logo on the right side of the stlphc.com web page.
A benefit concert will be held Thursday, Jan. 30, from 7 to 10 p.m., at Belmont Vineyards & Winery, 5870 Old Highway 66, Leasburg.
For more information, people may call Colleen Fuchs, 309-275-2160, Pam Ray, 314-578-4413, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A trivia night also is being planned. Details can be found at stlphc.com.