Maple Glen 16-year-old with life-threatening condition will get to meet the Pope

By Elizabeth Fisher
Special to the CS&T

Michael DiMuzio wondered briefly what it would be like to shake hands with Roger Federer, the Swiss-born champion who some experts call the greatest tennis player of all time. When the time came to decide, however, Michael wowed family members and friends – and the Make-A-Wish foundation – by announcing that his heart was set on meeting a different kind of celebrity: Pope Benedict XVI.

Michael’s wish has been granted and during Holy Week, Michael, his parents, Paul and Carla, and his brothers, P.J., 19, and Nicholas, 18, will travel to Italy to meet with the Pope.
“I wanted to meet him because he’s such a big part of our faith. It’s cool that I’ll get to the Vatican and meet the Holy Father and have a conversation with him,” said Michael, a resident of Maple Glen and a member of St. Alphonsus Parish.

The road leading to Rome has been long and sometimes painful for the 16-year-old sophomore at Upper Dublin High School. In 2009, Michael was diagnosed with leukemia and immediately began a long course of treatment at Children’s Hospital in King of Prussia. He spent the first month after the diagnosis in the hospital, then “graduated” to weekly “hard-hitting” treatments, said Paul DiMuzio.

“The older the child, the more difficult leukemia is to cure. And, if they don’t go into remission within the month, they have to have a bone marrow transplant – or die,” Paul said. “Michael went into remission and is now on maintenance, meaning once-a-month treatments, plus daily oral medication.”

Twice, the teen was hospitalized with severe complications, but he fought back, his father said. Early on, Paul, a vascular surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Carla practically lived in their son’s hospital room. Every day, Paul would leave work and take a train from Center City to be at Michael’s side.

The ordeal was devastating for the family but Michael’s doctors were hopeful. When he first became ill, Michael had cancer cells in 90 percent of his bone marrow. After the first week of treatment, there were practically none.

All through the treatments, Michael kept up with his studies, being home-schooled during the first half of ninth grade, returning for the second half of the year, “weak” but determined, his father said.

“This year he’s in 10th grade, living strong and healthy,” he said of his son.

Michael’s parents said that during the family’s darkest days, they felt strengthened by the prayers and support of friends, fellow St. Alphonsus parishioners, and Michael’s classmates. Two weeks after he became ill, 200 people gathered at the parish church for a special Mass for Michael, said Carla DiMuzio.

“It makes me feel good that so many people prayed for us. We’re lucky to have had that for Michael. It was unbelievable that so many people came to the Mass,” she said.

The community that stood by the DiMuzios are, in turn, inspired and proud that a teen-ager like Michael, with all the world to choose from, would ask to meet the shepherd of the Church.

“I just thought it remarkable that a young person like Michael would have that wish,” said Msgr. Thomas Owens, pastor of St. Alphonsus.

Family friend Linda Tonelli, who heads the parish’s religious education program, for which Carla DiMuzio is a sixth grade teacher, said everyone has been praying that Michael, who is setting a shining example for people of faith, will continue to do well.

“You know, young people have their heroes, whether in sports or entertainment. I think Michael’s choice is awesome,” Tonelli said.

The Make-A-Wish organization was founded in 1980 and has since than endeavored to grant wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. Paula said that when the organization first contacted her in 2009 to ask if Michael had a wish they could help him with, she turned them down.

During a later medical follow-up, Michael’s doctor asked Paula where her son wanted to go for his “wish.” Carla explained that she declined the Make-A-Wish offer because the family’s focus was on Michael’s health.

“The doctor said to me, ‘You are not turning that down.’ So I thought, OK, let’s do it,” she said.

Two months ago, Make-A-Wish gave Michael the good news that his meeting with the Holy Father was scheduled for April 20, she said.

About Michael’s future, “We’re prayerful, we’re hopeful, we’re thankful,” Paul said.

Meanwhile, Michael plans to stay busy with his studies, with the school’s activities like Spanish Club, Key Club (a charity-oriented club), and Movie Making Club. He hasn’t decided yet whether he will pursue medicine or law as a career.

He does feel very fortunate to have a wish that others so willingly granted.

“It will be great to see the Pope, the Vatican’s art work, and to walk in St. Peter’s Square,” he said. “I think this will help me feel better about everything.”

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.