When Westfield High School teacher Kara Shields participates in The Valerie Fund Walk in Verona Park this June, she will be walking with one very special boy in mind.
Shields' three-year-old son, Will DeGregorio, was diagnosed with a tumor on his adrenal gland in July of 2012.
"We went for a well visit and I just thought Will had a distended belly," Shields recalled. "The doctor didn't know what it was but gave me some numbers to call. But before I even made the calls, the doctor called the next morning to say, 'I've been up all night thinking about Will. I think you'd better go to the ER.'"
Doctors at Morristown Medical Center determined that Will had a tumor attached to his adrenal gland. Treated by a team of pediatric oncologists, endocrinologists and a surgeon, whom Shields referred to as "a magician," the entire mass as well as Will's adrenal gland were removed. For three months following the surgery, Will's blood work came back normal, Shields said. But in November an MRI revealed that Will had abnormal cell growth on his lungs and liver. The preschooler began chemotherapy on Nov. 13.
Despite all he has been through, the proud mom said Will's "amazing spirit" cannot be weakened.
"I tell everyone he's my little super hero," said Shields. "He's wise beyond his years. He'll be telling the nurses what they need to do. He's a rock star."
Since he began treatment, Shields said they have received two positive MRIs indicating that Will's liver is clear and the spots on his lungs are much smaller.
"It's huge news," said Shields, who added that the outpouring of support she and Will have received from the communities of both Westfield and Cranford, where she and Will live, has been overwhelming.
On Feb. 6, Westfield and Cranford Ice Hockey teams faced off for some friendly competition to benefit the courageous youngster. Shields said she found the event, which occurred between Will's two latest MRIs, "so special."
"It was so rejunevating for me," said Shields, a special education teacher. "It was like a breath of fresh air. As hard as it has been for Will to be out of school and out of his routine, I realized how much I've missed going to school and seeing people. Everyone said that I hadn't smiled like that in a long time. I'm usually at the hospital or at my house. I say, 'you can enter our bubble, but we don't leave our bubble.'"
Shields explained that Cranford hockey parent Jim Nicholl reached out to her brother-in-law-- father of Shields' nephew, a Cranford hockey player--who brought the idea to Westfield hockey parent John Devin.
"They and their wives were just unbelievable," said Shields. "They did everything, and to have both communities there, the turnout was amazing."
Shields said after Will's initial diagnosis, she found herself retreating from friends because she was still struggling to comprehend the news.
"I just couldn't wrap my head around it," she said. "But by September, I started reaching out. I wanted the prayers."
Will is currently being treated at the Valerie Center at Morristown Medical Center. The Valerie Fund Walk and 5K Run held on June 15 will support the Fund's mission to provide comprehensive health care for children with cancer and blood disorders. Shields said her family has been incredibly supportive as well. They will walk alongside her in honor of Will, the most determined boy they know.
To support Shields and her team 'Will Power Walk,' visit https://www.thevaleriefund.org/Walk2013/team.php?team=484
Donations for Will can also be made to Friends of CHS Hockey, 111 James Ave, Cranford, NJ 07016. Gift cards to Trader Joe's to provide Will with nutritious foods during his hospital stays are also appreciated.