'I never, ever take anything for granted'
Dec 10, 2015
New Castle High couldn’t ask for a better point guard than Micah Fulena.
Good ballhandler. Great court sense. Unselfish. Knows when to pull the trigger on a 3-pointer.
In his first three years, in fact, Fulena has been a part of 82 victories, two section and two WPIAL championships and one state title.
Put that together with his big smile and likable personality and it is no wonder the Red Hurricane senior is beloved both on and off the court.
But underneath it all, Fulena knows better than anyone how different his journey could have been.
It was 10 years ago that the 19-year-old survived a battle with leukemia that, had it not been for a lifesaving bone marrow transplant from his older brother, Tonio, he probably would not be suiting up for the ’Canes today.
“I don’t really like to talk about it,” Fulena said. “I remember some of it, but not all of it, especially not when I was really sick.
“Any time anyone brings it up, my parents get really emotional, so I just kind of stay away from it.”
It was around Thanksgiving 2005 that the nightmare began. Micah, in third grade at the time, returned from a Notre Dame home football game with flu-like symptoms.
“We took him to a doctor, who said he had a sinus infection,” Micah’s mom, Karen, said. “Two weeks later, he was still lying around, which was so not like him. As the days went on, his skin started to look transparent and we noticed a nodule on his neck. Paul’s sister, Lisa Mangino, who is a nurse, came over, took one look at him and said, ‘get him to the emergency room right now.’”
After bloodwork at Jameson Hospital, he was rushed to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Several days later, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Karen and Paul Fulena began a vigil at their son’s bedside. Older brothers Paul, a senior at New Castle High, and Tonio, a ninth-grader, were there when they could be.
Micah started chemotherapy, but the Fulenas were told that his best chance for survival would be a bone marrow transplant. If a sibling was not a match, Micah would have to go in the national registry and hope that a match was found. That would decrease his odds of survival significantly.
“We just had a feeling that Paul was going to be a match for his brother,” Karen said. “But it turned out to be Tonio — our Tonio who is deathly afraid of needles. He fainted — slid right down the wall — when he saw some needles being put into Micah early in our time at Children’s.”
Although he was only 15, Tonio said he “hoped and prayed” that he would be a bone marrow match.
Not only was he a match, he was a perfect match.
“I was honored to have the opportunity to save him,” Tonio said. “That was the only thing that mattered to me at that moment, that I got the chance to save my little brother.”
On March 24, 2006, the transplant began by taking bone marrow from both of Tonio’s hips. Micah was given the lifesaving marrow intravenously.
“I remember watching every drip and thinking, ‘this has to work, this has to save my son’s life,’” Karen said.
Micah spent most of the next five months in the hospital. Karen, a junior high guidance and payroll secretary in the New Castle district, was granted family medical leave, while Paul took as much time as he could from his position as director of buildings and grounds for the district.
The family broke Micah’s battle into quarters, like they were playing a football game, with the transplant being the fourth quarter.
“Our faith was huge,” Karen said. “God was with us 24/7, we never doubted that for a minute. We felt his presence.”
The support from friends is something that the family says it never will forget. Fundraisers were held, the Fulena refrigerator was always stocked with food and friends even shaved their heads to show their support.
“Our friend Dave Huff walked into Micah’s room with a ponytail that he had been growing for years and walked out with his head shaved,” Karen said. “There was no limit to what people would do to support Micah.”
The Fulenas, always extremely close, became closer. Paul, now 27 and Tonio, 24, both also former athletic standouts at New Castle, are regional vice presidents for Medallion Financial after graduating from the University of Akron and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Tonio is based in Boardman and Paul in Newport Beach, Calif.
“That whole thing put everything into perspective for all of us,” Tonio said. “Even though we’re not all together every day, every day is a gift.”
Micah went into remission. He passed the critical five-year mark with no sign of the disease and soon will celebrate 10 years cancer-free.
“My family means everything to me and these guys are my best friends in the world,” said Micah, as his brothers gave him a hug. “I wake up every day knowing how lucky I am.
“I never, ever take anything for granted. Every day, every minute is a blessing.”