When you phone Daniel Gross-Loh ’21, you get two hellos and “I can’t hear you…hold on… can you speak a little—?” before the beep comes and you realize you are listening to a smart-alecky automated message. The voice doesn’t seem like that of a boy who has spent the last six months in a hospital battling leukemia, but levity, then and now, has always been part of his nature.
In fact Daniel said it might be hard for him to converse with classmates because he has processed his own illness in a way that might be foreign to others.
“I can talk to people about leukemia pretty lightly, and they just don’t know what to say because it’s a pretty heavy subject,” Daniel said.
Daniel was released from Boston Children’s Hospital and returned to the Upper School (US) on Monday, November 5, just two weeks before Thanksgiving.
“That’s one of the marks that we had all kind of aimed for,” he said. “I’ll get to see my extended family for the first time outside the hospital, and I’ll just kind of get to be free.”
Despite having only just stepped outside for the first time in half a year, Daniel stopped by the US immediately after being sent home.
“I felt that going back to school and just being at school would really help normalize things,” he said. “The first day was a little bit overwhelming, seeing hundreds of faces I hadn’t seen in a really long time.”
But some of the faces were quite fresh. Over the summer and during the beginning of the school year, many of his classmates visited him in the hospital—enough so that the nurses commented on his unusual volume of visitors, Daniel said.
“It kind of helped me get through the time,” he said. “[The visitors] made me feel like I wasn’t completely locked away from the rest of society. A lot of my very close friends and family came, and it was all very helpful.”
Nikhil Datta ’21 visited Daniel almost immediately after his diagnosis, which happened just a few days before finals last spring.
“I was crazy worried,” he said. “The Friday I was done with exams, the first thing I did was visit him.”
Nikhil returned several times.
“It would be as if we were hanging out normally, but we were in a hospital. We would just chill out and talk, maybe watch a movie or something,” he said. “One time we had a fight with Nerf guns.”
Among Daniel’s more constant visitors were his siblings Benjamin Gross-Loh ’19, Mia Gross-Loh ’25, and Anna Gross-Loh ’28. Benjamin would come and spend time with him several times a week during the summer.
“He played a huge role because he was one of the few people who I trusted to watch me,” Daniel said. “When there was really bad pain, I would need people to be there for me, and my parents weren’t always available.”
The first two months at the hospital were the hardest, Daniel said. He underwent four rounds of intensive chemotherapy, which he described as extremely painful.
“Your mind is almost going crazy,” he said. “I watched an entire movie and then the next morning I woke up and remembered absolutely none of it. It can really mess with your brain.”
Daniel said he feels lucky that his treatment coincided with the summer, causing him to miss less time in school than he would have otherwise. While hospitalized, he worked with a tutor to prepare himself to reenter classes. He also spent time mulling how to respond to his peers’ questions when he returned to school.
“I really did plan ahead at the hospital, just doing a basic rundown of what my diagnosis was so I knew how to tell people about it,” Daniel said.
The doctors helped Daniel come up with a metaphor he could use to help his peers understand his chemo treatment. If all of his cells were a lawn, the cancer cells were invasive dandelions. The treatment is the equivalent of mowing all of the grass in the lawn to get rid of the dandelions.
Words like “cancer” trigger strong reactions in others, Daniel recognized, but he has tried to own the word for himself to diminish its power.
“When I first heard that I had leukemia, I was just mostly in shock, and then after about two weeks, I started to accept things,” he said. “From there on, I would try to frame it light-heartedly and make jokes just to make things easier. In doing so, I really did dampen the meaning of the word. I would use it all the time.”
Daniel was reluctant to get too close with any of the other patients because he feared they might not survive their own treatments. He did befriend many of the nurses, though, and he said saying goodbye to them was difficult.
Following his discharge, Daniel expressed gratitude for the simple things in life, like going outside.
“Just being able to walk down to the corner store is really exciting to me,” he said. “Having the independence of doing whatever you want is really amazing.”
Adjusting to life outside the hospital and away from medical equipment has been a process, he added.
“At first it was a lot to take in. I spent such a long time in such a small amount of space,” he said. “There are so many more risks out here… I’m still a little worried not being hooked up to a machine. The machine represented safety for me.”
Christine Gross-Loh P ’19, ’21, ’25, ’28, Daniel’s mother, said she is grateful for all of the care Daniel and the family felt from the school while he was away and during his carefully planned reentry.
“We felt supported the whole time—really moved by how the BB&N community stepped up and helped us out,” she said, referring to productive meetings with administrators and advisors and to teachers and parents who contacted and offered to visit Daniel. His wrestling coach, Derek Papagianopoulos ’10, visited him more than once.
Right after Daniel was diagnosed, his mother recalled, he had tried to write a paper for one of his classes, and she and the school had to step in.
“We all had to reassure him, ‘Your health comes first right now,’” Ms. Gross-Loh said.
Daniel went on to impress her with how he handled himself and the situation, she said.
“He learned so much about this illness and his treatment,” she said. “His proactive desire to understand what was going on and to really engage with the doctors and nurses to understand his illness at each stage, and also his sense of humor and general positivity, were things that I think got him through.”
As for their role, Ms. Gross-Loh said she and her husband, who took turns spending the night with Daniel on a bed next to his in the hospital, thought a lot about how best to support Daniel.
“We tried to be there for him, not underreact, not overreact, reassure him that we are really there for him and that we believe in his resilience,” she said.
Ms. Gross-Loh also spoke about her other children’s experience of their brother’s illness.
“They thought about Daniel a lot when they were away from him,” she said. “It was a lot for them to go through, too.”
“It helped all of us prioritize about what’s important in life,” she added. “Senior year is stressful, and you can get really myopic, but we learned that nothing is more important than family and friends and love and being a good person.”
On the heels of the ordeal, Ms. Gross-Loh expressed gratitude.
“It [was] weirdly kind of a positive experience because we saw how good people can be to one another,” she said.
Daniel, too, said he feels thankful for aspects of the experience, including how much closer he has grown to his parents.
“I really do appreciate what came out of it,” he said. “The whole six months weren’t great. I’ve grown to appreciate things a lot more. I value life in general a lot more.”