17-Year-Old Benefits From Tackle Kids Cancer Initiative After Leukemia Treatment   

17-Year-Old Benefits From Tackle Kids Cancer Initiative After Leukemia Treatment

Eric Viscito and Eli Manning

It had been a rough couple of years. Raymond Viscito had lost his wife, Kara, to kidney failure and a rare cancer in 2017, leaving him a widower with three children. Then in July 2021, his 17-year-old son, Erik, got sick.

“Everything is a blur. It all happened so quickly,” says Raymond, who lives in Lacey, New Jersey. Erik was feeling dizzy and weak; he’d thrown up all night and his eyes were bloodshot. His primary care doctor ordered blood work, which showed that his white blood cell count was over 600,000—indicating that his body was fighting something serious.

The doctor instructed Raymond to immediately take him to Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center. There, a team of pediatric oncologists gave the unfortunate news: Erik had an aggressive form of leukemia.

Treatment began immediately, and Erik was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where he and his dad lived for a month. “Erik was treated with chemo, spinal taps, blood transfusions and platelet transfusions,” Raymond says. Eight months of outpatient chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed.

One day during their stay at the Children’s Hospital, Raymond and Erik noticed that food trucks were parked outside the hospital. Erik was hungry, so his dad went to get him a pulled pork sandwich. As Raymond waited in line, he met Hackensack President and chief hospital executive Mark D. Sparta, FACHE. Raymond seized the opportunity to gush about his family’s positive experience. “The doctors, the nurses, everyone became family,” he says. “They fought for my kid.”

Later that evening, Mark stopped by Erik’s room to bring Raymond dinner from the food truck and continue their chat. “Hearing his story as a dad trying to take care of his son during a most challenging time, I was a bit taken aback,” Mark says.

Erik was chosen to appear in a commercial featuring football legend Eli Manning to promote Toyota for Tackle Kids Cancer, which raises money for pediatric cancer research and patient care programs at Hackensack Meridian Health’s two children’s hospitals. Eli passionately serves as the program’s team captain and regularly visits children who are receiving care.

“Tackle Kids Cancer and Eli’s impact have been tremendous,” Mark says. “He’s touched many people’s lives and has helped us raise more than $20 million through his involvement.”

Adds Alfred Gillio, M.D., director, Children’s Cancer Institute: “Tackle Kids Cancer has changed the game here in very important ways. It has allowed us to grow the research program exponentially over the last seven years.”

Today, Erik is in remission. This summer, he looks forward to traveling, riding his bike and going to camp. The family is planning a trip to Walt Disney World this summer. “We all need it,” says Raymond, who took an early retirement from his career as a corrections officer to care for his children full time after Kara died.

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