Lightning hero donates half of prize to USF pediatrics

When countless time and money is invested in the fight against cancer year after year, a moment at the end of each year may be needed to recognize those on the frontlines of the enduring struggle. 

For 2014, the Lightning Foundation recognized Mary Ann Massolio, a pediatric oncology social worker, in November as a 2014 Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero. 

But instead of keeping her $50,000 prize, Massolio donated all of the money, of which half went to the research lab of Dr. Cameron Tebbi, a USF Health pediatrics professor.

“Dr. Tebbi was just delighted. I love being able to call him and tell him that we had some money for him,” Massolio said.  

Tebbi, who is also the chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and the director of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at Tampa General Hospital, works with Massolio’s 1 Voice Foundation to search for a cure to pediatric cancer and bring resources to patients’ families.

“Its research, family programs and school, our three focuses if you will,” Massolio said.  “1 Voice itself is the name that came from this one place where families could go and get all the resources when their child is first diagnosed.”

Personal loss motivated Massolio to take a step into pediatric cancer research. After being offered a position to work as an oncology social worker for pediatric patients her own child was diagnosed. 

“My youngest child was diagnosed with fourth stage non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and we lost him six months later,” Massolio said.

Tebbi’s research focuses on leukemia. He studies acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that involves blood and bone marrow and progresses quickly.

“What we basically are doing is we are trying to find ways and means to show why people get leukemia and different ways to prevent it,” Tebbi said.

Located on the third floor of the Morsani College of Medicine, Tebbi uses donated lab space to continue with research that is internationally recognized for his outstanding work.

Tebbi has been devoted to his work for 40 years and, with help from the $25,000 donation, is thoroughly researching a vaccine for leukemia.

“We badly need equipment to work in the lab, we need lab supplies for laboratory investigations that we are doing,” Tebbi said. “We do need free agents to use for the lab tests that we are doing and most of these are very expensive to use high tech equipment.”

With different tests being done, the supplies needed to carry out each test build up. The money donated to USF pediatric research will help cover the supplies needed for the research and the equipment being used.

“Right now four cents of a cancer research dollar goes to children so 96 cents goes to adult cancers,” Massolio said. “And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make sure we could put some funding Dr. Tebbi’s way.”

Massolio donated the other half of the $50,000 to Quantum Leap Farms. Based in Odessa, the farm’s equine therapy pairs people with horses to treat a variety of different challenges, such as depression and trauma. 

“We provide all of the funding for the after school equine therapy program so that the children can do their physical therapy and … social therapy on the horses,” Massolio said.

Massolio said the equine program is special to her and that it does take up a lot of funding and a lot of time, but it’s why Quantum Leap Farms nominated Massolio for the award in the first place, to showcase the hard work Massolio does for pediatric cancer and research.

Massolio’s attempt to bring awareness to pediatric cancer brought in all kinds of funding for Tebbi. However, the $25,000 donation will play a huge part in wrapping up his research for a vaccine.

“My thought process is if a child never had the disease to begin with they wouldn’t be exposed to the toxicities that we have to give them,” Massolio said. “So what better way to do with that than to have vaccinations?”

Massolio hugely supports Tebbi’s work, because both believe in a vaccination to be a cure for pediatric cancer.

“Somebody has to eliminate leukemia as a disease of children and anybody who helps us to achieve that goal is very dear and near to us,” Tebbi said. “1 Voice means a whole lot to me, they try their very best to support the research and they try their very best to help children.”

With the donations and the support of Massolio and 1 Voice, Tebbi hopes to begin publishing results in 2015.