During the height of the pandemic in May 2020, 2½-year-old Rocco DiMaggio was diagnosed with COVID-19. When he had difficulty recovering and could not walk, his family knew something was wrong with Rocco’s health. After completing tests with their pediatrician and another hospital, the DiMaggio family was devastated to learn of Rocco’s diagnosis: stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma. As a result, Rocco’s family transferred his care to MSK Kids, the pediatric program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), so Rocco could get the pioneering neuroblastoma treatment created by MSK Kids doctors and researchers.
While at MSK Kids, Rocco underwent more than 20 hours of invasive surgery, 5 cycles of chemotherapy, 14 rounds of radiation, 5 rounds of antibody treatment, and 5 doses of a neuroblastoma vaccine as part of a clinical trial. This required extensive inpatient treatment during the height of the pandemic when some visitor restrictions were in place. During his hospital stay, Rocco’s mom, Gabriella, was Rocco’s primary visitor. MSK Kids nurse Cassie DeMatteis became a critical part of Rocco’s daily life at MSK Kids, not only serving as a caregiver but also as a friend and playmate — and counselor and respite provider for Gabriella. Rocco’s family grew so close to Cassie that they called her Rocco’s “girlfriend.”
To celebrate National Nurses Week (May 6 to May 12), Today Show anchor Hoda Kotb interviewed Cassie and the DiMaggio family about their extraordinary relationship. Cassie touched upon how giving compassionate care was informed by her own rare cancer diagnosis in 2018 when she was treated successfully at MSK for a rare liver cancer. Cassie’s MSK nursing colleagues were there to help take care of their beloved colleague when she needed them most. Her own personal experience epitomizes the MSK spirit and showcases the vital and influential role nurses play in MSK patients’ lives every day. Cassie has used the lessons she learned as an MSK patient and her exceptional nursing expertise to pay it forward to our MSK kids and families, just like the DiMaggios.
Now 4 years old, Rocco’s neuroblastoma is currently in remission. To celebrate, Rocco Strong Inc. was officially born, to help raise funds to support those who are working tirelessly here at MSK Kids to make advances in the treatment of pediatric cancer. The entire MSK community is thrilled that Rocco is healthy, thriving, and back to doing what he loves most — being a kid. In honor of Rocco’s remission, the DiMaggio family, along with their community, raised more than $165,000 at the first annual Rocco Strong Gala in March 2022, where Cassie was recognized with special honor.