Christine Gagliardi, 19, student whose courage inspired others

May 06, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

When Christine Elizabeth Gagliardi's doctors diagnosed two rare cancers eight months ago, they told the college sophomore that she was only the 14th person in the country and the youngest ever to contract neurofibroma and angiosarcoma.

"She cried for a while, but she never panicked," said her father, Dr. Joseph Gagliardi, a Howard County physician. "She said, `I won the cancer lottery. Let's go play the Maryland lottery.' There was no known treatment, and she knew all along her treatment would be guesswork, but she went along with it."

The 19-year-old Columbia woman, whose courage and serenity inspired family, friends and doctors, died Monday at University of Maryland Medical Center.

"This is a tragedy, make no mistake," said her brother, Marine Lt. N. Joseph Gagliardi, stationed in Quantico, Va. "The cancer took eight months to take her life, but she never once let the struggle define her."

Dr. Mark Krasna, a thoracic surgeon, said it is rare for someone so young to handle a fatal illness with such dignity. The little-known cancers affect the lungs.

"She touched our lives and made each of us feel lucky to have known her," he said. "To know Christine Gagliardi was to feel that you had met an angel. She possessed an amazing ability to connect with people."

The surgeon would often stop by Ms. Gagliardi's hospital room in case she needed cheering up. The visits usually ended with the patient cheering the doctor, he said.

"Everyone who came in touch with her saw an inner strength," he said. "It was more than charm and poise. She touched your heart, and you felt inspired."

Asked what his daughter's main interests were, Dr. Gagliardi answered, "People, absolutely. Everyone took a liking to her."

Her mother, Diane Gagliardi, said, "Christine loved to laugh, and she was always able to share her joy."

Throughout the weekend, when she was near death, hundreds of visitors waited to spend a few minutes with Ms. Gagliardi, her father said.

"Friends and their parents, teachers, so many people kept pouring in to see her," Dr. Gagliardi said. "There were usually 50 people in the waiting room hoping to see her. She told so many, `I'll be OK. Don't worry about me.'"

Lieutenant Gagliardi ushered people in and out of his sister's hospital room.

"She let people see through her suffering, and it changed our lives forever," he said. "When they left her room, it was almost eerie. So many said my sister changed their lives. Everything she did in her life, gathering all these people, all these friends from all walks of life, came to this point."

Anna Toner, 20, a neighbor and friend since childhood, spent most of the weekend at the hospital.

"She never complained or used her sickness as an excuse," Ms. Toner said. "There were so many people around her Saturday. She opened her eyes and listened. She would always listen. She sought people out while she was sick. She was an amazing friend."

Ms. Gagliardi, a graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, had completed her freshman year at the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College in New York.

"She had wanted to go into show producing or directing, but she started rethinking," said Dr. Gagliardi. "If she survived, she wanted to work with children."

During high school, Ms. Gagliardi sang in the chorus and played several minor roles in school productions. Lieutenant Gagliardi recalled how much his sister loved to sing. In high school, she formed Colors of the Rainbow, a popular trio that sang at graduation.

She and Ms. Toner would spend Tuesday evenings watching American Idol, choosing their favorite performers on the television program.

"We would always be singing crazy songs together," Ms. Toner said. "We had sleepovers, and we would sing while we made pancakes the next morning. I made pancakes Monday morning, but I couldn't sing."

Ms. Gagliardi also had volunteered at a Baltimore children's camp. In Ithaca, she had helped at an elementary school and organized a Halloween party for the children, said Diane Gagliardi.

Christine Gagliardi recently wrote to Oprah Winfrey, asking if she could share her story with the television audience. The life-threatening illness had taught her "how wonderful every little thing is. A raindrop, a flower, even being able to take a shower," she wrote.

She continued, writing that she had learned that there is a reason for every single person you meet.

"Life may not be about living until you are 90," she wrote. "Maybe life is just about coming to understand it and being at peace with what you have been given."

Her courage inspired Lieutenant Gagliardi's Marine friends, two of whom will serve as pallbearers. "Just being a part of the way she handled this illness got me through things I never imagined I could handle," her brother said.

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