With amazing grace

Community turns out to support Leonardtown High School student's struggle with cancer

Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN (above); submitted photo (top)
Wearing T-shirts and carrying a jersey in honor of Jordan Paganelli, Vince Churchwood, Shamus McNamara, Will Pagliarulo and the Leonardtown High School football team walk to midfield for the coin toss before Friday night's game against Chopticon.

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Staff photos by REID SILVERMAN
Jordan Paganelli visits with his girlfriend, Abriana Ciavattone. He died at home on Monday afternoon, five days before his 18th birthday.

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Dancers dressed as zombies, from left, Sophia Campbell, Rena Wildberger, Jeff Janus, Kristine Summers, Lori Norton and Judi Ferrara, surround Jordan Paganelli, center, before the Thrill the World event held Oct. 24 at Leonardtown High School.

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Chris Jones of the Leonardtown High School boys soccer team celebrates his goal during a recent game, showing his "Team JP" Relay For Life T-shirt in honor of his classmate, Jordan Paganelli.


On Jan. 11, 2008, Jordan Paganelli was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive soft-tissue cancer that most often affects children. He died Monday afternoon, five days shy of his 18th birthday.

By all accounts, Jordan's struggle with cancer was a story of personal courage and community support.

"I couldn't be more proud to be his dad," Cmdr. John "Pags" Paganelli, executive officer of the VX-23 squadron at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, said last week. "He has embraced the moment and utilized every day he had."

Jordan underwent 54 brutal weeks of compressed chemotherapy treatments along with six weeks of radiation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Despite the aggressive treatment, the outlook was not hopeful. Three weeks ago, as she helped with an event benefitting cancer research at Leonardtown High School, Laurie Paganelli, Jordan's mother, acknowledged the prognosis. "He's stage four. This cancer is just rarely survivable."

Alternating between smiles and tears, Laurie described then the courage with which Jordan was handling his disease and his treatments.

"He's pretty amazing," she said. "He's such a cool kid. He's a very tender, caring kid." Laurie described how Jordan chose a trip to Italy, which the family took in mid-March. Noting that he appreciated the arts and loved animals, Laurie said that Jordan "was fascinated by the architecture and the art" there.

The trip was sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which aids children with life-threatening medical conditions

Just after the Thrill the World fundraising benefit on Oct. 24, which Jordan and both his parents attended, the family was back at Walter Reed, where they learned that Jordan wasn't expected to have much time left.

On Oct. 30, the doctors sent him home, and Hospice of St. Mary's was called in.

At Leonardtown High School, where Jordan was a student when his treatment permitted, the halls were filled with friends and classmates wearing "Team JP" T-shirts. After school, many gathered at the Paganellis' home.

Last Thursday, a group of particularly close friends joined LHS Principal David O'Neill and schools Superintendent Michael Martirano at the Paganelli home in Wildewood for an early graduation ceremony. There was an honorary high school diploma for him and a cap and gown for the small ceremony.

"It was a wonderful, beautiful ceremony," Martirano said Friday. "[It] was probably one of the most beautiful things that I've ever participated in … They are handling it beautifully … the celebration of his life. It is a beautiful thing … how this family is dealing with the process with dignity."

At Leonardtown's football game against Chopticon on Friday, Jordan's initials were printed on the field. Some 500 fans and players wore shirts with his name; more than 700 shirts had been ordered as of Monday, O'Neill said. The football team also carried his honorary captain's jersey onto the field at the start of the game.

"He's had a huge impact on giving the students perspective on life's journey," O'Neill said Monday.

"It appears a lot of people are drawing strength through his story," John Paganelli said.

There was also a candlelight vigil last week that more than 100 people attended.

And all the while, people from all over the world who know the Paganellis from their military duty stations or who have heard his story visit Jordan's Web site (more than 67,700 as of late Tuesday afternoon) or leave comments at a "Prayers for JP" Facebook page.

A neighbor of the Paganellis, Dawn Campbell, noted that her neighborhood was tight knit before Jordan's illness. "We've always been there for each other," she said Monday.

But Jordan's attitude — "he has never complained," Campbell said in the hours before his death — intensified that closeness. The neighbors watched out for the Paganellis, leaving gifts and supplies on their doorstep.

John's online journal of his son's ordeal has chronicled the ups and downs of the family's hopes, his pride in his son, whom he refers to as "my hero," and the family's sense of gratitude for the support of friends and community.

"It's very touching," Laurie said of that support. "It really restores your faith in people."

Campbell described the tone of the Paganellis' street Tuesday morning, the day after Jordan died. "There's such a ‘quiet' on the street here.  It's painful, yet peaceful at the same time," she wrote in an e-mail. "The Paganellis … [have been] so graceful through all of Jord's struggles, giving of themselves, and sharing their lives with us, and the thousands who have shown concern for him and who pray for him. ‘Grace under pressure' doesn't even begin to describe it."

A memorial service is being planned at St. John Francis Regis Catholic Church in Hollywood on Saturday, Nov. 14, on what would have been Jordan's 18th birthday.



If you want to help

For more information about Jordan Paganelli's struggle with cancer, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/jordanpaganelli. Donations toward the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, an organization that funds research and assists families dealing with Jordan's kind of cancer, can be made to Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, 17 Bethea Drive, Ossining, NY 10562. Visit sarcomahelp.org.

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