Honoring His Sister By Spreading Holiday Cheer
NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital became a second home for Anthony Donahue and his sister, Gianna. After she passed away, Anthony resolved to stay in touch with their “hospital family” and, together, they keep Gianna’s spirit alive through a holiday toy drive.
Gianna Gregoire and her brother, Anthony Donahue, always found ways to add a little fun and adventure to Gianna’s extended stays at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. The siblings would explore the winding corridors and find new routes to travel from building to building. “I lived at the hospital with her, and the hospital took care of me too,” says Anthony, whose story was featured on the popular blog Humans of New York.
Gianna first became a patient at the hospital when she was 10 years old after doctors discovered she had what is known as a malignant germ cell brain tumor in July 2010. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy over the next year. “She got through her treatment remarkably well,” says Dr. James Garvin, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital who oversaw her cancer care. “It was considered to be a very challenging tumor, but with a combination of treatment, she had steadily improved and we were hopeful.”
Anthony was by his sister’s side throughout her battle with brain cancer. The two had an unbreakable bond, even though they had very different personalities and a 15-year age gap. “Her interests were a lot different than mine,” says Anthony. “My interests were basketball, hip-hop, clothes, sneakers. Her interests were unicorns, drag performances, Doctor Who. I always thought it was amazing how she marched to the beat of her own drum.”
What they did share was a love for each other and a great Italian meal — her favorites were filet of sole oreganata and penne alla vodka. Gianna also loved to tag along with Anthony to New York Knicks games and supported his die-hard fandom.
And they both remained deeply connected to the hospital. After she appeared to be cancer free in 2012, the care teams followed her closely with check-ups and scans, and she regularly participated in charitable events. Anthony, whom she lived with in the Bronx, always accompanied her.
The holidays were their favorite time of year, and Anthony and Gianna loved visiting the big Christmas tree in the hospital’s lobby. In 2013, they started Anthony and Gianna’s Toy Drive, collecting toys for the IronMatt Foundation, which helps children and families impacted by pediatric brain tumors, and for patients at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
Each year, they received hundreds of toy donations. “Just to give patients a little something for them to enjoy while they’re here, it puts a big smile on their and their families’ faces,” says Patricia Basile, a pediatric oncology nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
“We Made Every Day Count”
One night in October 2019, Anthony got a phone call from Gianna, who was in her bedroom across the hall. She couldn’t move. When he came to her, she was slurring her words. Anthony called 911, and she was brought to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where they discovered that she had suffered a brain hemorrhage and needed emergency surgery. “I’m thinking, ‘G’s 20 and having a stroke?’ It wasn’t making sense to me,” remembers Anthony.
After surgery, doctors confirmed the reason behind the stroke-like symptoms: a brain tumor. This time, it was glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. The prognosis was not good, but Gianna wasn’t going to give up. In the following months, she underwent radiation, chemotherapy, and physical therapy. And even as the city faced the COVID-19 pandemic, the siblings continued to receive care and support from the team they had grown to love and trust over the years. “We weren’t going to go down without a fight,” says Anthony. “It was tough, but we made every day count.”
Says Dr. Garvin, “She remained active and never lost her spark.”
For many months, Gianna remained strong, but in May 2020, when she became too ill to stay at home, Anthony decided to bring her back to NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital for her care. “We spent the last three months of her life here,” says Anthony. “G trusted me to make every decision, so to me, coming here was an easy decision, even though it was hard. We felt so comfortable here.”
Gianna celebrated her 21st birthday in the hospital. Anthony brought her a can of beer so that they could toast the occasion. She passed away 13 days later on August 29, 2020. Her impact on her care team is felt to this day.
“Just to watch her grow from a girl to become a young woman, I feel very honored that I had that opportunity,” says Nadine Ulysse, a child life specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “And I’m so happy that I was a part of so many happy moments. Although she was battling cancer, she rarely complained. And I think we all learned a lot from Gianna. We learned the fight, we learned how to turn things around, and every bad day isn’t so bad. We just remember the joy that she had.”
Honoring Her Legacy
Anthony continues to visit the hospital often — the integrative health team that provided holistic care for him and Gianna during her stays continues to support Anthony with massage and acupuncture treatment. “Anthony continues to receive services with our team once a month,” says Michelle Bombacie, program manager for the Integrative Therapies Program.“I feel so honored to have spent so many years treating Gianna and Anthony. Witnessing that bond between them was really just special and unique and inspiring.”
He also drops in to see Gianna’s care teams, carrying boxes full of Italian cookies and carrot cake. And there’s the event that was so near to Gianna’s heart — their holiday toy drive. This year, Anthony took to social media to encourage donations and hosted an event, resulting in hundreds of gifts for children at the hospital.
“Anthony comes back. He stays connected with Child Life, stays connected with the social workers, stays connected with the doctors and nurses,” says Ulysse. Of the toy drives, she says, “He understood that when his sister was here in the hospital, how much of a difference the crafts and toys made to keep the kids occupied, and how much that meant to Gianna. He’s doing a great job of keeping her legacy alive.”
Anthony knows his sister would be proud of him for continuing their efforts to bring joy to kids during the holiday season. This year, he even donated several pairs of the socks Gianna loved to wear — ones that made her hospital stays a little more comfortable.
“We absolutely love Anthony,” says Nicole Brearton, a pediatric oncology nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “We’ve continued our friendship, and even after Gianna passed away, we still have this bond with him. We’re honored to have been part of Gianna’s journey and to have this relationship with Anthony.”
“This toy drive means everything to me and more to my sister,” says Anthony. “She loved this toy drive and loved everything about this hospital. It’s like family here.”