When he was only 2 years old, Gunnar John Church was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Just over a year later, Gunnar is still undergoing chemotherapy, but, seeing him play with the firefighters at city of Napa Station 3 on Wednesday, you might not know it.
Gunnar curiously walked around fire engines before getting some help operating the ladder, then the hose, then the horn. He then raced firefighter/paramedic Steve Streif to see who could get suited up into their uniforms faster.
“I won,” said Gunnar before high-fiving Streif.
“It’s a fun day,” Streif said. “This is what it’s all about right here.”
After Fire Capt. Mike Dombrowski heard about Gunnar, his diagnosis and his family, he and other firefighters decided they wanted to do something to help. In addition to giving Gunnar his own uniform and letting him play firefighter for a day, the firefighters also gave him an “Honorary Firefighter” certificate and gave his whole family a ride in the fire engine.
“He is totally into police officers and firefighters,” said his mom, Amanda Brockway. Although she doesn’t know exactly where the interest came from, she said she thinks he sees them as strong and brave. During the wildfires in October, she said, Gunnar asked her how many firefighters were on the fires and wanted to know if they were going to be OK.
“To see him out here and socializing and excited – that’s huge to us,” Brockway said. Some days, the smiling boy is very different. Some days, she said, “nothing will cheer him up.”
Gunnar’s “normal” is taking pills multiple times a day every day, getting sick and sometimes having to stay in the hospital for more than a week at a time.
“This is just what life is,” said Judy McDaniel, Gunnar’s grandmother. “He knows that something is going on because he’s got a tube in his chest and he can’t just jump in the pool like he used to.”
Gunnar’s sister, 9-year-old Melia, played along, taking her own turn using the fire hose and wearing the firefighters’ headsets inside the truck.
“It’s not fun to have a little brother that’s sick.” Melia said, but the fact that the firefighters put this event on for them makes her believe that “Napa has a heart.”
Although she admitted she doesn’t always have a lot of patience for her younger brother, Melia said that she tries to teach him the importance of kindness.
“I tell Gunnar, ‘Since I give you all of my kindness, you need to give my kindness to other people.’”
She said she thinks it’s been working. Just the other day, she said, when their mom had a tooth pulled, Gunnar told her that they didn’t need to watch his show – “PAW Patrol” – and that she could watch her show instead.
“He’s young, but he has a big heart and he does have a great personality.”
The family has received support from friends and family – one family friend even helped Brockway get a new vehicle when the family car broke down. They have held several fundraisers and have created a GoFundMe account.
“It’s hard for little kids,” said McDaniel, who created the account last year to help cover costs for things like gas to and from Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center as well as other things that Gunnar might need. “It’s hard for the parents. Their lives have totally changed.”
McDaniel said that Gunnar’s treatment will continue until December 2019 when he is expected to be declared free of cancer.