- Young Jack Jacinto couldn’t join other cancer patients at a recent Jets game, but he got to meet players and other celebs nonetheless thanks to groundbreaking remote-control video technology
- Doctors say such technology, which is also used to allow young patients to attend school, has therepeutic benefits, helping kids feel normal and easing the anxiety of treatment
- On the day of his release from the hospital, Jack was at MetLife in person for Jets-Bills
This is one in a series of stories from The MMQB about people in and around the NFL who have been affected by cancer.
Morris Claiborne jogged over to the Jets sideline and peered into the screen of a four-foot tall robot standing near the 10-yard-line of MetLife Stadium.
“Jack! What’s up, man?” the Jets cornerback said. “Good to see you! We’re gonna go get this victory for you.”
Jack Jacinto, 11, was sitting in bed in Room 303 of Goryeb Children’s Hospital at Morristown Medical Center, his home for most of the past five months. The sixth-grader from Hampton Township, N.J., was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in May and was alternating between rounds of chemotherapy and weeks of waiting for his immune system to recover. The treatment depleted his once seemingly endless reserves of energy, but on this Sunday in October, you never would have known it.
The Jets were facing the Patriots at MetLife Stadium, and the team had invited four other pediatric cancer patients there to take part in the pregame coin toss as part of the NFL’s Crucial Catch campaign with the American Cancer Society. Jack wasn’t able to go, because his immune system was still too depressed. He had to wear a mask to venture outside his room, and any visitor had to first take a pump of hand sanitizer from the dispenser hanging on the wall. But with the help of the Jets and a little technology, Jack could be there at MetLife, virtually.
Standing among the throng of people watching pregame warmups from the sideline was a sleek white VGo robot on wheels. It’s shaped like a small human silhouette, with a camera, microphone and video screen where the head would be. Jack controlled the robot and interacted with the people at MetLife through an app on his iPad. He’d used the robot before, to virtually attend math class—when you need to raise your hand, a light on the robot blinks—and even to join some of his friends for lunch in the cafeteria. The hospital owns 17 of these robots to help its young patients feel a little more like regular kids; plus, there’s some evidence that virtually transporting kids away from their hospital room in this manner can help reduce the anxiety and pain of treatment. Math is Jack’s favorite subject, but there’s no question that a football game trumps long division.
Claiborne pointed to Jack through the video screen. Jack also spotted long-snapper Thomas Hennessy. Both had played catch with him earlier that week when they visited the hospital on their off day, and they promised to say hello to him from the field. Chris Johnson, the Jets’ acting owner, waved into the screen, too. “It’s really, really nice to meet you,” Johnson said. Even Ray Romano took a turn—but given that “Everybody Loves Raymond” went off the air before Jack was born, his dad had to explain who the actor was.
In the middle of the action a nurse popped in to take Jack’s vital signs, which must be done every four hours. “It just can’t wait anymore,” she said apologetically, as she wrapped his arm with a blood pressure cuff and stuck a thermometer in his mouth. Not long before, he’d had a platelet transfusion. No matter; for an hour on this NFL Sunday, he was focused on other things—such as his sudden awe for the art of long-snapping.
“Look, dad,” Jack says, watching Hennessy practice with the punter and the kicker, right in front of the robot. “How can he snap it that far?”
These are the kinds of questions Luis Jacinto enjoys hearing from his son, rather than the hard ones that come with having a child diagnosed with cancer. This past spring, Jack started complaining that he wasn’t feeling quite right. He was unusually tired, and at night his legs felt weak. Then, his knee started hurting. Luis, a state trooper, and his wife, Amy, a dietitian, were almost certain their son had Lyme disease—until his bloodwork came back.
“I will never forget what he said to me when he found out,” Luis said. “He started crying and looked at me and goes, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ ”
The memory was so raw for Luis that he broke down as he shared it. There’s no manual for how to help your 11-year-old son face cancer, but beyond Luis sleeping most nights in Jack’s room on a twin-size air mattress, the Jacintos used sports as a coping mechanism. They hung up a basketball hoop on the bathroom door in Jack’s hospital room and covered his bed with a fleece Yankees blanket. Jack proudly revealed that he’d lost both a wiffle ball and a Nerf football somewhere on the roof of the hospital as the result of his athletic shenanigans. When Jack had a bad day, Luis would often suggest they go downstairs and run routes together in the parking lot (Jack runs a mean slant).
“I just play football,” Jack said. “If I don’t feel good, I do the things I like to do, and then it brightens me up and makes me feel better."
On a whiteboard in his hospital room, Jack listed his two favorite things, in order: 1) Football 2) Baseball. He has a fantasy football league with his friends from school—just ask, and he’ll recite the roster. He’s also a burgeoning play-by-play announcer. When Luis stepped out of the room for a few minutes, Jack made sure he missed nothing by calling out game updates: The Bears are winning 10-0 against the Ravens, and the Ravens are at home … Dad, D.J. Swearinger scored a touchdown—no, it was reversed ... Can you come watch now?
Luis grew up rooting for the Washington NFL team—when he was young, they were in their heyday under Joe Gibbs—and passed that on to Jack. Like a lot of kids these days, Jack watches RedZone to keep tabs on his fantasy team. And this year the Jets have given him plenty of occasions to root for them.
Jack completed his fourth round of chemotherapy in early October and got the good news that his cancer was in remission. On that white board hanging in his room, there was also a space for anticipated discharge date, and Amy had written, "A.S.A.P!!" Since May 18, Jack had spent a total of just three weeks at home, one-week breaks between rounds of chemo. Now he’d need to wait a final few weeks for his count of neutrophils, white blood cells that are a central part of the immune system, to climb high enough for him to be released.
On the morning of Nov. 2, Jack got the all clear. He’d still have to return to the hospital every other day for bloodwork, and he couldn’t go back to school just yet, but he could finally go home to his parents and his little sister. It just so happened that the Jets were hosting the Bills on that very same Thursday night—and since Jack hadn’t been well enough to make it to the Patriots game, the team had given him, his dad and a friend tickets.
On the field before the game Jack spotted his old pal Thomas Hennessy. Then he was told to walk out onto the field because someone wanted to meet him. That someone was Jets quarterback Josh McCown. The NFL Network cameras panned in on them as they posed for a picture, Jack grinning widely with McCown’s arm over his shoulder. “It was great to see him so happy,” Luis says, “after being in the hospital for 39 days this last round.”
Jack’s advice for other kids facing cancer? “A lot of kids are really scared of the hospital,” he says. “Don’t get scared about it. Try to do as much fun stuff as possible to forget about it.” For Jack, fun stuff starts with football, so it’s no surprise that not 12 hours after he was released from the hospital with his cancer in remission, he found his way to a game. In the car ride home, he slept the whole way.
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