Boy Becomes Unexpected Superhero, Inspiring Others After His Death

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News

Ryan Lamantia loved Spider-Man. The boy died, but his heroic spirit lives on. Courtesy Mary Lamantia

If anyone needs proof that children are larger than life, this story should provide it.

About a month ago, Mary Lamantia was perusing Facebook when she saw a post declaring her son was a hero.

Walter Wetzel, 17, from a nearby Chicago suburb, had written an emotional tribute to the little boy with the infectious smile who would regularly sashay into his chemo room pretending to be Spider-Man, spinning webs of good cheer.

His name was Ryan Lamantia. Their paths crossed nearly eight years ago in the waiting room of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, when Walter began making silly faces at the little boy sitting across from him, the Chicago Tribune reports, and the pair quickly became buddies. Ryan was 3 at the time, and had a brain tumor. Walter was 9 and battling leukemia.

During his hospital stay, Ryan, who loved Spider-Man and the color red, became known as "Spidey," the little kid with so much fight for life who would race around the hospital halls waving to all the doctors and nurses.

Walter went into remission and the two lost contact. Today, Walter is an Elgin, Ill., teen who loves playing football and snowboarding. Ryan died from a malignant brain tumor on Sept. 8, 2005.

Walter Wetzel

Walter Wetzel hugs Sarah Lamantia as her father, Todd, watches on January 5, 2011, in Lake in the Hills, Illinois. Wetzel, who has been in remission from Leukemia for four years, visited the Lamantias to tell them their son Ryan inspired him to battle his illness and survive. Credit: Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune / MCT

But Walter would never forget the little boy, who, he tells the Tribune, inspired him to beat his own cancer.

"Seeing him happy all the time made me happy," he tells the newspaper. "How could I be upset if he had it so much worse than me?"

In December 2010, Walter and his mom, Erzsi Gemzsi, decided to seek out the little boy who had provided so much inspiration. On Facebook, they learned Ryan had died.

"I have wanted nothing more than to talk to (Ryan's) parents and tell them (their) son is my hero. ... My trips to (the hospital) were always dreadful, until the day I (met) Ryan," Walter wrote on the Lamantia family's Facebook page, the Tribune reports.

Lamantia, 37, of Lake in the Hills, Ill., tells ParentDish seeing the note filled her with pride.

"At first, it took me a while to digest, and then, after I stopped crying, I knew I had to reach out to Walter," she says. "We always knew Ryan was special, but to have someone who was so young battling his own cancer be able to tell you your son was their inspiration to survive their leukemia, there are just no words to describe this feeling. And, for Walter, at 9 years old, to see someone else's struggles were worse than his own? Wow, what an incredible young man."

It turns out the families live less than 20 miles away from each other in Chicago's Northwest suburbs. The families set up a meeting in December, and Walter had a chance to meet Ryan's sisters -- Alyssa, 8, who wasn't even a year old when her brother was diagnosed, and 16-month-old Sarah Ryann.

"Walter has brought new hope to our lives," Lamantia tells Parent Dish. "I really believe everyone has a purpose in life and now I finally know what the purpose was of Ryan passing away. Ryan will keep on living through Walter and the inspiration both of them will bring into the lives of other children and families."

Walter wasn't the only person who recalled Ryan's perpetual effervescence and heart of gold.

"He was a little superhero," Wendy Stellpflug, a nurse at Children's Memorial Hospital and the brain tumor coordinator, tells the Tribune.

Lamantia describes to ParentDish a family video of Ryan playing soccer at age 3.

"All the kids were dribbling the soccer ball to the goal, and a kid fell down. All the other children kept running towards the goal but our son stopped, went back to the little boy and asked him if he was OK," she tells ParentDish.

During Ryan's initial diagnosis in February of 2003, doctors told his family he had a "sugarcoating" of cancer throughout his brain and down his spine. The first round of chemo landed him in the intensive care unit, nearly killing him.

At the hospital, Ryan's parents held his hand and tried to ease the pain. The playroom became his haven. He carried a Buzz Lightyear toy around with him, spoke incessantly of the band of crime-fighting turtles and channeled Spider-Man every way he could.

"I can close my eyes and see him coming down the hall, shooting his spiderweb at me," Dr. Stewart Goldman, medical director of the hospital's neuro-oncology department who treated Ryan, tells the Tribune.

Lamantia and her husband, Todd, have have been in contact with Walter and his mom on Facebook almost every day, and Walter and his mother will play a major role in organizing an upcoming fundraiser for the Ryan Lamantia Foundation planned for April 9 at Randall Oaks Golf Club in West Dundee, Ill. The Foundation raises money to restock the toy chests at Children's Memorial.

"Walter is one of the nicest and kindest teenagers we have ever met," Lamantia tells ParentDish. "He told us we are being modest because if it was not for us, Ryan would not have 'been here.' He makes me cry every time he says something. But it is a good cry."

Alyssa, who was a baby when her brother was diagnosed, "looks forward to having Walter in her life," Lamantia says. "She sees a part of Ryan in him."

On his basic information section on Facebook, Walter pays special tribute to his friend.

"Ryan Lamantia, You will always have a place in my heart," he writes. "Rest in peace buddy."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.