Opinion: Life’s a series of Bat-Signals: There’s always hope

“Batman Forever” star Val Kilmer will appear at the Atlanta Comic Con at the Georgia World Congress Center on July 12-14. Contributed by Atlanta Comic Con
“Batman Forever” star Val Kilmer will appear at the Atlanta Comic Con at the Georgia World Congress Center on July 12-14. Contributed by Atlanta Comic Con

Teen fighting leukemia shares tips on what’s helped him persevere.

As a 17-year-old battling leukemia, the COVID-19 pandemic feels, well, familiar.

After my 2016 leukemia diagnosis, I learned to isolate before the world was isolating.

Family dinners around the table became scheduled shifts in the ICU. I spent weeks separated from my brother and sisters. My family’s house (barbeques, lawn tag, porch parties) became a bio-danger chamber (latex gloves, face masks, sanitizing wipes).

Parks and playgrounds were off limits, as were my siblings' high school graduations. Crowds became a mere memory. My world was suddenly a rotation of hospital beds, white coats, MRIs, blood draws, radiation and chemotherapy.

Like the rest of the world right now, my family wakes up to a new version of reality each day. I’ve endured two bone marrow transplants and lived in isolation for months at a time.

Matthew Gould
Matthew Gould

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

In December 2019, when the COVID-19 outbreak had just begun, my leukemia came back for the third time. The world prepared for a global fight. I prepared for a personal one.

In April, as states began sheltering in place, my family and I reflected on the fourth anniversary of our own sheltering in place. When the coronavirus began to spread in Georgia, only one family member could accompany me to treatments. I felt lonely without my entire family with me.

And it left me thinking about Batman.

The Caped Crusader is my favorite superhero because he has no supernatural powers. He can’t read minds or shoot laser beams from his eyes. He can’t walk through walls or fly. He earned his membership in the Justice League (serving with Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman) through a combination of smart brains and smarter technology.

And he taught me all I need to know about being alone, staying home and staying safe:

1. Don’t be afraid. Bruce Wayne, who became Batman, suffered a childhood trauma. It left him shaken and unsure of the world. But it also gave him a path, a purpose. No life is without pain. Bad things happen. But what hurts you can also drive you. Just as Batman, who witnessed a terrible crime, became a crime fighter, I plan to study medicine and become a cancer researcher.

2. Welcome a different life. Batman practices discipline so that he can pursue his crime-fighting passion. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t see his life as less than others because he lives differently. I can’t control my diagnosis. I’m more vulnerable to this pandemic than others, but I try to not compare my life to others. My life is not lesser. It’s just different.

3. Observation is action. Batman connects the dots. He sees patterns. And you can only do that by not thinking too much about yourself. When I receive chemotherapy at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, I try to pay attention to the younger kids. Who is scared? Who is struggling? A smile or word from me, a teenager with an IV dangling from my arm, can often mean the world to them. I try to notice others.

4. Friends and family are a superpower. Even Batman, a famous loner, needs his trusty helper, Alfred, and his friend, Robin. Even when my treatments required isolation, my family and friends found a way to stay with me. My older brother, DJ, and my younger sister, Lauren, became my lifeline when they donated their cells for my bone marrow transplants. My friends sent me smile-a-grams. They tell me jokes. Once my entire school class sent a video of a choreographed cheer. Sometimes I can’t be with them, but I know my friends and family are there for me.

5. Expect miracles. The people of Gotham City often don’t appreciate Batman’s efforts to help them, but once in a while they will rise to his aid and defeat some bad guy. When I see ordinary people on the news stepping up to donate food, or give blood, or make masks to protect others from the coronavirus, it gives me hope that this may all end well.

I don’t know what the new normal will look like in a world after the coronavirus. Things may never be exactly the same. If we keep a good perspective and don’t despair, we’ll get to the other side in one piece.

Along the way, it helps to remember how heroes manage a dark reality, even if they are make-believe.

Matthew Gould is featured in #AflacCares25, a Facebook campaign celebrating children battling cancer. He lives in Stockbridge, Georgia, and plans to graduate from Woodland High School in 2021.

Matthew Gould
Matthew Gould

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Matthew Gould
Matthew Gould

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

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