Melrose Free Press
August 10, 2006
Business Born from Love
Young entrepenuer is part of the cure
by Carol Brooks Ball
Pam Gobiel beams with pride as she watches her 11-year-old niece speak eloquently with a visitor about the Web-based business she designed and launched last month. This is no ordinary business, however, nor is the child a typical 11-year-old. For Ashley D'Orlando, the Web site is a way to help find a cure for her aunt's chronic illness.
"I wanted to help Auntie Pam," D'Orlando said in a soft voice. That help has come in the form of an online business selling T-shirts, golf shirts, mugs, notecards and leisure apparel that D'Orlando hopes will raise awareness of chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), the condition that has debilitated her aunt. Through merchandise bearing messages such as, "I am part of the cure - Chronic Fatigue Syndrome," and the tongue-in-cheek "10 Best Things About CFS," D'Orlando donates $1 per item, or 10 percent of her total merchandise sales, to the CFIDS Association of America in North Carolina.
The business, called Slamdunks, was launched in June (the site is www.slamdunksapparel.com), and has enjoyed numerous sales and over 1,000 "hits" (online parlance for Internet visits) since opening. The business even received a "Today's Best" award from Zazzle, the California-based company that prints, inventories and ships D'Orlando's merchandise.
In addition to the CFIDS items, D'Orlando, who'll be a middle school student at the Beebe campus in September, sells merchandise to raise awareness about fibromyalgia, a chronic pain illness that afflicts her grandmother. But the merchandise is not all serious. At 11, D'Orlando is still a child, after all, and many of her merchandise designs - all of which she created - are light-hearted, fun images with catchy phrases. One of the site's best sellers, and one of D'Orlando's favorites, is "Pirate Monkey," which features a whimsical monkey brandishing a sword and sporting an eye patch. In fact. Pirate Monkey was the design that received the "Today's Best" award. Other top sellers are "Blame My Sister," Smart Girls Rock," and "Dead Serious About Baseball," a T-shirt featuring a skull and crossbones and reflecting D'Orlando's love of the sport. Others apparently like the T-shirt as well.
The 'Dead Serious' shirt is wanted by a baseball team in Ohio called the Diamondbacks," D'Orlando said. She and Gobiel are working with the Ohio team on what may be their first large-quantity order. The hits from faraway customers will only be increasing since a link to the Slamdunks Web site has been placed on the CFIDS Association of America site.
"I'm just so impressed with her," Gobiel said of her niece. "I think she'll find a cure."
A bad case of the flu
Sitting in her Melrose home, Gobiel describes the illness that has robbed her of the active lifestyle she lived and enjoyed just years before.
"I was diagnosed five years ago when I was living in California," she explained. "It started as the flu but I never got better. I had high fevers, swollen glands and low blood pressure."
The young woman who had married her husband, Marc Gobiel, on a tropical beach in Maui just a year before and who held a position with Goldman Sachs & Co. eventually became bedridden. Desperate for answers, Gobiel ignored her primary care physician's repeated diagnosis that her condition was simply a lingering flu and after four months, she eventually found a specialist who recognized her symptoms as failings of her auto-immunesystem. After being tested for Lyme disease, Lupus and several other illness that share similar symptoms, the doctor eventually diagnosed Gobiel's condition as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
According to the CFIDS Association of America, the cause of the disease still eludes researchers. Some believe the disease is caused by a virus, but conclusive evidence does not exist to support this or other speculative medical theories. "Many different infectious agents, toxins and psychological causes have been considered and rejected," according to information on the CFIDS Association Web site, www.cfids.org. "Much of the ongoing research into a cause has centered on the role the immune, endocrine and nervous systems may play in CFIDS."
There is also no known cure for the debilitating illness. Instead, medical practitioners help patients by trying to relieve their symptoms through a variety of treatments. Sufferers also find they must make significant lifestyle and dietary changes.
For Gobiel, everything changed.
She and her husband decided that coming back to Massachusetts - to Melrose specifically, where Pam Gobiel grew up and where her family still lives - was the best thing the couple could do her safety and well-being.
Occasionally fighting back tears, Gobiel explained that while she was bed-ridden, Marc was taking significant time off from work, and worrying about her when he wasn't there. Once, while driving herself to a doctor's appointment, Gobiel's blood pressure plummeted and she blacked out. Upon coming to, she was able to call 911 - but her driving days were suddenly over. The couple packed their bags and moved home to Pam's mother's home; sadly, Pam's father had passed away three months after her CFIDS diagnosis.
A typical day is anything but
Today, the pace of Gobiel's days depend on how she is feeling. She has what she describes as "good" and "bad" days, though they come with seemingly no warning.
"I can be active in the morning, such as preparing a meal," Gobiel said, "as long as I rest in between. I nap for three hours in the afternoons. Sometimes I feel good enough to make dinner, but not always."
Once a week she goes to her doctor's office in Newton for intravenous treatment. Before leaving California, Gobiel received a referral from her doctor to Dr. Jeanne Hubbuch, a Massachusetts specialist in auto-immune illnesses.
In addition to her supportive husband and family, Gobiel said her friends have adjusted to her restricted lifestyle.
"My friends have learned that it's easier for them to come to my house," Gobiel said. While she goes out rarely, she is adamant about attending family events such as birthday parties, weddings and the like.
"I've had to learn my limitations," she said, but added, "My husband and I have a very positive attitude."
Gobiel was there when her sister gave birth to Ashley and the two have a close, sister-like relationship. D'Orlando has learned to help her aunt and recognizes the signs when Gobiel needs to rest or requires a drink, getting her a glass of Gatorade or a handful of salty potato chips - both foods seem to help. In addition to raising awareness about CFIDS through her Web site and products, D'Orlando has educated several of her schoolmates.
"My friends know my aunt and they know that she suffers from CFIDS. But they don't really know what it is," she explained. That hasn't stopped D'Orlando: As a preschooler and again as a kindergarten student, she brought Gobiel in for show-and-tell to discuss her aunt's illness.
Gobiel applauds her niece's chutzpah - D'Orlando is the only girl on her baseball team and she is helping her Uncle Marc, owner of Mardan Construction, build an addition onto Gobiel's house, single-handedly framing a bathroom herself. D'Orlando, who said she has wanted "to be a doctor since kindergarten," grins excitedly when she tells a visitor that she's entering middle school next month. When she starts school, D'Orlando said she'll take some of her Slamdunks brochures and business cards to hand out to classmates.
Meanwhile, she plans to keep adding products to her Web site and continuing to raise awareness - and money - toward a cure for her aunt's illness.
One of D'Orlando's initial designs, a notecard, bears an image of the sun being partially eclipsed by a cloud.
"She said I was the sun, CFIDS is the cloud, and she is part of the cure," Gobiel said.
To that Ashley adds, "I want to do something that will matter."