Fighting cancer one duck at a time

Gabe Sipos and his Chemo Duck 'Connor' (Lu Sipos )

Gabe Sipos and his Chemo Duck ‘Connor’ (Lu Sipos )

Eleven-year-old Gabe Sipos and his plush duck named Connor have been in cancer remission since 2003.

Gabe named his duck after Connor Hunley, a childhood friend who he met in Monroe Carell Children’s hospital at Vanderbuilt University. Connor taught Gabe playful things like how to shoot water at the nurses using a syringe.

Gabe and Connor had both been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer. Gabe’s cancer was focused in his sinus cavity, Connor’s in his bladder. The two boys gravitated towards each other right away and became great friends.

“Gabe was only one when he was diagnosed with cancer,” said Lu Sipos, mother and founder of non-profit organization, Gabe’s My Heart. “We all had a hard time understanding what was happening.”

The malignant tumor resting on Gabe’s brain was crushing his optic nerve, leaving Lu and Gabe’s father Rob feeling lost.

Lu wanted help her baby boy feel more comfortable after the discovery of the tumor. A simple stuffed animal duck would soon be the start of something much bigger than she thought.

“I wanted to make a pal for him. I got little hospital pajamas to fit his duck. I can’t stitch, but I took home some chemotherapy port and sewed it to his chest.” Lu said. “I didn’t know what a fantastic teaching tool it would be. Gabe started practicing things with his duck.”

Soon after, Lu founded the Gabe’s My Heart Foundation which connects children cancer patients with Chemo Ducks, replicas of Gabe’s stuffed animal duck wearing the same hospital pajamas and chemotherapy port.

Ducks come with an instruction book, workbook, DVD and online activities that assist in educating families about the processes of cancer treatment while also helping children feel more comfortable throughout the process as their ducks may receive the same treatments as them.

“The amount of ducks we give away vary year to year from about three thousand to five thousand,” Lu said. “The year Gabe was asked to play in the movie, Country Strong-that was a big year for us.” The 2010 movie was filmed in Nashville, Tennessee where the Sipos family resides.

“My end goal would be for Chemo Duck to be a mascot for children with cancer,” Lu said. The ducks are in about 150 hospitals now but the foundation would like this number to grow. “We would love for the ducks to be in all hospitals with pediatric oncology.”

Typically the foundation receives corporate sponsorship or does a lot of the fundraising themselves. Lu was pleasantly surprised when she found out Saddleback College is hosting the Pluck-a Duck-Fundraiser with proceeds planned to give Chemo Ducks to the children being treated at the Childrens Hospital of Orange County.

“Someone must’ve taken it upon themselves to host this event to raise funds,” Lu said. “When I found out, I was blown away.”

Connor Hunley passed away the day following his tenth birthday. Connor is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of Gabe’s family. Although Gabe can no longer talk to Connor, the duck serves as a memory of a friend who was willing to take Gabe-under his wing.

The Student Development Office sold rubber ducks as part of its Pluck-A-Duck fundraiser to benefit children with cancer. (Tim White)