LIKE-MINDED WARRIORS FIND RESILIENCE ON THE ROCK WALL
Luke’s breath becomes shorter, heavier. His foot tests the next hold, tentatively, and then drops back. Fingers feel like slipping. “I’m ready to come down,” he says.
“It’s okay, take a minute,” coaches Jim. His voice is calm, encouraging. “Take a breath. Think about your next move. Where can you put your hand next? And what about after that? Focus on that. It’s all about your mind. Okay, breathe. You ready? Okay, make your next move. One at a time.”
PUBLISHED BY BITTERSWEET MONTHLY | JULY 2019
(The following is an excerpt from the story crafted by the talented team at Bittersweet Monthly, a not-for-profit that is working to transform statistics into stories and awareness into action. It was a privilege to get to partner with them as the photographer for this story. To read the full story, written by Trent Franklin, visit:
Luke pushes on. His fingers find the next hold, and then the next one, ascending much higher than where he originally contemplated giving up.
It’s a dance. Encouraging, coaching, pushing one moment, listening and letting Luke know his limits the next. A balance between, “One more move, you’ve got this!” and “Okay, buddy, let’s come down. You did great.”
Jim’s eyes are locked on Luke, reading his body language, watching the cues, knowing when to gently push and when to simply cheer. Luke looks down at Jim with a proud and excited smile.
This is not Luke’s first climb, and at first glance, you’d never know the boy perched confidently on the wall has battled cancer.
When most six-year-old kids are busy playing baseball or meeting at the park for playdates, Luke was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. At the age of four, he was diagnosed with Leukemia (ALL, B-cell).
We had noticed some bruising on his arms, and our nanny who we're very close with said, ‘You really have to take him to the pediatrician tomorrow to get checked out,’” explains Luke’s mom, Melissa Iorio.
After a series of tests, the Iorios received the call no parent expects: “Luke has leukemia; you need to go to the emergency room.”
Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost one out of three cancers. Overall, however, childhood leukemia is a rare disease.
Melissa vividly recalls the events that followed: It was five o'clock at night. She and her husband immediately took Luke to the hospital, but it was early the next morning before he was finally admitted.
“The nurse is settling us into the room, and she's giving us this big packet of, ‘This is what you need to know when your kid has cancer'... It's now 3 o’clock in the morning.” In that moment, Melissa was shell-shocked and exhausted, but the nurse’s next words remain with her today: "This is going to be really hard, but you're going to meet some incredible people."
Melissa flips through their family photo book, revealing pictures of a fragile, earnest young boy, a physical contrast to the Luke that stands tall and strong today. She remembers those early days – the fears, the worries, the uncertainty. But also, something more. The sense of purpose.
“I remember the first week Jon and I got out of the hospital. We just went to get coffee, and we both were like, ‘Yeah, that's suppose to happen,’ like we just knew it was. And we just knew there was a greater meaning to it.”
“I will never quit... If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight."
-- EXCERPT FROM THE SEAL CREED | U.S. NAVY
An Unexpected Bond
Shortly after Luke’s diagnosis, the Iorio family learned about One Summit, an organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with Navy SEALs and empowers them to build resilience and overcome adversity through rock climbing, relationship building, and storytelling. While they were excited to get involved, Melissa admits she wasn’t sure how Luke would manage the physical component: “I didn’t think he could actually climb a wall,” she says.
Luke met Jim for the first time at this very site for One Summit’s annual Boston Climb for Courage in 2017. The organization also hosts a Climb for Courage in New York City and San Diego. At the time, Jim was serving as an Active Duty Navy SEAL. A friend told him about One Summit, and his interest was immediately piqued.
Today, Jim looks to be in his element, but this was not always the case. As Jim helps Luke with his harness, a practice shared many times, he describes their first encounter. “I was really nervous. I didn't know what to expect.”
Melissa recalls Luke’s apprehension as well: “He didn't want me to leave, he didn't want to go upstairs, so Jim came downstairs.” The two bonded over a mutual love of dogs and talked lego creations. And just like that, a connection was formed, trust was built. Soon enough, Jim coaxed Luke to the rock wall, and the two mounted their first climb.
“We went up halfway. We didn't talk about anything, just kept climbing.” Little by little, Jim spurred Luke to higher summits, encouraging him to climb a little further each time. The two climbed together for nearly three hours, but at the end of the day, Luke still had not reached the top.
fter the closeout ceremony, Luke approached Jim: "I want to do it one more time.” Luke and Jim got harnessed in and tackled the same route with renewed determination. “It was one of those legendary moments where you remember it like a movie. I got more courage to tell Luke to get a little higher and higher. Out of nowhere Luke just says, ‘I'm going to smoke you man.’”
Everyone in the room gathered around as the two continued their final climb of the day. Luke made it two rungs from the top, looked down, and the fear set in. "I want to come down," he said. Jim paused and waited, giving Luke the space to work out his fear. The then-six-year-old boy held onto the bar for a span of seconds that felt like minutes before turning to Jim with a nonchalant reply: "Nah, I'm going to keep going."
“He found his inner spirit," recalls Jim, "just another level, like a reservoir of extra stuff he didn't realize he had, and he went to the top. I went berserk, I couldn't believe it, but then everybody just burst in this eruption of cheer and excitement.”
Jim says that was the moment he became a believer. He realized this shared experience was something special, something bigger than a rock wall or climbing adventure. “You have to see it to believe it,” says Jim. “There's some kind of magic to it.”
Luke’s dad, Jon, describes that moment as a turning point for his son: “I remember after the climb, we were at a playground and Luke was doing things he never would have done before the climb, and I sent Jim a message. It just showed me this isn't just about this one day; we're going to build on this.”
Read the rest of the story: https://bittersweetmonthly.com/stories/one-summit
The field of post-traumatic growth research has shown that when given the right tools and a mission into which people can channel their fears and anxieties, they can find new meaning and experience growth through their trauma.
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