Battling Leukemia and COVID-19: A Different Kind of War Story

January 6, 2021

“Every hero has a war story.”

This refrain had particular meaning for Elliott Goff: He was an active duty member of the Air Force, having spent most of 2019 deployed in Kuwait. The phrase was a rallying cry, a reminder of his own strength and ability to overcome any obstacle he faced—after all, that’s the mark of a hero.

To tell Elliott’s “war story,” certain notes bubble up time and again: his charm, his willingness to share his love, his infectious smile and his sense of humor, even when he was at his sickest. The phrase especially hit home throughout the past year, first as he battled leukemia, then when he overcame COVID-19 and again when the aggressive leukemia returned, eventually taking his life, but never compromising his spirit and will to fight.

A Family Away from Home

For Cheryl, Elliott’s older sister by seven years, there are so many Elliott stories to tell. He was always quick with a joke: When he shot up more than 8 inches one summer, he grew out his red, curly hair because, to Elliott, one awkward turn deserved another and “what better excuse to have a ‘fro,’ as he called it,” Cheryl says.

Elliott loved playing video games and watching sports, especially his favorite professional hockey and football teams, and his staple cartoons. As Elliott got older, video games opened up doors for him, Cheryl says. Not only did it give him newfound confidence and an avenue into the world of sports, but also helped him stay connected to friends. “He had a best friend that he met in preschool, and even though David moved to South Carolina when the boys were 9, the online gaming world gave them a way to stay connected, even before social media was a real option,” Cheryl says.

Elliott was a devoted friend, brother and son. “He maintained his friendships and kept people that were close to him so close to the chest,” Cheryl says. “He had the same friend group for as long as I can remember.”

When Elliott was in technical school in Texas, his best friend since kindergarten, Derek, was having a birthday party and was really missing Elliott. But Derek understood that the military obligations had to take precedence. Elliott drove straight through the night from Friday into Saturday from Texas to New Jersey just to surprise Derek for his birthday. He had to turn around and leave again first thing Sunday morning to make it back in time to fly under the radar and not miss a day of training. But it didn’t stop Elliott from making sure he could be there for his friend. “There were no limits on what he would do for his friends and family, and without ever needing to be asked. It was the most special trait of his character and a memory I’ll always cherish,” Derek says.

As someone who struggled with anxiety and depression in his youth, he understood what it felt like to be easily intimidated, but “he always loved the water,” Cheryl says. “He may have been nervous or timid in so many other areas of his life, but he would do a 30-foot jump into the pool at Mountain Creek. He always loved helping people, and in high school, he became a lifeguard in order to teach kids to swim so they could share that confidence and be guided by someone as patient, kind and understanding as Elliott. Lifeguarding took his love of the water and allowed him to do something with it.”

Elliott’s personality, including this care he had for others, drew much attention during his time at Hackensack University Medical Center. On December 27, 2019, he was diagnosed with leukemia while he was stationed in North Carolina. After six weeks of in-patient treatment at a nearby hospital, Elliott was declared in remission, and the military allowed him to transfer to New Jersey in order to prepare for a bone marrow transplant at John Theurer Cancer Center.

In March, while receiving outpatient treatment to maintain his remission status, Elliott came down with a fever, which is common during chemotherapy treatments, and was admitted to the hospital. While he was negative upon arrival, he tested positive for COVID-19 about a week after being admitted. In an effort to combat some of the more serious symptoms, he was put into a medically induced coma in order to intubate him and put him on a ventilator. The day after Elliott was put into a coma, his father passed away from complications of a stroke he had on March 13.

Because Elliott was sedated while in the ICU, then moved to the PICU, his doctors and nurses did not get a chance to get to know him before needing to do everything they could to save his life. “We spent a lot of time and energy and emotion treating Elliott while he was sedated,” says Rachel Lewis, M.D., pediatric critical care medicine specialist at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital who treated Elliott. “After he woke up, it was so nice to talk to him. Talking to his mom and sister became a part of my normal day, to go over what was happening. They were just so lovely, understanding and grateful that we were invested in him.”

Adds Cheryl: “Even given these unprecedented and extreme circumstances, we are so unbelievably grateful to have had doctors and nurses that went above and beyond to care for Elliott, especially when facing such a new and overwhelming situation themselves. We knew Elliott was receiving love and care from people we learned to trust because we could not be with him ourselves and that trust was fully warranted.”

“Everyone wanted to give him a fighting chance, to give everything they could,” says Kim Mason, a child life specialist. She was no stranger to hearing “every hero has a war story,” she says. “It speaks so much to who Elliott was. His spirit was so incredibly strong.”

After almost seven weeks on a ventilator, doctors performed a tracheostomy (a surgical procedure that creates an opening in the front of the neck) so that Elliott could be extubated and made more comfortable. Although he still couldn’t speak, he would write jokes and ask questions on a dry-erase board, always making sure to ask how the team member’s day was going. “Anytime you went into his room, there was always a laugh to be had,” Kim says. “The nurses were amazing in bringing that out of him.”

Fighting to the End

Elliott recovered from COVID-19, but the virus took a significant toll on his lungs. While the leukemia—a form called acute myeloid leukemia—had not been an issue during his battle with COVID-19, it did have a resurgence after he recovered. It was so aggressive that Elliott was told it couldn’t be treated. His response? “This changes nothing. I beat it; it doesn’t beat me.”

His courage and strength were unwavering, Cheryl says. He had the phrase “one more step” tattooed on his chest. “He felt that no matter how difficult things were, you just have to fight for one more step,” Cheryl says.

Regardless of the news he was given, Elliott’s fighting spirit and desire to help and inspire others never wavered. He wanted to become a therapist and work with teens and veterans to help them overcome these types of obstacles. Even with everything he had been through, it reinforced his desire to help as many people as possible. He was looking to add helping those battling cancer or other chronic illness to his future goals.

“That’s our goal now,” Cheryl says “We’re going to find ways to continue his mission and his legacy, and help inspire people. He had so much fight in him, he certainly had enough that we can continue to share it with people and families that could use hope, especially in these times.”

Elliott passed on June 3, 2020, at the age of 27.

“When we were little, I thought he was my baby, and as we got older he became my best friend,” Cheryl says. “To lose a brother is a tremendous amount of loss, and for the world to lose someone so amazing, humble and kind only compounds that. If I can leave a message to anyone that’s going to read this, it’s to find everything you can to be happy about, find things each and every day to be grateful for. The horrors of this world and the struggles of life will always be there, but there are so many better, more wonderful things to focus on. No matter what you’re going through, keep looking for the good because it’s there in spades, and hope is a much more powerful thing than fear. Elliott impressed everyone around him with unbelievable strength and sheer will to fight and be victorious. If his story can help even one person in their struggle, then he certainly accomplished that goal.”

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