At 21, Austin McGowan assumed he was too old to be a Riley Champion. So after he delivered the keynote address at the South Bend Riley Regional Leadership Committee gala in September, he was shocked when Riley Children’s Foundation President Kevin O’Keefe announced his selection: “That was crazy,” Austin says.
But it was not surprising to Paul Haut, M.D., Riley Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer and former stem cell transplant director. “I was fortunate to be part of the team that took care of Austin for many years,” Dr. Haut says. “Austin is the quintessential survivor.”
His journey with Riley started in 1996 at age 3 when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Pediatric gastroenterologist Joseph Fitzgerald, M.D., treated Austin for six years before referring him to surgeon Fred Rescorla, M.D. After undergoing three surgeries, the 9-year-old was off all medications, and life was feeling normal again for Austin and his parents Chris and Kathy.
But in October 2006, the family learned that Austin, who was 13, had not one but two childhood leukemias, a rare and devastating dual diagnosis. Under the care of pediatric oncologist Nadine Lee, M.D., Austin had intensive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in March 2007, using a near-perfect match from the national donor registry.
The transplant put Austin on the road to being seven years cancer-free, but the heavy doses of steroids he was given led to a condition called AVN in his joints. Austin ended up having both of his hips replaced and eventually will need both knees replaced as well.
“His strength and determination are so hard to describe,” Kathy says. “He has such a positive outlook and a strong faith.”
Because of his medical challenges, Austin’s parents arranged for a teacher to homeschool him. He graduated with honors and is taking a year off while he explores his college options. In the meantime, he is enjoying a part-time job at a local video gaming store.
Austin has shared his story at many events. He was especially excited when his speech at the St. Mary’s College Dance Marathon inspired a huge turnout of potential bone marrow donors. “That feeling was amazing,” he says. “I want to give back. Riley definitely saved my life, so whatever I can do, I’ll do.”