Watch an 11-Year-Old Cancer Survivor Rise from Wheelchair, Walk Across the Big House Field
After a rare reaction to cancer treatment paralyzed him at age 5, fifth-grader Gabe Treve crossed Michigan Stadium as part of his goal to learn to walk again.
As Gabe Treve entered Michigan Stadium through the famous tunnel where his favorite football players take the field, his elation turned into determination.
The 11-year-old, who has used a power chair since a rare drug reaction from leukemia treatment paralyzed him at age 5, stood up and asked for his walking braces.
“It was one of my goals to walk across a football field, so I thought, ‘Why not now?’” Gabe says of the chance he was recently given to visit the field.
Previously, the farthest the fifth-grader had traveled alone on braces was a few feet. So his goal was ambitious: 100 yards, covering the entire stretch of the Big House.
But once he started, he couldn’t stop, barely noticing his grandpa running up beside him asking if he needed a break.
“No, I’m going to keep going,” Gabe called back.
Within minutes, to the astonishment of those watching, Gabe completed his trek from end zone to end zone.
“I was just looking at my feet the whole time, and when I looked up, I realized I was at the halfway mark. So I thought, ‘I’m not going to stop now,’” Gabe says. “I got tired, but I pushed myself. I want my legs to work, and if I don’t push myself, I won’t get better. I felt like I worked really hard and accomplished something that day.”
A long journey
The walk was a pinnacle in Gabe’s journey that started six years ago with a devastating diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The then-kindergartner was immediately treated at a hospital near his home in Troy.
But within days, his family knew something was horribly wrong — the rambunctious little boy who loved running, swimming and climbing had suddenly stopped moving his legs. Tests showed that Gabe’s body had suffered a rare reaction to the cancer drugs, inflaming the nerves in his spinal cord and paralyzing him.
“Within one month, we went from having this healthy, strong little boy to a boy lying in bed unable to turn his head and so weak, he couldn’t push the buttons on an iPad,” his grandma Debbie Belcher remembers. “It changed our world.”
Gabe was transferred to University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where the pediatric oncology team consulted with colleagues across the country who were familiar with such reactions. They tried a different medication combination for Gabe.
It worked, fighting the cancer and leading to remission two years ago. But Gabe still couldn’t walk independently.
Determined to succeed
The young football fanatic spends many days in the yard throwing and catching a football with his grandpa, “Papa” Bill Belcher. Gabe’s ultimate goal: to catch a football standing on his own.
And he’s working hard to make that happen, with regular physical and occupational therapy appointments with Mott physical therapist Kendra VanWasshenova. He also checks in with the Mott oncology team that has included Gregory Yanik, M.D., and Carl Koschmann, M.D.
His grandparents and mom, Christy Treve, laud him for his persistence to complete his exercises — even when painful and repetitive.
“I see myself with a bright future,” Gabe says. “I see myself walking, running, doing good in school and maybe playing in the NFL. I know I have to work really hard to do that.”
A moment to remember
This optimistic spirit took him to the Big House this year, an event made possible by retired social worker Julie Magulak, who was subbing at his school. Gabe’s story so inspired her that she shared it with her husband, George.
George Magulak, D.D.S., a U-M School of Dentistry graduate and 44-year Michigan season ticket holder, was inspired, too. He also received a liver transplant at Michigan Medicine two years ago.
“Gabe and I both had something in common. We were both saved by the University of Michigan,” Magulak says.
He wrote to coach Jim Harbaugh. The letter reached equipment manager Jon Falk, who helped arrange the behind-the-scenes Big House visit.
Gabe was thrilled by the opportunity and by seeing Harbaugh’s father, Jack Harbaugh, who hand-delivered an autographed photo from his son Jim.
And then, suddenly, Gabe stood up from his chair.
“He just got up and started walking across the field. It was so spontaneous. He was huffing and puffing but kept going,” Magulak says. “We were all euphoric and cheering him on.”
“About midfield, he looked like he was struggling but didn’t stop,” Bill Belcher says. “I counted down the last 20 yards as though he were making a touchdown. It’s a moment we will always remember.”
“Gabe is always fighting, always pushing, even when it’s a little out of his reach,” he adds. “It’s been quite a journey from him not being able to hold his head up to being able to walk the entire Michigan Stadium. His progress has been amazing for all us to watch.
“I always tell people I wish I had the strength and motivation Gabe has.”
While a celebratory moment, it wasn’t surprising to those who know him best.
“That’s Gabe for you,” Debbie Belcher says. “He has been so marvelous through all of this. Whatever his doctors and therapist tell him to do, he does. He always says ‘when I walk again and ‘when I can throw my football again,’ not if. He even tells us, ‘When I’m playing in the NFL, you guys must come to see me.’ We always tell him of course we will.”
“When I saw the video, it brought tears to my eyes,” she adds. “Every little step of the way, from the first time he moved his legs again, I thought this boy is going to go far. He wants it so badly, and he’s not going to give up.
“Watching him have the determination to walk an entire football field was pretty amazing. It really touched my heart. I just know he’s going to keep pushing himself, and I see him making a difference in the world.”