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Joey gets his Christmas wish to return home

Wendi Winters — For The Capital

Broadneck residents Joey Sudo, 8, and sister Jessica, 6, look over a Christmas tree sent to Joey by his second-grade classmates at Windsor Farm Elementary School. Joey is still recovering from his treatment of a rare cancer, but, if his health improves, he might be able to rejoin his classmates in the fall.

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By WENDI WINTERS, For The Capital

Published January 07, 2008

Coming home for the holidays or trying to get home seems to be in Americans' collective DNA. It's a bittersweet time of year for families who are separated by distance, expense, military service, work or old issues. It can be even more poignant for those who have young children who are too sick to return home.

Last year at this time, Joey Sudo was just another active first-grader at Windsor Farm Elementary. Like many kids, the only annoyance in his life was his pesky (but adorable) younger sister, Jessica, 6. On Dec. 25, 2006, the two kids were happily plowing through their Christmas presents and fighting over the last candy cane.

This year, all Joey wanted was to come home for Christmas. Miraculously, he got his wish.

Before the winter of 2007 receded, the Sudo family, which lives just off Whitehall Road behind the Jemal 50 Mall, was thrown into turmoil. Joey had been diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor. The doctors informed Joey's parents that this cancer is so rare people had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting it.

Less than one Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor a year is diagnosed, usually in toddlers. And most doctors will never see a case like Joey's.

The cancer, usually found in the cerebellum, was in Joey's neck. Like an insidious snake, it was attached to his vertebra and wrapped around the optic nerve to his left eye and the carotid artery, a major artery that feeds his brain.

By April, Joey had been through several operations to biopsy the tumor in preparation for its removal and another to insert a port in his tiny body so the child could receive medications, nourishment and chemotherapy. He was also facing radiation treatments.

Joey's blond hair was falling out in clumps and would eventually be shaved off. To support his son, his father, Joseph Sudo, shaved his head, too. (All the Joseph Sudos in this family have different middle names. It's confusing, but fun, to call out "Joey" and have son, dad and grandpa all look up.)

At his low point, Joey lost all his body hair save for two lonely eyelashes.

The family's network of relatives, classmates at Windsor Farm Elementary, neighbors, congregants at St. Andrew's By The Bay Church and total strangers rallied around to help the family deal with the long-term crisis.

Suzanne Sudo, Joey's mom, began a blog on the Care Pages Web site. Several times a week she'd journal the child's physical and emotional ups and downs.

To join the site, you will need to register with a screen name and password. Plus, you must indicate you want to view the "josephsudo" page. They are located at www.carepages.com. It's well written, educational and often heart-breaking. To date, 559 folks are contacted instantly via e-mail when the latest edition has been posted.

The journal is filled with Joey's successes and setbacks. His parents worried about his transplant of frozen stem cells on Oct. 18. His own cells were harvested on July 13 before chemotherapy began. They were frozen, then put back into his body during the procedure.

During an operation to implant a port, one lung was damaged, causing it to collapse. Infections set in, causing more pain for the boy. He's had trouble eating and battled sores all over his body - and boredom.

As a near-permanent fixture on the eighth floor of the pediatric wing at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he became a favorite of the nurses and made several good friends. Along the way, he created a mountain of crafts and is a dedicated Wii player.

After his transplant, his family anxiously watched his white blood cell count. When they reached the magic number of 200 and Joey was stable, he could leave the hospital. But, for several months he was expected to live and stay within 20 minutes of Johns Hopkins.

That meant Joey would be free of the hospital routine - where he was awakened several times a night for medications and checks - but not free to return home for Christmas.

"We were supposed to stay until Jan. 26," said his mom.

After Joey left the hospital, he and his mother moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment owned by a group affiliated with Baltimore's St. Kasimir Church called "Believe In Tomorrow." It was part of a group of apartments set up especially for transplant patients like Joey, who could not be exposed to outside germs, crowds of people or communal living spaces like kitchens, bathrooms or laundry rooms.

Jessica moved into the apartment to be close to her mother and brother, and she began attending classes in Baltimore. Joseph moved in, too, and commuted to his work in Annapolis each day. In the cramped but cozy space, the family celebrated Joey's eighth birthday on Dec. 3 and prepared to celebrate the holidaysBaltimore-style.

Though he is currently being home-schooled through an arrangement with the county, Joey was not forgotten by his classmates back at Windsor Farm Elementary. For Christmas, the children purchased a small artificial tree and decorated it with their photos and personal messages urging him to "be strong."

Joey loves reading the messages over and over. They also write to him regularly, and he knows his teacher and all of his classmates by name.

Though separated from his pals, he shares their likes and dislikes. He is currently fond of "Captain Underpants" and "Jack and Annie's Magic Treehouse" books and loves watching "Club Penguin."

When his ordeal is finally over, Joey will probably be smaller than his friends and have some health issues, but he's expected to resume a normal lifestyle in a couple years. His hair is growing back - though Joseph decided he likes his Kojak look.

Joey has eyebrows and dark lashes again. He still has a PICC line through which the doctors draw blood and a feeding tube. He is eating real food again, but since the treatments destroyed some of his saliva glands, things like soft bread are too difficult to eat.

The week before Christmas, the doctors gave Joey and his parents the good news: Joey was well enough to leave Baltimore and go home. Joey has to return to Johns Hopkins for weekly checkups for several more months. After that, the family hopes his visits will drop to monthly or quarterly checkups.

The night of Dec. 21 was the first in several months the entire family was asleep under the same Arnold roof. There are conditions to being home: he can't have visitors, and he can't go out to many places. His immune system is still fragile.

"It was awesome that we were able to leave Baltimore and come home just before Christmas," his father said.

"I missed my guppies in our 50-gallon fish tank," said Joey. "I missed my room."

"Me too!" said his mom. "I had to listen to you snore."

Now that he's home, Joey said he misses all the nurses and the video games at the hospital.

"Tell everybody out there I'm the bravest kid in the world," he said. "I got poked by needles a thousand times. I had four operations and had a PICC line pulled all the way out of my arm without anesthesia. I had a chest tube and my lungs collapsed.

"But, I'm really glad to be home."

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Wendi Winters is a freelance writer living on the Broadneck Peninsula.

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