WOODBRIDGE – John Guerriero has seen amazing improvements in his son, Anthony, since he underwent stem-cell treatment for his autism in December.
“It’s been life changing, and not just for Anthony,” said Guerriero.
He said his 7-year-old boy, a first-grade student at Matthew Jago School No. 28 in Woodbridge, is eating more foods, communicating more and in general is healthier and more comfortable in his skin.
“The best improvement is his connection with his brother and sister,” said Guerriero, who also has a son, Giovanni, 8, and daughter, Isabella, 5. “He didn’t have a relationship before with his brother. He was off in his own world. Now they are best friends. The three of them are inseparable.”
But with the stem-cell treatment lasting only about eight months before the body flushes it out of Anthony’s system, the family is preparing to return to Panama on June 29 for his next treatment.
Mayor’s Fluke Tournament
And helping them pay for the treatment, which is not covered by insurance, is the Mayor John E. McCormac Fluke Tournament on June 20 at the Sewaren Boat Launch. The event is organized by Woodbridge Police Officer Al Dudas, a 25-year veteran of the police department, and Police Capt. Robert Brady, assisted by Lt. Joseph Velez.
Dudas, a fisherman, said the mayor approached him nine years ago about holding a fishing tournament to raise money for kids with cancer and other medical conditions.
“When the money goes to a kid from town where we can see the improvement, it makes it that much more special,” said McCormac, who estimates that about $100,000 has been raised for families over the years.
Dudas said he goes to local stores and businesses to get donations for door prizes for the fishermen, as well as donations for the family. This year, the hall and catering also were donated.
At a captain’s meeting June 19 at the Avenel Knights of Columbus on Morrisey Avenue, a car dealer was scheduled to display trucks to haul boats and the New Jersey State Police was set to display a boat before a boatload of toys was presented to the three Guerriero children, along with about $15,000 for the family to use toward the $25,000 cost of travel, hotel and Anthony’s stem-cell treatment in Panama.
“When you see the faces of the kids and parents, it’s all worth it,” Dudas said.
And starting at 6 a.m. June 20, about 50 boats will participate in the fluke tournament, with $1,000 going to the fisherman who catches the largest fish. Last year, a fisherman reeled in a 13-pounder. Smaller prizes are awarded for the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers as well as the junior angler.
Sharon Aleszczyk, who, along with her husband, has volunteered to oversee the weighing of the fish, said the tournament is special to her.
“It’s close to my heart. They do so much for these families,” she said.
Guerriero said it’s great to have so much support from the community.
Autism diagnosis at age 2
Anthony was developing normally up until about 18 months old. Guerriero said his son used to talk, and walked before his first birthday. But at age 2, he was diagnosed with autism and retreated into his own world.
“He didn’t know who he was and who we were. He was mute for two years. It was difficult,” said Guerriero, who started researching autism and his son’s sudden loss of function.
His son underwent numerous tests and treatments before the family discovered stem-cell treatment. He said the treatment is so expensive that the family thought they would only be able to try it if they won the lottery.
The treatment is not approved in the U.S., although some clinical trials are underway, Guerriero said.
“But everyone chipped in money to send him there,” said Guerriero, adding that the change in his son was almost immediate.
He said his son’s skin was suddenly much softer, like he had found the fountain of youth.
“It was crazy. We were pretty encouraged,” said Guerriero, adding that the positive changes continued when they arrived back home, where his son was suddenly asking for different foods. He said Anthony had previously been so limited in the foods he would eat because of the pain he was in. He said his son now eats about 66 foods, mostly organic with no preservatives.
“He’s put on so much weight and filled out. He’s so healthy,” he said.
His behavior also has changed. Before the treatment, Guerriero said, his son suffered from major hyperactivity, climbing, bouncing, jumping, even walking on counter tops.
“He was not comfortable in his own skin,” said Guerriero, adding that the inflammation in his son’s brain and stomach played havoc on his body.
Since the treatment, Anthony hasn’t inappropriately climbed on things once.
“He’s done normal stuff as a boy. He’s super calm now,” said Guerriero, who hopes that with his son’s continued progress he will one day be able to verbalize the difference in how he felt before and after the treatment. “Now he’s talking to us and his siblings. He’s engaging with the whole family. It’s such an amazing journey. We see new things every single day.”
Guerriero said Anthony greets his mother, Jeannine, when she comes home, and he loves snuggling with her.
“They have that bond back,” he said.
Tax deductible donations for Anthony’s stem cell treatment can be directed to http://www.gofundme.com/unstoppableanthony.
If you are interested in following Anthony’s journey or would like to contact the Guerriero family with any questions about the procedure, go to https://www.facebook.com/UnstoppableAnthonyStemCellJourney.