RANCHO SANTA FE — There isn’t a lot a child can do when her sister is diagnosed with a serious illness. But rather than feel helpless, Gianna Repetti, 7, decided to grow out her hair and have it cut for wigs for children who have lost theirs due to chemotherapy, like her 20-month-old sister Angelina.
During an assembly in the spring of 2010, she challenged teachers and other students at The Nativity School to do the same.
As a result, 9.5 inches were cut off Gianna’s hair at an Oct. 24 assembly.
“It feels good,” Gianna said. “It makes your heart feel good. People are proud of me. I saw what my sister had done and I wanted to help.”
She said that after the haircut she barely recognized her reflection in the mirror.
“I felt like someone else,” she said. “I felt like someone new.”
Also getting a haircut at the assembly were school Principal Margaret Heveron and two other girls. Other students pledged to cut their hair as soon as it was long enough.
“At school they teach giving of yourself,” Amy Repetti, Gianna’s mom, said. “It stuck with her. She wanted to do something to give of herself.”
The hair was donated to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, she said.
The Repetti family has been through a lot the past year since Angelina was diagnosed with cancer. The surgeries and chemotherapy, as well as the shock of diagnosis, sent the family reeling.
Amy Repetti said she couldn’t have survived the past year without the help of her friends, which is how she considers the family of Nativity.
“They brought us meals,” Amy Repetti said. “They helped with carpooling. They prayed and gave us hugs. I feel like everyone took care of us because we were in such a state of shock. We were in a fog. They picked up the pieces where they could. Everyone really came through.”
The ordeal began Oct. 27, 2010, when her parents noticed that Angelina, who was on the verge of crawling, suddenly stopped progressing and that when they changed her diaper, she didn’t kick her legs. Another clue was that when they put her down for a nap, she was in the same position when they picked her up.
Amy and Dominic, Angelina’s dad, took her to the doctor thinking it was something simple and indeed all the tests came back normal. Finally, an MRI revealed a tumor, the size of a man’s fist, in her chest. The Repettis were lucky they took her for medical treatment when they did.
“If we had waited any longer, she would have been paralyzed,” Amy Repetti said.
Angelina needed surgery to remove the pressure on her spine and at the hospital the couple asked that their priest, Father Lawrence Purcell, be allowed to stay with them.
When they met the surgeon, Dr. Michael Levy, Purcell said: “I know this man. He is a parishioner. I was at his house last night praying with him.”
“It was the most stressful moment of my life and I couldn’t have been more comforted,” Amy Repetti said.” My husband and I were at peace knowing everything was going to be OK.”
The surgery was successful.
“She kicked immediately after coming out of anesthesia,” Amy Repetti said.
Angelina underwent five rounds of chemotherapy. During that time the family had to be very careful about bringing germs into the house with Angelina’s frail immune system. They didn’t want to pass on an illness that could be more life-threatening than the cancer.
“We put a sign on our door that said ‘No Visitors.’ People who brought us meals left them at the door,” she said.
One of the most heartbreaking things for Amy Repetti was that Angelina lost her hair.
“We couldn’t go anywhere without someone saying, ‘What a beautiful baby and look at all that hair,’” she said.
The chemo didn’t work, which meant Angelina needed surgery. She was taken to New York, where surgeons removed most of the tumor.
In the future, her doctors and her family will have to monitor Angelina to make sure the tumor does not begin to grow.
“You just pray the remaining tissue matures into dead cells,” Amy Repetti said.
The family, which also includes 4-and-a-half-year-old Luca, hopes in the future Angelina will simply be cancer-free. For now, she still has several more surgeries to endure because of the kyphosis, or curving of the spine, caused by her tumor, Amy Repetti said.