The Pursuit of Happiness

Finding joy with Gabriella Kovach

“Needles do not like me lately,” says eight-year-old Gabriella Kovach. She is wearing a flower crown and sitting at a table in Restoration Hardware, fresh off having blood drawn. “So, we’re even: I don’t like them, and they don’t like me.”

At age six, Gabriella was diagnosed with Pre-B ALL leukemia with an iAMP 21 gene chromosome, meaning it’s a higher-risk cancer and requires harsher, longer chemotherapy. Only two percent of all leukemia patients in the world have what Gabriella has, but this isn’t what makes her story so remarkable: day-after-day she goes to chemotherapy appointments and is forced to consider death, yet she insists that being filled with laughter and joy is ultimately her decision. 

Gabriella is as comfortable talking about friends that have died from cancer and feeling bad from chemo as she is talking about school. Such bleak discussion is not only reality for the second grader; it is by choice: because she can be candid about the bad, she can be candid about the good.

“I’m kind of happy that I have leukemia—kind of. I’m not happy that I have to go through all the chemotherapy and go to the hospital—I’m happy because it gave me more joy. More joy in God and I get to spend more time with my parents and with my brothers and sisters.”

With a platform that reaches from local news to Denver Nuggets games to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Gabriella’s message is simple: leukemia will not ruin her joy, and it doesn’t have to for others.

“I’m joyful because I want other kids to know that they could do this without being all grumpy and [sad],” says Gabriella. “They could smile while they’re going through it.”

Though Gabriella would be quickly forgiven for lashing out in anger or out of fear, she does not let herself off the hook. Not when someone out there in need of encouragement could be watching. 

As if facing peers in school isn’t difficult enough, Gabriella cannot look the way she wants to at this point in her life. She becomes self-conscious when she goes swimming because of surgery scars and jealous of classmates because her hair won’t grow as long. They are more than fair trade-offs, but they are still reminders that life is not as fair as it should be.

Gabriella is on track to a full recovery, but her life isn’t tethered to her health. She’s no prisoner of cancer, nor of the thought of death, but a reminder to others that cancer can kill bodies but does not have to kill a person’s spirit.

She dresses to impress for chemotherapy appointments, and she lights up when talking about her dogs Sunshine and Luna; Gabriella Kovach is as lively an eight-year-old girl as there is, and she is using her leukemia to remind everyone else in the world that being joyful in life is a choice. 

“I choose to be joyful instead of grumpy,” Gabriella declares at the table and is now ready to walk around. She enters the elevator and looks expectantly at her mother, who looks down to meet her daughter’s eyes.

“We have to dance in the elevator—everyone has to dance!” Gabriella says with a smile, and she and her mother begin to jump around and dance, and so do I. 

"I’m joyful because I want other kids to know that they could do this without being all grumpy and [sad]," says Gabriella. "They could smile while they’re going through it."