By Steve Blanchard - March 11, 2020
When the pair crossed the finish line at the Walt Disney World Marathon, they may have looked like any other friends running in one of the state’s largest running events. But these two have a special bond. Danielle Nasello is Ron Wertley’s nurse.
Nasello is a nurse practitioner in Moffitt Cancer Center's malignant hematology program and met Wertley when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The two became fast friends and found they had similar interests — including running.
When Wertley crossed the finish line at the Disney Marathon in 2019, he knew he had to return to Moffitt for a second time. His ALL had come back. But before he began treatment, he made Nasello pinky-promise to run with him in the marathon a year later.
In January 2020, Nasello fulfilled her end of the bargain.
“He held me to that all year long, constantly reminding me about that promise at the finish line,” Nasello said. “He even had other patients reminding me about that promise. I had to do it after that.”
Wertley’s first bout with ALL began in early 2018, shortly after completing that year’s Dopey Challenge, a four-day series of races that includes the 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon. ALL is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells that help the body’s immune system detect and destroy germs. Eventually, abnormal cells that are unable to mature properly accumulate in the blood. While it is a diagnosis he didn’t want, he wasn’t surprised when his general practitioner shared the news.
“Cancer runs in my family,” Wertley said. “My mom had it and her siblings have fought it. I was getting tested constantly and that helped us catch it early.”
His commitment to ongoing testing paid off. Catching his cancer early and following Moffitt’s treatment plan led to good news on July 1, 2018 — Wertley was in remission. He celebrated but knew that he had to continue testing and pay attention to any symptoms.
“I was in remission but I knew I still had it,” Wertley said. “It was hiding in me. I knew I needed to listen to my body and pay attention to signs that it could return.”
And that’s what happened leading into the holidays at the end of 2018. Wertley noticed increased fatigue and new challenges in his training regimen. When he tested positive for ALL again shortly after Christmas, he wasn’t surprised.
“This is how it is,” Wertley said. “Moffitt took great care of me before and I knew Dr. (Bijal) Shah and his team would have a plan for me this time around. I was given steroids to help with the symptoms and had a successful run at Walt Disney World.”
And there at the finish line in 2019, his nurse and friend was cheering him on. And then she made the promise to run with him the following year — even before she ever ran a marathon on her own.
“My first marathon was in April of 2019 and I admit I was wondering if I could do it,” Nasello said. “But I did and he reminded me at every appointment that I said I’d do Disney with him.”
After he was healthy again, Nasello invited Wertley to run with her at Miles for Moffitt in November. He hadn’t had much time to prepare, but Nasello said they needed the practice.
“He struggled a little, but we figured out our pace,” Nasello said. “He didn’t expect after Miles for Moffitt that I’d stay with him at Disney. I told him, ‘Honey, I signed up to run with you. I’m by your side annoying you for 26 miles. You can’t back out on me now.’ ”
It was time for Wertley to hold his nurse to her promise. When the new year finally arrived, both registered for the “Goofy Challenge,” which is a half marathon on Saturday followed by a full marathon on Sunday.
That’s when Nasello stayed true to her word and crossed the Walt Disney World finish line by Wertley’s side.