12 October 2017
My Powerful Moment
On January 3, 2003, when I was three years old, my life took a turn. A few days before, my parents had taken me to the doctor, for I had a fever and other flu-like symptoms. The doctor examined me, diagnosed me with the flu, and sent me and my family on our way. Two days later, my parents woke me up; I had an even higher fever. Worst of all, I didn’t recognize who my parents were. I went to sit up, but found myself stuck, as if my bed and I were strong magnets. My parents rushed me to the doctor. After explaining everything that had happened to me and the doctor examining me, he feared my condition might be something worse. The doctor ordered me an immediate admission to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I was sent to the hospital by helicopter without my parents.
My helicopter trip was cut short by a snowstorm and instead they had to go back and transport me by an ambulance. EMTs and nurses surrounded me. Not understanding what was happening, wishing I could see one of my parents. I felt alone, I didn’t know why I had to get out of the helicopter or why everyone was talking and yelling random words. The medic was nice and tried to keep me calm, but in that situation all a three year old wants is her parents.
Test after test, hour after hour; I was finally able to see my parents. I was lying down in a hospital bed when they ran into my room and went straight to my bed. I felt a sense of relief and happiness. I finally saw people I knew that wouldn’t be shouting random words and letters. My parents were beside me, but occasionally one of them would step out into the hall, phone in hand. They were calling family and friends keeping them updated, but hours passed and there was no update. My parents were worried, but I didn’t fully understand why they were worried and why we were still at the hospital.
Late at night a doctor and nurse came into the room with IVs and monitors. The doctor stepped outside with my parents while the nurse put IVs in me. Too exhausted to care what they were doing at this point, all I wanted to do was go home and sleep in my own bed with my dog. The later it got, the more I realized I wasn’t going home for a long time.
Over time I found out my diagnosis was leukemia— acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). After that, my life changed. I had to watch what I did and ate. Doctor appointments would take up most of my schedule, but none of it mattered anyway since I was always at the hospital. Missing friends’ birthday parties, school activities, playdates, anything that involved a kid being a kid.
My family would take turns spending the night with me. On Sunday and Thursday nights, my grandma stayed with me. She would always bring me mac and cheese and mashed potatoes. On Friday and Tuesday nights, my grammie and papa would stay with me. They were always careful with me, especially my papa. He was always scared when my grammie left the room. He knew with his luck something would happen to me when no one else is around and he wouldn’t know what to do. The other nights were my parents. They would bring movies from blockbuster and they didn’t mind watching the same shows and movies three or more times.
This was my family’s schedule the first month I was in the hospital. After that, my grammie and papa had to go back home to Virginia for a few weeks.Once they left there was no set schedule. It would rotate between my mom, dad, and grandma. My parents were at the hospital spending time with me and taking so many days off work that eventually their jobs were at stake because of their lack of attendance. My mom started going back to work, but she lived at the hospital with me. She only allowed herself to stay home one night, and it was to check in on the house and do laundry. My dad was able to get transferred to the AMC in Plymouth Meeting. He lived at the hospital with me too, only allowing himself to go home one night a week.
After two weeks, a doctor drew up release papers for me. My mom got into an argument and told them I wasn’t ready. Moms are always right; in the middle of their discussion, I started projectile vomiting. Needless to say, the doctor filled out new papers and had me readmitted into the hospital.
Later that week, I had outpatient surgery to install a central port in my chest. This was supposed to reduce stress. They poked needles into my arms 4-5 times each week, BUT the port in my chest flipped over and they could not get it to flip back. I went back in for surgery to have it fixed and they sewed it into my chest. I also spent anywhere from 3-5 full days for a 6 month period in the clinic for chemo and transfusions. All that varied constantly based on red blood count, white blood cells and neutropenia.
Years went by until finally in March 2007, I was declared cancer free. My family and I had a celebration, doing everything that I couldn’t do for the past 4 years. Realizing all the work and time put into making me healthy was worth it. We could finally live a life where I went out with friends and didn’t have to work around doctor and hospital visits.
I’ve seen cancer destroy families, friendships, and people. I was lucky. Cancer may have ruined my childhood, but I still had my family. Of course going back to school full time was hard, by then everyone knew what was wrong with me. That’s where things fell apart. Some families allowed me to play and have playdates at their house, others didn’t want their kids near “the sick girl.” I learned not to care. I didn’t care about the people who were scared to be near me, it was the fact all they could think of when they saw me was “cancer,” “disease,” or “sick.” Cancer doesn’t define a person. Their character and personality do.
It wasn’t until I got to high school that I was comfortable talking about this. All I would tell people is that I was diagnosed with ALL at age three and I’ve been cancer free since 2007. I would end it there and if anyone asked for more details, I would tell them I didn’t remember any of it because I was so young. It was a lie, I didn’t remember everything, but I remembered a lot. Throughout the years I had dreams, more like nightmares, about being in the hospital or in surgery. I wanted a normal high school experience, no judgement.
One day, my senior year, I broke down. I started day dreaming in class and my mind wandered, the next thing I know I’m imagining myself back in the hospital room, IVs and monitors attached to me. I ended up telling my best friend, who I met in ninth grade, everything. From beginning to end, no lying. She calmed me down and told me everything was okay now. She gave me a big hug and just let me cry. Didn’t say anything, just stayed with me. Even though I told her everything, it didn’t change how she saw me. She still saw me as Ashley, her best friend who always had her back, was caring, and normal. She was also one of the very few people who knew and didn’t see me as a “disease.”
That day I learned not to let this define me in a negative way. Yes, I had cancer when I was young. It made me who I am today, not taking my life for granted. It’s because of cancer that I volunteer, put others first, and want to be a nurse. Cancer changed my life, but in the best way.