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Thankful to Be Here and Alive

I was a very active 17-year-old when I got the news. It was October of 2005, the beginning of high school basketball season in my hometown of Beckley, West Virginia, when I became ill. I thought it was a really bad cold or even the flu, but I was used to being sick and fighting through it, so I didn’t think much about it. I started antibiotics while I continued going to school and playing basketball. I would start to feel better for a while, then BOOM, it would hit me like lightning again. I would take more antibiotics and continue my life as usual. I thought I was tough.

After several weeks, I was still pushing myself to keep life as normal as possible. By this time, I was only going to school a half day so I could play basketball. I felt terrible. On Tuesday, January 3, 2006, we had a big game. At one point, I was knocked to the ground and run over by an opposing player. From the stands, my parents could already see bruises appearing on my face where a size 10 shoe had run over it. I was finished for the night.

The next morning I saw the bruises. My left leg was bruised from the top of my thigh to my ankle, and my face had a “shoe print” bruise going down the side. To be honest, I thought they were pretty neat! My dad, on the other hand, did not. Being a physician, he ordered a CBC (complete blood count). The bruising, along with the prolonged illness, really worried him.

Friday, January 6, 2006, is a day I’ll never forget. I was in Algebra II class when I was called to the office to take a phone call. On the phone, my mom said the results came back from the CBC and they weren’t good. She said to pack my things because she was going to pick me up to have more tests run.

We did another CBC and a few ultrasounds. My CBC came back even worse than the first test. The word everyone fears came out of my doctor’s mouth: cancer. He thought with my white cell count so low that leukemia was a possibility. He called several hospitals and found an open, single room in the pediatric ward at the University of Virginia Hospital (UVA), three hours away.

I called my closest friends to let them know what was going on while my parents called the family and our pastor. My pastor and the deacons at the church came to pray for me and anoint me before we left for UVA. The whole way down, I talked to my youth pastor, who was making me laugh, and listening to my dad talk about how treatable leukemia can be. That eased my mind a bit.

We arrived at UVA at midnight and testing began the next day with 18 vials of blood drawn and my first bone marrow biopsy. Monday morning, my doctor came in to tell us that leukemia had been ruled out from the biopsy, but further testing was being done to figure out why my bone marrow stopped working.

The next day, my doctor came in to deliver the news. For some reason, I’ll never know why, I asked my parents to leave the room so I could be the first to hear the diagnosis - severe aplastic anemia.  My doctor proceeded to tell me the basics of the disease and how I would have to drastically change my life in order to save it.

Have you ever felt like arms were wrapped around you when no one was around? Well, let me tell you from experience, it’s an incredible feeling! I can still remember exactly what the “arms” felt like that were holding me while I was hearing my diagnosis. I can also tell you I’ve never felt peace like that in my life. Not before, and not since. It was the most calm I had ever been, and it was all I could do not to smile while I was hearing the news. As my parents and family were notified of the diagnosis, the tears and wails came flowing like a river. I felt awful that my family was so torn up over this while I was perfectly fine. I can’t tell you how many times I actually said the words, “I’m perfectly fine,” during this whole experience.

Over the next week or so, I had more blood work and bone marrow aspirations. It was determined that a bone marrow transplant was the best treatment option for the severity of my disease. My family was tested just in case someone was a close enough match. We were very surprised when my little 12-year-old sister, whose dark hair, eyes, and skin are the complete opposite of my light features, turned out to be a perfect match for me! This time the tears were joyful and hopeful!

My transplant was scheduled to be performed at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Before I left, UVA did another bone marrow biopsy. The craziest thing happened. My counts had actually improved! Before this test, my white cell blood count was a little below 1.0 and my platelets were around 35. With a slight spike in my counts, the transplant was put on hold. I spent a few more days of testing in the hospital and my counts kept rising. I was sent home where I was isolated with minimal visitors and frozen food until I was healthy enough to rejoin the world. My blood was tested daily, then weekly, while I still visited UVA for more biopsies. Each test showed positive results! My bone marrow was healing itself!

When I was diagnosed, my doctor told me that without treatment, I’d be lucky to live until June, six months from that point. By April 2006, I was back in school and playing softball! My life was almost back to normal and I was much more cautious about my actions and taking care of myself.

I believe without a doubt that my case is a miracle case. I had no treatment other than prayer and encouragement. No, I’m not one who looks down on modern medicine. My dad is an awesome doctor and God has given doctors the ability to help us all. All I’m saying is, no medicine was used to help treat my severe aplastic anemia. I believe in the power of prayer and in the power of positive attitudes!

For several years I was getting my counts checked monthly, then every three months, and now only once a year like any typical 29-year-old. Twelve years later, I’m in the middle of my 7th year of teaching and will finish my second master’s degree this summer!  Not every day has been incredible, but every day I’m incredibly thankful to be here and alive and doing what I love!