POWHATAN – Vania Gross is hoping for a miracle, but she is at peace if she doesn’t receive one.
Reclining on the couch of her Powhatan home on Jan. 9, the 27-year-old woman was obviously exhausted. Who wouldn’t be in similar circumstances? The day before, she finished the last treatment in a six-week regimen of chemotherapy. Two days before that, she completed her 30th radiation treatment.
At that point, it had been just under two months since Vania Gross’s world came crashing in when she received a devastating diagnosis on Nov. 15, 2019, of a stage 4, inoperable brain stem glioblastoma tumor.
From the beginning, surgery was not an option – the tumor is growing into her brain stem and even a biopsy to diagnosis her condition was unimaginably dangerous, she said. So she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and on Jan. 20, she goes back for more testing to see if it helped shrink the aggressively-growing mass.
Until then, despite her obvious fatigue, Gross was more upbeat than might be expected as she talked about her life and possible death from the comfort of her living room couch.
She is still praying for a miracle. She loves her life with her husband and high school sweetheart, Scott, and two young sons, Colton, 2, and Austin, who turned 1 the day after the interview. She said she is unbelievably happy with her marriage and her babies and desperately wants to grow old with Scott and watch Colton and Austin grow up.
She and Scott were high school sweethearts who spent the bulk of their early relationship in a long-distance relationship while he attended college in North Carolina. The couple married on Aug, 2, 2014.
“Obviously not every relationship is perfect, but Scott is the best man/father/husband ever. We grew up together, and I’m so happy we did. He’s my best friend,” Gross said. “It’s a deeper connection because we’ve been together for 10 years. We literally grew into adults together, so our relationship is special.”
But it is that same love for her family that has Gross working past the pain and tiredness and other side effects to make sure they are taken care of if her time with them has to end soon. She said her entire family has stepped up to help, especially her parents Franco and Florella Marannano and two brothers Franco Jr. and Giovanni. Friends and co-workers have also been a huge asset. Her best friend, Ashley Murtha, is helping her plan her memorial service and get her important documents in order.
Gross is making recordable books for her sons and writing cards for them to open at different milestones in their lives if she isn’t there to share the events with them. She is having her heartbeat recorded and made two stuffed bears with recordings of her voice.
“I’ve seen way too much suffering as a nurse. Death is a beautiful part of living and should be treated as such. Don’t be scared to die. We literally all have to die at some point,” Gross said. “Some of us just get ‘timelines,’ but what a blessing because we technically get time to get our affairs in order prior to leaving when the majority of people don’t have time to prepare. I can’t even imagine leaving family behind with such heavy, heavy decisions, all while grieving the sudden death of a loved one.”
With that thought in mind, Gross has reached out and asked for help from the community – both to assist with mounting medical bills the family is now facing and to help leave her loved ones in a more financially stable situation if she isn’t there to help carry the burden.
There have been fundraisers for the family, including one on Jan. 7 at El Cerro Azul that saw great attendance from the community. Another is planned for Jan. 21 at Candela’s Pizzeria and Ristorante Italiano, with proceeds from sales throughout the day going to the family. The restaurant is located at 14235 Midlothian Turnpike, Midlothian.
There is also a GoFundMe.com page set up under “Gross Family Hope Fund” that had raised $32,805 in about a month.
“I feel like I am fighting as hard as I can but also trying to be realistic with my prognosis,” Gross said. “Even if I have a miracle now, my life expectancy is five years. This type of tumor comes back, and when it does there is little they can do. It is an aggressive tumor they don’t know enough about. So I just want to get my family straight just in case.”
Gross credits her experiences as a nurse with helping her come to grips with her diagnosis because they opened her eyes “to death and dying.”
“I am hoping for that miracle. But at the same time I understand that there is a reason for Heaven. There is no reason for an empty Heaven. If we could stay out of it for right now, that would be great. But I am prepared if I need to go. I am not scared. I think that helps,” she said.
The dark humor nurses often adopt to help them stay sane under immensely stressful conditions was also a boon in some of the harder moments, she added.
“My dark humor keeps me going. That is a nurse humor that is how we cope. Otherwise we would be crying all the time. Life is too short, enjoy it,” Gross said.
Gross hasn’t been able to work since Nov. 3, 2019, two days before a sudden bout of blurry vision and an unrelenting headache made her go to the emergency room, where the tumor was first detected on an MRI.
But she still derives immense pleasure from her work as a nurse – a vocation she has known was her calling since she was 5 years old and underwent open heart surgery to close a hole in her heart. Watching the nurses who cared for her, she decided she would one day become a nurse and comfort others in the same way.
“Being a nurse – you can make a difference in a stranger’s life very quickly. I feel like I love on my patients as if they were family members, even if they are strangers. It is really easy for me to love on you and help you and do all the things we need to do. I don’t even need to think about it,” she said.
Gross said she has spent a huge part of her life trying to help others. At age 16, she became a junior member of the Powhatan Rescue Squad. She stayed a member of the rescue squad until she became pregnant with Colton at age 25.
But more than that, she made helping people her career and did exactly what her 5-year-old self had dreaming of doing. While at Powhatan High School, she achieved her certified nursing assistant certificate. After graduating in 2010, she studied at Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing while working part-time as emergency room technician.
After graduating as a registered nurse in May 2015, she worked first as an emergency room nurse and then a day surgery nurse at Johnston-Willis Medical Center. She then went on to become a labor and delivery nurse at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, Forest campus.
“Working in labor and delivery was the greater honor of my life. Yes, some days were very stressful, but I loved every minute of it. I found my niche in this job,” she said.
At this point, Gross said she doesn’t know what will come next. She doesn’t know if she has days, weeks, months, or years left. So she plans to enjoy whatever time she has with the people she loves and encourages everyone else to do the same, regardless of their “timeline.”
“Just love life and those around you – no time for regrets. Do what sets your soul on fire,” Gross said. “Don’t be scared to love fiercely and do what makes you happy. Don’t settle for a mediocre life. Fear should never be a word to describe anything in life. Be bold!”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.