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Help 'Fight for Mike' by donating blood for Hempfield student

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 8:56 p.m.
A fundraiser will be held for Wendover Middle School teacher Mike Giorgianni as he battles cancer. He is shown here with his wife and son. submitted

It's only been a little more than a month since Mike Giorgianni went to the emergency room with back pain that pummeled his ribs. The pain persisted for a week and Giorgianni thought it must be kidney stones.

But it wasn't.

A CT scan revealed he had a tumor lodged behind his sternum. It was non-Hodgkin acute lymphoblastic lymphoma.

“We knew we were dealing with cancer,” said Giorgianni, 36, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Wendover Middle School in Hempfield Area School District. “It was very limited to what else it could be.”

Giorgianni, who lives in Unity, quickly underwent two bouts of chemotherapy, each for five days at a time, at Hillman Cancer Center, a part of UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside in Pittsburgh. He's since had two more.

Doctors suggested he take a leave of absence from teaching for fear of infection.

A home nurse now visits twice a week.

A blood drive will be held for Giorgianni from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Feb. 16 at the Hempfield Field House at the high school.

Giorgianni's wife, Heather, a teacher in Norwin School District, started a Facebook page — “Fight for Mike” — as a way to keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues.

The page has taken on a life of its own and has more than 2,000 “likes” from people across the country sending messages of hope and inspiration.

The family receives cards and gifts every day.

“We feel completely blessed and overwhelmed by the amount of love and support from people we know and even total strangers,” said Heather Giorgianni. “Our lives from this point on have to be about paying it forward whenever we can.”

Gateway High School sweethearts Heather and Mike Giorgianni agree the real hero is their 9-year-old son, Michael.

Heather said sometimes he'll lie awake at night and ask her what if his dad loses this fight, but mostly, he gets good grades, plays basketball and “goes with the flow.”

He even passed out “Fight for Mike” wristbands to all his classmates at Mountain View Elementary School in the Greater Latrobe School District.

“For anybody, the word cancer is scary, but he's very brave. He's the bravest and strongest person I know,” said Mike Giorgianni of his son. “He inspires me every day to get up and fight this.”

Michael Giorgianni Jr. tries to support his dad the best way he can — sometimes it's simply sitting with him in his hospital room and letting him know he's there for him.

“Sometimes I see his treatments and it gives me the chills because I don't know what's going to happen next,” the third-grader said. “My parents tell me to believe, don't give up, never think bad thoughts ... only good ones.”

Coleen Cardamone, a childhood friend of Heather's, said she feels the same way, and when she read about Mike on Facebook, she wanted to do something.

“I'm a nurse, so my first thought was: ‘What can I do to help them?'” said Cardamone, a nursing instructor at Pittsburgh Technical Institute. “One of the first things I thought of was a blood drive.”

Realizing not everyone can give blood, Cardamone said she is asking donors to bring a family DVD or board game in honor of Mike. These items will be donated to the Hillman Cancer Center so patients and their families can watch a movie or play a game together.

So far, Cardamone said she has received a lot of support from Hempfield Area and Norwin school districts, board members, area churches and others.

Caitlyn Doyle, a spokesperson for the Central Blood Bank in Pittsburgh, said she is hoping to see about 75 donors at the blood drive, which is a part of the organization's Replenish the Need program.

“This puts a face on the recipients getting the blood,” Doyle said. “It's hard to understand that there's a face, there's a story behind donating blood. People realize it could happen to anyone.”

Heather Giorgianni knows there are millions of families facing the same struggle.

“In a way I feel fortunate to have had this experience,” she said. “It has made our family so much stronger.”

Mike Giorgianni couldn't agree more and said he believes the experience has made him appreciate the little things in life.

“It makes you appreciate how fragile life is,” he said. “Waiting in line at the grocery store, parking far away at Target — you can't let the little things bother you because I've learned there are so many bigger things.”

Michele Stewardson is a freelance writer.