Battle with cancer switches perspective for St. Joseph sophomore

Sunday, May 6, 2018 | 12:56 AM

A long scar covers Eli Swierczewski's upper right arm, from his elbow to his shoulder.

The 16-year-old sophomore tricked one of his St. Joseph baseball teammates into believing the arm scar came from a shark bite. The ruse lasted months.

In reality, Swierczewski didn't tangle with Jaws. But he did battle and overcome a deadly foe.

Four years after getting diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric cancer, Swierczewski is thriving as a center fielder for St. Joseph, one of three sports he plays for the Spartans. And after a fight that included chemotherapy, multiple surgeries and radiation, Swierczewski believes he's finally getting back to form.

“In the back of my head, I knew I was going to be all right, no matter what happened,” Swierczewski said.

“I knew I had (my family) behind me, I had all my teammates behind me, all my friends at school. So that just kind of kept me grounded, I guess, kept me where I was.

“I mean, it was a lot, and when people think about that, I just tell them you can't think about that. You've just got to put your trust in God and other people. You've got to just know it's going to be all right.”

‘Devastating' diagnosis

Pam Swierczewski remembers “where I was, what I was doing, who I was standing with” when she learned of Eli's cancer diagnosis in May 2014.

Eli began feeling arm pain that spring while playing basketball and baseball but chalked it up to normal soreness. Then Pam noticed an abnormal amount of swelling. X-rays and biopsies brought the diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma, a rare tumor that affects about 225 children and teens each year in North America, according to the American Cancer Society.

“The initial news was devastating,” Pam Swierczewski said. “I think it lasted, honestly, maybe about four or five hours. By the time we got home from Pittsburgh and we told his siblings, Eli said, ‘OK, that's that, I'm going to go outside and play.' ”

That attitude helped carry Eli through a year's worth of chemotherapy and two major surgeries. The first surgery came in November 2014, three months into chemotherapy, when doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia removed three-quarters of his upper arm bone and replaced it with a cadaver and metal rod: “I'm still confused on what they did, but whatever they did, it worked,” Eli said.

A second surgery took ligaments from his knee — leaving another large scar — and used them to fuse his arm bones together.

Through it all, Eli relied on his family — parents Brian and Pam, older siblings Ethan and Anna and younger siblings Ally and Emma — and the greater Natrona Heights community where they live. Three golf outings and a spaghetti dinner helped raise money as he battled the disease.

“He made his mind up that this wasn't going to be the focus, and that was it,” Pam Swierczewski said. “It was huge for the whole family because Eli wouldn't let anybody think anything different. He set the tone for the rest of the family.”

The completion of chemotherapy — plus some radiation treatments to clear out a miniscule remnant of his cancer — understandably brought Eli excitement and began his comeback story.

Comeback from cancer

First-year St. Joseph baseball coach Kurt Krebs saw Swierczewski throwing right-handed as they went through indoor infield drills this spring. Then the Spartans ventured outdoors for outdoors, and Krebs saw the sophomore switch to his left hand.

“I'm trying to figure out what's going on, and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, he can throw with both,' ” Krebs said. “I was like, ‘You've got to be kidding me.' ”

Swierczewski isn't quite ambidextrous — he can't write left-handed, for example — but his battle with cancer forced him to change certain aspects of his athletic routines.

Because of his surgery, Swierczewski's original right-handed throwing form became a submarine style. So although he maintained his right-handed batting, he taught himself how to throw left-handed.

“I just worked at it and worked at it,” he said. “The hardest part was getting form down because with baseball, throwing hard isn't about being strong; you have to have the right form, you have to be able to throw with your body and your arm. That's what I had to work at the most, and I think it's finally coming together now. It feels good, it feels natural, and I'm liking it.”

Eli brushes his teeth and uses drinking cups with his left hand, remnants of a post-surgery life that included a large sling. He also overhauled his basketball jump shot, although he said that process was easier.

Krebs said he heard from three people about Eli's “remarkable story” when he first got hired at St. Joseph, and the sophomore more than lived up to the hype.

“It keeps everything in perspective,” Krebs said. “Wins and losses, strikeouts, where does that really compare to the important things in life like your health and community, family, things like that. It reminds us of what's most important.”

Although he switched from infield to outfield after his surgery, leaving him fewer fielding opportunities, Eli thrives as a spark plug in St. Joseph's lineup and especially on the basepaths as a frequent base stealer.

And the ballplayer known to his teammates and coaches as “Sunshine,” partially in reference to the same-named character from “Remember the Titans,” keeps a sunny attitude even as the Spartans (3-9, 2-7) finish the regular season outside of the WPIAL Class A playoff field.

“I think I appreciate everything a little bit more now,” he said. “I mean, I hate to say that because I can't really tell. But I like to think I do because the other day we were getting beat up by Vincentian pretty bad, and I was telling my friends it's too nice of a day to get mad. Let's just enjoy some baseball and have fun.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.


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