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Two Weeks Post THON, Story Continues for Local Four Diamonds Family

by on March 09, 2011 6:00 AM

It’s been two weeks since THON, which in the news business can feel like two years.

Since then, we’ve covered the snow, power outages, State Patty’s Day and two tuition marches.  

The headline of the moment, of course, is the future of our state. When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his proposed budget for 2011-2012, he provided our website with enough news for the rest of the year.

But real life isn’t a newsroom (we can all be thankful for that). And in the home of one State College family, the memories of this year’s THON feel a bit fresher.

In November 2007, Isabella Messina, then six years old, suffered a relapse from Acute Lymphoid Leukemia. Her parents decided that she’d receive a bone marrow transplant from her then-two-year-old brother Jack.

The Messinas attended THON 2008 with surgery looming, and the future uncertain. Many THON families describe THON as Christmas without presents, but for the Messinas, the 46-hour support group/party/playdate felt exactly like a gift.

At this year’s THON, the Messinas were closing in on the three-year anniversary of the transplant that saved their daughter’s life.

For Isabella and her brother Jack, the weekend was more about being kids than beating cancer. Isabella participated in the kids' fashion show, and both kids took the stage before a packed house to dance with THON Overall Chairwoman Kirsten Kelly at the pep rally.

For their parents the weekend was a chance to be surrounded, once again, by the only other people who can truly understand what they experienced: other families.

It was also an opportunity to show their appreciation for the students. “To know that those college kids are doing all of this for someone else’s kid, it’s pretty amazing,” said Renee Messina, Isabella’s mom and a clinical coordinator with Penn State’s Athletic Training Program.

That support is a year-round presence. After her diagnosis, Isabella was “adopted” by the Student Athlete Advisory Board. Post-transplant she wasn’t allowed to spend much time outside, so Penn State athletes sent her Nerf balls and mitts so she could play baseball in the apartment provided by the Four Diamonds Fund.

The athletes on the advisory board are now friends. During the week leading up to THON, Renee received her annual e-mail from a volleyball player who danced on Isabella’s behalf in the year right before her transplant. A field hockey player who lost her own father to cancer also stays in touch.

For Renee, an emotional highlight of THON 2011 was the revealing of the final number. When the fundraising total was announced, the Messinas were standing next to Four Diamonds Fund co-founder Charles Millard.

“To be with Mr. Millard, the man that started it all, was something that I will never forget,” Renee said.

That moment, and that weekend, is a continuation of a story that most of us can appreciate, but never completely understand. For the majority of people living in this town, THON is still just an event (albeit a massive one) that’s covered, celebrated—and inevitably scrutinized—for a finite period of time.

That difference in perspectives came into sharp view one year when Renee attended the 100 Days 'til THON event. Several students were grumbling that the gathering was “taking over the HUB.” Renee tried to combat the negative sentiment. “When cancer comes into your life,” she said during her remarks, “it doesn’t just take over the HUB for a day; it takes over your life.”

On March 19, the exact anniversary of Isabella’s surgery, the rest of State College may be discussing the weather, or budget cuts, or some other yet-to-be-determined headline.

You can bet the Messinas will be talking about THON.

Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at or contact her at [email protected]
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