It couldn’t be a happier time, sports-wise, for 9-year-old Trenton Gaige Thigpen—known by most as simply “Gaige.” This month he’s cheering on his beloved Boston Red Sox as they battle it out with the Houston Astros in the American League’s championship series.
The Jedburg boy has no shortage of fan paraphernalia in his home and has even met some of the MLB team’s players during batting practice earlier this season. It was his first Fenway Park experience.
In addition to America’s favorite pastime, hunting, fishing and dirt bike racing are Gaige’s top hobbies—his most recent deer killed three days after a chemotherapy session and lumbar puncture this month. That’s because though many would never know it by mere appearances—other than his thinning hair—Gaige is fighting for his life, diagnosed with leukemia the beginning of 2018.
Earlier this month, he sat laid-back in a recliner inside his living room—head covered with a baseball hat and sipping on a Capri-Sun—while watching a hunting show on T.V. Gaige sat quietly listening to his mom Serena Hernandez retell his story of sickness. He chimed into the conversation to reveal his unique nickname, one that rhymes with his last name.
“Some call me ‘Pigpen,’” Gaige said with a smirk.
But it’s not his only nickname. He’s also known by his baseball team, the U11 “Destroyers,” as “G-money.” Hernandez said his coach coined the name one game Gaige hit a line drive. And she said he can’t wait to return to playing—his love for the All-American sport, he started playing at age 3, motivating him to fight through all his treatments and setbacks.
While Gaige can’t suit up in uniform to play his usual short stop and pitcher positions, little can stop from sitting in the stands and cheering on his friends, even if going out in public means covering his face with a medical mask—one personalized with a Red Sox theme. Chemotherapy has lowered Gaige’s immune system, and he can’t afford to catch additional germs, according to Hernandez.
She said Gaige’s medical woes started last fall. In September 2017 he was thrown from a golf cart, fracturing his tibia and fibula in his right ankle. The injury kept Gaige off the baseball field that entire fall season and forced him out of the classroom and into homebound care.
But as the months after his accident passed, despite continual prodding from his family and doctor, Gaige refused to walk on his leg—or even get out of bed. He even started losing weight.
“I realized he was not going to walk; he was refusing to walk because he was scared,” Hernandez said.
Gaige eventually saw a psychiatrist who urged him to try to walk.
“He said, ‘You’re going to stand up; there’s no need for you not to walk,’ and stood him up,” Hernandez said.
But the effort failed, and Gaige’s screams echoed throughout the room.
“Gaige latched on to him, and about pulled him down,” Hernandez said.
The screams were similar to the ones she said Gaige randomly belted out during one of his brother’s wrestling matches at that time, when he tried to stand up in the stands. Gaige’s older brother had to carry him to the car, Hernandez said.
At that time Gaige had also been prescribed Prozac, which did little to help, and visited a chiropractor to check on severe back pain he was experiencing. While his bloodwork came back normal and the chiropractor didn’t seem too concerned about a compression fracture on Gaige’s vertebrae, Hernandez said her motherly intuition knew something else was wrong.
“I finally just had enough. At that time, I said, ‘Something’s just not right,’” she said. “I thought, ‘I know he didn’t hurt his back when he fell off the golf cart so either it’s a mistake or something knew.’”
While the C-word entered her mind, she said her husband refused to consider the possibility when she brought it up to him. It wasn’t until January, when Hernandez rushed Gaige to the emergency room at Medical University of South Carolina and demanded they admit him, that she drew closer to the truth of her son’s condition. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not taking him back home. We’re going south here, and there’s nothing good coming out of this,’” Hernandez said.
‘A bad feeling’
Gaige was initially admitted for his symptoms of loss of appetite and osteopenia—a condition in which the bones are weak and brittle—after a radiologist again spotted his back fracture. The plan was then to move him to a pediatric rehab center in Atlanta, Hernandez said.
But the next day medical hands had little success in trying to walk Gaige to a physical therapy session. Before he even moved halfway down the hospital hallway, doctors were paged that the PT appointment had been cancelled and Gaige ordered back to his room. Hernandez said her heart sank at the cancellation.
“I had a bad feeling after that because they wouldn’t tell me why,” she said.
Shortly after, six different doctors entered the boy’s room and explained their uncertainty of his condition. They said they had discovered abnormal cells during bloodwork and ordered a hematology team to run additional tests.
“I knew then what they were,” Hernandez said of the questionable cells.
An hour later a doctor revealed a harsh reality: Gaige had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, “the most common type of childhood cancer,” Hernandez said, and Gaige would be transferred to an oncology unit to start treatment.
The news sent Hernandez into shock. “I walked out,” she said upon hearing the truth.
Gaige, too, was speechless.
“I just told the doctor to get out of the room,” he said.
The doctor told the family the leukemia was “coming with or without the break” in Gaige’s leg, though Hernandez said she’s still not convinced the golf cart accident wasn’t a contributing factor.
“I don’t know if I wholeheartedly believe that,” she said.
Hernandez is also sensitive about people telling her Gaige’s previous health issues were “a blessing in disguise,” and how without them doctors may not have discovered his cancer.
“I don’t feel like Gaige had to go through all of that to find out he had cancer,” she said. “He didn’t have to go through the pain and the suffering of not walking and losing muscle mass…just to find the leukemia.”
Once diagnosed, Gaige immediately began chemo, though intense medicine failed to destroy all the cancer, and he relapsed over the summer. But for at least three weeks, Hernandez said Gaige has celebrated remission status, though it’s highly likely the cancer will return without further treatment.
While for a time doctors suggested a bone marrow transplant would be the best course of action to treat Gaige. While the family found four partial matches, none were 100 percent.
Luckily, through continued research about his diagnosis, Hernandez said she learned about an alternative treatment called CAR T-cell therapy. If effective it would have fewer negative side effects and a higher probability of ridding Gaige’s body of cancer, she said.
Gaige has already been deemed a viable candidate and will receive treatment the third week of November at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The medical procedure will remove Gaige’s current T-cells—good cells that help the immune system fight sickness. The cells will then head to a manufacturing site, where they’ll be rebuilt and restored before returning to his body. The therapy will take a total time of six weeks.
‘Fight inside of me’
Hernandez said she’s leaned on Gaige’s example the past year to keep her strong.
“I pretty much follow his lead. If he can be that strong, then so can I,” she said. “I just have this fight inside of me.”
She also praised the community—Gaige’s coaches, neighbors and strangers—for their support. She said Gaige even gets phone calls and messages from top Gamecock baseball players with Summerville roots, and how one even labeled his glove “G-money.”
“G-money strong” has also become a popular catch-phrase among Gaige’s supporters.
But Gaige’s cancer is not the first time Hernandez has faced tragedy. In 2006 she said she lost a 2-year-old son, and since then has gained a new perspective motherhood and life.
“In going through that, it just taught me how to love differently and taught me how to be a mom in a different way,” she said. “I don’t take my kids for granted.”
Hernandez said she’s not only vowed to cherish each moment with her children—all three of them—but has also promised herself she would never again bury one.
“When Gaige got diagnosed, I told myself I will not visit a cemetery for another birthday, for another holiday, for another one of my kids—not as long as I can have anything to do with it,” she said.
Light the Night walk
Later this month Gaige will be the featured “honored hero” for the Light the Night Walk at Joe Riley Park in Charleston. Sponsored by the South Carolina Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the event is set for 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 25 and is meant to raise awareness and money to fund research to find cures for blood cancers.
Hernandez said Gaige was chosen after a local woman, Kristine Schaffer, shared his story with the organization. For years Schaffer has been an advocate for sick children.
“I guess his story inspired them because I guess most of the kids who are battling cancer don’t typically fight back like Gaige does,” Hernandez said.
She said her hope is that her son can be “the face of hope” for all other children battling the disease. Hernandez said she also believes God has a unique purpose for her son’s life. “I feel like there’s something bigger for Gaige; I feel like he’s supposed to be doing something else,” she said.
For more information on the walk, visit lightthenight.org.