Patient No. 9,800: VA doctor, St. Jude survivor and now, wonderfully, dad
Dr. Matt DiVeronica was diagnosed with neuroblastoma as a toddler and treated at St. Jude. Now, he has his own little ones and provides care to Portland area veterans.
June 11, 2021 • 9 min
When it came time for Dr. Matthew DiVeronica and his wife, Dr. Meghan NeSmith, to announce their first child was on the way, the reveal came in the form of an infant outfit.
Matt’s mother, Gail, was visiting Portland that 2017 winter, from her Miami Beach home. She had known Matt and Meghan were hoping to conceive, but given their reality, she was initially puzzled.
Because Gail could still remember the names of the chemotherapy medicines Matt received as a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital three decades earlier, could still see him in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove a tumor related to his neuroblastoma.
Matt knew that a side effect from his treatment could involve fertility issues and Gail knew the couple had already done research on fertility and adoption.
After a few beats to fully grasp the meaning of the onesie, the significance washed over Gail.
“After I stopped crying,” Gail said, “I just kept saying, ‘Are you kidding? Are you serious?’ “
Gail was able to return to Portland for the birth that autumn of her granddaughter, but when Matt and Meghan gathered the parents for another announcement, in March 2020, the pandemic quarantines had begun.
At the time, Gail’s mind was more occupied with the uncertainty swirling for Matt and Meghan.
As a childhood cancer survivor, how perilous might Matt’s work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Portland become?
When would Meghan’s gastroenterology group be able to begin seeing patients again?
Would their 2-year-old daughter be able to go back to daycare? And when might the grandparents again feel her hugs?
But the moment Gail saw the “Big Sister” t-shirt on her granddaughter, the anxiety and worry receded, soothed by familiar feelings of gratitude and awe.
“It always goes back to St. Jude,” Gail says. “I truly believe he would not be here if it was not for St. Jude.”
There is a clinical photo Matt keeps from shortly after he was referred to St. Jude in 1986. Wearing only a diaper, Matt’s toddler face seems to regard the camera quizzically. One of his creamy brown eyes — the right — appears droopy and larger than the other.
It was neuroblastoma and at the time, Gail says, survival rates for children with this form of cancer were about 50%.
She wasn’t thinking then of whether her son, the youngest of her two children, would one day go to medical school, marry his best friend and become a father.
She was just hoping the chemotherapy and surgery would allow him to make it to preschool.
Gail can vividly recall receiving the phone call from another St. Jude mom, whose young son had just passed away. The boy, a few years older than Matt, had the same form of cancer so they were often together at the St. Jude clinic, almost like brothers.
Gail still hears from the bereaved mother. After the birth of Matt’s granddaughter, she texted Gail: “Please tell Matt and his wife congratulations on the new baby, how exciting. I am so proud of him becoming a doctor. I speak of him often, how he is a survivor of neuroblastoma."
Matt carries no memory of his treatment at St. Jude, but he does recall how much he looked forward to annual trips to Memphis from South Florida for checkups.
In between appointments, Matt and Gail would see the ducks march at The Peabody, visit the Memphis Zoo, watch a movie at their favorite cinema. At St. Jude, Matt could play with other kids and enjoy being showered with love and attention by doctors and nurses.
“Sure, there were tests and needle pokes, but I just remember it was a time my mom and St. Jude always made special and unique,” Matt says. “For me, every October, I got to take this trip with my mom.”
The returns to St. Jude took on added significance as Matt began to consider a medical career.
One year, Matt was able to spend time with researchers in the St. Jude laboratories conducting the science at the foundation of discoveries that lead to cures.
Matt realizes now all his mother’s efforts to make the trips feel special masked the anxiety ambient in every St. Jude parent — what if the cancer returns?
In 2018, in his first checkup at the St. Jude LIFE Study clinic since becoming a father, Matt remembers the impact of seeing the young patients with their parents.
“I remember seeing a mom with her little daughter in a stroller, crying for more Cheerios,” Matt says. “In some ways, it was a normal scene, like I might have with my daughter, but this mom was waiting on her daughter’s check-in for treatment.
“The daily grind of parenting can be difficult enough. I can’t imagine layering in that on top of it.”
Gail finds deep meaning in how her son’s life was saved by St. Jude, making it possible for Matt to pursue work that now focuses on helping save lives of military veterans.
Part of Matt’s role at the VA is designing systems and teaching processes to increase patient safety and improve quality of care.
“I like to think I’ve saved lives from changes we’ve made,” Matt says. “It’s fulfilling to try and find ways to prevent morbidities or adverse events that are preventable.”
Among the repertoire of bedtime songs Matt has enjoyed singing to his daughter at bedtime is one from his own boyhood.
Baby beluga, oh, baby beluga
With tomorrow’s sun, another day’s begun
You’ll soon be wakin’
With his son’s birth last fall, Matt’s audience has grown to two. Sometimes, after the kids are sleeping, he can just watch them, their gentle breathing offering a reminder of what’s most important in his life now.
When Matt was a toddler at St. Jude, Gail would often do the same, beholding her son, in a fight with cancer and hoping she could see him grow up.
“I would go in his room every night and stare at him,” Gail says. “And then as he got older, on holidays or milestones, I would look at him and cherish him. And I thank St. Jude for that.”
As a father now, Matt revels in the chance to channel his own inner child. His wife, Meghan, says most days feature laughing and dancing and singing around the house.
“And our daughter, she’s right there with him,” Meghan says. “She is very funny. She and Matt, they are one and the same.”
When Gail came to Portland this spring, after becoming fully vaccinated, Matt was able to take off work early and surprise the family with a Friday afternoon field trip to a park with a playground.
Matt’s older sister, Ashley, lives in North Carolina, but she remembers the family photo stream that day filling with images from the outing.
In one, going down a slide with his daughter, Matt’s face conveyed pure joy.
“It was hard to tell who was having more fun,” Ashley says.
Growing up, Ashley often played the role of protective older sibling, especially when Matt was going through treatment. Later, she came to appreciate the sense of humor Matt could bring to any situation.
When people asked about the scar on his torso at summer camp, Matt would play it for laughs.
“Shark attack,” he’d say, then point to a scar on Ashley’s leg and say he’d gotten it trying to save his sister.
“Matt is one of the smartest people you will meet but he’s also, and this is such a good thing — super goofy,” Ashley says. “I don’t know how much people outside the family see it, but he can be this wonderful goofball who isn’t shy about making fun of himself.”
As a mother, Gail admires the husband and father Matt has become, but he is still, after all, her baby boy.
“If I could still just sit and watch him sleep now, I would,” she says.
In the long run
With the pace Matt keeps these days, good luck catching him sleeping.
Distance running has become a passion, especially on the many of wooded trails in Portland, a city Matt and Meghan have grown to love.
He’s most enamored with the trails at Forest Park, where he can lose himself in one of the largest urban forests in the country.
When he follows the park’s Wildwood Trail, amid majestic Douglas firs and bigleaf Oregon Maples, Matt does so without accompanying music or podcasts.
His soundtrack on any given run might be the trill of songbirds or hoots of pygmy owls.
And as he runs, his mind’s playlist might surface memories of how he and Meghan became friends, several years before they became a couple.
They first met as freshmen at Central Florida in Orlando. They were in a class together, and Meghan approached him at an event, where Matt was raising funds for cancer research.
“He was wearing a t-shirt that saying he was a survivor,” Meghan says. “I’m pretty sure I just came right out and asked, ‘What kind of cancer did you have?’ So it was one of the very first things I knew about him.”
Meghan and Matt both attended medical school at the University of South Florida, but he didn’t become a serious runner until after graduation.
Now, he finds running essential.
During the pandemic, as he considered how to minimize risks of the virus for his family and his patients at the VA, the runs helped Matt find clarity.
While he could not go to the isolating extremes of some healthcare colleagues, like a doctor he knows who chose to live in an RV, Matt was very careful with pandemic precautions to protect his expectant wife and toddler daughter.
The pandemic also meant Matt could not accompany Meghan on appointments, missing the ultrasounds that would eventually confirm their daughter would be having a little brother.
“Fortunately, it was our second, so Matt had already gotten that experience,” Meghan said.
And, fortunately, on Meghan’s solo trips to her OB, there were no complications. Pandemic protocols had adjusted by the time their son was due, so Matt could be in the delivery room.
As it happened, Meghan’s doctors scheduled an induced delivery on the same day in October as the annual Portland fundraiser they support, the St. Jude Autumn Harvest.
So before Matt and Meghan headed to the hospital, they were able to pick up the special box of food prepared for those participating in the virtual event.
And as the first pangs of Meghan’s labor started, they were following the St. Jude Give to Live auction livestream.
The next morning, after Matt and Meghan introduced their new son to the world, his grandmother said a prayer of thanks.
“I’ve shed a lot of tears,” Gail says. “They had to deal with so much during the pandemic and you can’t help but think we didn’t even know if he would be able to have these babies.”
Living a big life
The family’s support of St. Jude goes back three decades, when Matt was still undergoing treatment as a toddler.
In the late 1980s, Gail noticed there was always a waiting list for families to watch movies on VHS so she arranged to donate new VCRs. For many years, the family raised funds in South Florida with a “Matthew DiVeronica St. Jude Golf Classic.”
An oft-told family story involves young Matt being convinced the St. Jude logo, a child’s silhouette, was modeled after him. One of Matt’s nephews, says Ashley, refers to St. Jude as “Uncle Matt’s hospital.”
It was through fundraising for St. Jude, in fact, that Matt discovered his love for running.
When Ashley told him she was raising money as a St. Jude Hero in the 2010 St. Jude Memphis Marathon, running the half, Matt’s competitive instincts kicked in.
He, too, signed up for the half, and when his first serious training for long-distance running training went well, he decided to run the full 26.2.
Gail and Ashley’s husband, Ron, signed up for the 5K, and they had T-shirts printed with “Team 9,800,” in honor of Matt’s St. Jude patient number.
The back of Matt’s shirt played on his initials and his recent graduation from medical school. “CAPTAIN M.D. M.D.”
“We both have all or nothing personalities,” Ashley says, “and Matt was like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Running the course, it was very emotional, especially going through campus and seeing the children and doctors and nurses outside.
“That led us both to a passion for running. He’s taken it a bit further with ultramarathons and those ridiculous distances.”
Influenced by the book “Born To Run,” Matt has for several years worked toward a goal of finishing a 100-mile run — ideally in under 24 hours.
“It’s inspiring to read these stories,” Matt says, “and realize what the human body is capable of when you put your mind to it.”
Even if he doesn’t carry tangible memories of his treatment so long ago, Matt seems to thrive on challenges requiring the resilience and fortitude his body summoned as a toddler.
And he feels especially drawn to experiencing nature.
Shortly after he arrived in Portland, he completed one of the area’s most rugged hikes, up to Larch Mountain to Sherrard Point. It overlooks the Columbia River gorge and offers a view of five major volcanic peaks, including Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood and Mt. Ranier.
“It’s a pretty spectacular trek,” Matt says. “You work hard for hours, you push your body and then there’s the reward of this beautiful scene. It’s an awesome view.
“It makes you feel really small.”
In his own way, Dr. Matthew DiVeronica — Captain M.D. M.D., St. Jude patient number 9,800, son, husband and now father — is making sure he lives life big.