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Upbeat in adversity Family of teen living with illness is model of support

The medical numbers are staggering.

Cameron Garrity already has undergone 32 surgeries. He has 31 different drug prescriptions and takes an average of 80 pills per day.

And he hasn't turned 18 yet.

But through it all, Cameron always seems poised to flash that warm smile of his. He talks calmly -- even comfortably -- about his devastating disease, even poking some fun at himself.

And he's buoyed by two huge forces in his life: his family and his faith.

"I've never been a teenager without being sick," he said last week in his Kenmore home. "But if someone asks me who I am, I like to say I'm an artist or a student, not a patient at the many hospitals I've been to.

"I try not to let it define me."

Cameron, according to his doctors, suffers from two main medical problems: mitochondrial disease and an immunodeficiency.

His mother, Linda, reeled off a working definition of mitochondrial disease.

"Cameron's mitochondria, for some reason, produces ammonia and lactic acid, which are toxins that compromise the functioning of various systems in his body."

The rare disease has moved into the spotlight recently, with the news that Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli has the same disease. It has left Baldelli with extreme muscle fatigue and almost debilitating exhaustion, even as his team plays in the World Series.

Sick for the last five years, Cameron has had sinus infections, whooping cough, pneumonia, mononucleosis, as well as major stomach, heart and liver problems. . . . The list goes on.

His physical problems rob him of much of his energy. A senior at Canisius High School, he can't take gym class or ride to school on the bus or come home from school and ride his bike. That's all too taxing for him.

But he has managed to become editor of Canisius' literary magazine, Chanticleer, and become active in campus ministry.

If there's any bitterness in Cameron, he keeps it locked deep inside.
"I know eventually there will be something good that comes out of this," he said. "Ultimately, I'd like to think there will be an overall purpose, whether it's the connection to my family, or if they ever figure out my disease, and it helps save someone else's life or gives them normalcy."

Cameron, fittingly, made those comments while sitting on the couch with his sister, Kaitlin, 14, and their parents, Linda and Thomas.

If there's one message they would like to shout from the rooftops, it's that Cameron's medical problems are a family problem. Any challenge for one becomes a challenge for all. And whenever they can, they find a way to laugh.

It might not make it to a comedy club near you, but the family -- all smiling and giggling -- loves telling the story about the day last January when Kaitlin received her acceptance letters to Holy Angels and Nardin academies.

As Kaitlin was opening one of the letters, family members and some friends heard a loud thump. Cameron had gone upstairs to go to the bathroom, where he passed out and hit his head so hard on the wall that he put a small dent in it.

Everyone raced upstairs, and Cameron turned out to be fine.

What does he remember most about that incident?

"I said, 'Everybody get out of here. I still have to go to the bathroom.' "

They laugh about that story, but it also shows that Cameron's physical problems can intrude even on the happiest moments. But they're all in it together.

"I think the whole experience has put a new lens on what 'normal' is for our family," Thomas Garrity said. "It's been a long challenge that has brought us closer, because we have to rely on each other every day to get through this."

And it's strengthened their bonds with their faith community, at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and School.

"I believe this does challenge your faith," Thomas Garrity said. "Why have we been chosen for this? I don't know. I can only say that we were chosen to steel our resolve. It definitely has given us a better perspective of what's meaningful and what's important:

"The four people in this room."

The Garritys are mindful that other families have it worse. They say they've tried to manage themselves without burdening others. But the out-of-pocket expenses have led their church community to organize a benefit for them.

The event will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the church, 1085 Englewood Ave., Town of Tonawanda.

Despite all the uncertainty of Cameron's disease, his family has nothing but praise for his many doctors, at Women and Children's Hospital, Buffalo General Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic and Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

"They're not only compassionate, but also honest enough to say they don't have all the answers," Linda Garrity said. "They're humble in what they can do and what they can't do."

The doctors aren't the only ones looking for answers.

"Everything happens for a reason," said Kaitlin, a freshman at Holy Angels. "We may not know the exact reason now. But we will later. That helps us keep the hope and faith now."
e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com1

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