It was a story that grabbed headlines in The Union, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996.
A family of four gripped by the unimaginable, as Kristin and Geno O’Callaghan, the proud parents of a budding Nevada County family, discovered their previously healthy baby boys, Brandon and Garrett, had retinoblastoma.
“When we first found out, I was devastated,” Kristin said. “They said ‘chemo’ and I didn’t know what to think. That’s when it hit me, my 7-month-old needs to have chemo.”
Retinoblastoma is a cancer that forms in the tissues of the retina, the light-sensitive layers of nerve tissue at the back of the eye. The rare cancer occurs in children younger than 5 years. It may be hereditary or nonhereditary, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Kristin recalled the day she pinpointed something was wrong.
“It was May of 1996, and I was at a birthday party, Brandon was 2, and my mom said to me, ‘What’s wrong with Garrett’s eye.” Kristin said. “I thought it was probably a lazy eye, but thought we should get it checked out, get it taken care of. I took him to four doctors in three days and he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a very rare type of cancer.”
Little did Geno and Kristin know, but their 7-month-old’s swollen eye would actually save the life of his older brother and send the O’Callaghans down a path that has filled their house with children, happiness, love and sport.
Garrett O’Callaghan, then just 7 months old, was diagnosed first. Six weeks later, on the advice of doctors, Brandon, then 2 years old, was tested and was diagnosed with the disease as well.
But Brandon’s tumors weren’t noticeable like Garrett’s; his were farther back in the eye, said Kristin.
“What had happened with Brandon is the tumors were going back to his brain,” she said. “They weren’t in front like Garrett’s, and if we hadn’t diagnosed Garrett when we did, Brandon would not be with us today. That’s something Garrett likes to remind him of daily.”
Eighteen years and more than 100 procedures later, Garrett and Brandon are cancer free and have been for more than a decade. Brandon was able to make a full recovery and maintains eyesight in both eyes.
Now 19 years old, Brandon is currently on the Yuba College fall ball baseball team, playing catcher.
Garrett is blind in his left eye, but never let that slow him down, especially when it comes to sports.
“I was coaching his brother’s T-ball team and we had a game in North San Juan, but we were short a couple kids.” Geno said. “(Garrett) was the bat boy at age 4 so we got him in there and he went 3-for-3, took out the catcher on a slide and just loved it. From then on, there was never a moment where he didn’t have a baseball, football or basketball in his hand.”
For Garrett there really wasn’t anything to overcome, because being blind in his left eye was all he knew.
“It was definitely difficult but it wasn’t something I had to get used to,” Garrett said of playing youth sports. “Because I had it since I was really young, it wasn’t like I had full vision then lost it and had to deal with it. I had to deal with the difficulties it came with, and definitely a lot of kids making fun. I wore almost a football mask on my baseball helmet and I got a lot of comments from kids asking ‘why?’, or kids making fun of me for it.”
Garrett, now a senior at the Nevada Union High School and starter on both the basketball and baseball teams, still wears protective sports glasses — but the young man gets far less guff for it these days.
“It would be really easy for a kid like Garrett to have an excuse for anything, but that’s not him,” Nevada Union basketball coach Jeff Dellis said.
“Last year he didn’t get much playing time but still came to practice and worked his butt off every day; and that’s tough for a kid that’s used to playing. This year he’s emerged as a leader in a number of ways. He’s one of our scoring leaders and he’s one of our defensive stoppers.”
Garrett is one of Nevada Union’s best shooters, scoring 30 points in a game earlier this season and regularly hitting double digits in the scoring column most game nights.
“He’s had to adapt,” Dellis said. “We always tell kids to have their heads on a swivel, and he needs that even more. It’s amazing how good of a shooter he is, given the depth perception issues that are presented.
“I’ll take 12 Garretts any day of the week, and twice on Saturday.”
With the basketball season just a few weeks away from its conclusion, Garrett will turn to baseball, where he pitches for the Miners. He said he hopes to keep playing baseball in college, but doesn’t know where that will be yet.
The sporting success Garrett and Brandon have seen in the wake of their childhood cancer is just part of the O’Callaghans’ story.
Back in 2000, when the boys were overcoming cancer and beginning to play youth sports, that’s when the O’Callaghans began to expand as a family.
It had been four years since their sons had been diagnosed. Four years riddled with trips to San Francisco for laser treatments, chemotherapy and other procedures. But, it was during that time that the O’Callaghans met the next two members of their clan.
“In the year 2000, two beautiful children walked in the door with the doctor for their treatments.” Kristin said. “They were beautiful, blue eyes, blonde hair and we said ‘What’s going on?’ We found out they didn’t have a home and Geno talked to their worker. I talked to them and decided we wanted to adopt them right there. I got in the car, went home, did all the research, and it took about a year for them to become part of our family.”
The O’Callaghans’ welcomed Terra, then 6 years old, and Dane, then 4, to the family in 2001. Terra suffered from the same eye cancer as Brandon and Garrett, her new brothers.
Since adopting Terra and Dane, the O’Callaghans have also housed 28 foster children through the years, and have adopted six more. The O’Callaghan household now features 10, with Geno, Kristin, Brandon, 19, Garrett, 18, Terra, 18, Dane, 16, Kaycee, 10, Dana, 9, Chelle, 8, and Zeke, 3.
“It has not been easy,” Kristin said. “There has been plenty of ups and downs. It has not been easy whatsoever, but we are very proud of our kids, what they have gone through and what they have succeeded at with all the stuff they’ve gone through.”
Terra, now a Nevada Union senior, is legally blind but that hasn’t stopped the artist and aspiring writer from staying positive.
“I love it. I wouldn’t trade this for anything else,” she said of her large family. “I love having the support of my brothers and sisters. My mom and dad are great and they support me in everything I do. There is no ‘You can’t do that.’ It’s always ‘Yeah, go for it, give it a try.’”
For Geno, after learning that retinoblastoma is hereditary, it didn’t take long for him to start bringing children in need into his home.
“It’s just taking kids out of situations they shouldn’t be in, but they’re stuck in for whatever reason,” he said.
With a house of 10, some with special needs, Geno, a local contractor, said the days can be trying but also very rewarding.
“There’s never a dull moment,” he said. “Or a quiet one.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email email@example.com.
“There has been plenty of ups and downs. It has not been easy whatsoever, but we are very proud of our kids, what they have gone through and what they have succeeded at with all the stuff they’ve gone through.”