An Extraordinary Life

June 15, 2020

For my eighth birthday I had a cupcake party. My best friends came over and we decorated and ate cupcakes. It was so much fun. I was in the second grade at Little Chico Creek and Mrs. Wren was my teacher. I was learning about multiplication and the solar system. I loved going to school! I enjoyed riding my bike and my skateboard and playing with my friends. Everything was going great and my life was as normal as a kid’s life could be. Until it wasn’t.

About a month later, I started to fall asleep in class and just not feel well. I couldn’t even make it upstairs to my bedroom without being out of breath. My parents took me to see my doctor. He diagnosed me with allergies and referred me to a specialist. But the diagnosis was wrong. I continued to feel worse. So badly, in fact, that my parents took me to the emergency room on Easter Sunday. The emergency room sent me home, telling my parents I had a sinus infection and to wait until my appointment with the allergist.

At home, while my brother and I were hunting for Easter eggs, I fell and skinned my knee. It was just a small scrape, but it bled unusually long. My parents were certain something was really wrong. The next morning, we went back to our family doctor and demanded they test my blood. The doctor reluctantly agreed.

At 10:30 that evening, our doctor called and woke us up. He directed my parents to immediately take me to the emergency room; the staff were waiting for us. After a very long night and many, many blood tests later, my family was told that I had Acute Lymphoblast Leukemia.

Being diagnosed with leukemia was confusing. I didn’t know what cancer was, but it wasn’t good, judging by my parents’ reaction. My mom and I rode in an ambulance for the very first time to the U.C. Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento. I met my doctors and nurses that would care of me. I began chemotherapy, and had a port called a Broviac placed in my chest, so I didn’t need to have any more pokes for blood work or to administer medications. I took lots of medicine and my hair fell out, but I looked cute with a bald head.

After a month of treatment, things took a turn for the worst. I did indeed have a sinus infection, and the antibiotics for that did not play well with all my cancer medications. It didn’t matter. My infection had gone from bacterial to a very serious fungal infection in my sinuses. My doctors and nurses were on it, whisking me into surgery to remove the infection. But the fungus, Mucormycosis, was growing fast and it had entered the left frontal lobe of my brain.

I had my first brain surgery, a crainiotomy, in June 2009. I had 62 stitches over the top of my head. It gave me an awesome scar! I remember looking in the mirror after a couple of days. Yikes! I told my mom that I was ugly. She hugged me tight and told me that I was the most beautiful, strong and brave girl that she knew. I had to stop my chemotherapy. My neurosurgeon told my parents that he needed to take care of the fungal infection first. After two months in the hospital, I got to go home. It felt so good to sleep in my own bed, eat food made with love, ride my bike and play with my brother.

My oncologist restarted my chemo, but she had to increase the amount because I had missed two months. My body just couldn’t handle it. It was too much and I went into septic shock. I don’t remember much from that day, other than everyone was beginning to decorate for Halloween. When I woke up, it was Christmas day. I woke up to mom by my hospital bed, asleep. I woke her up. She gave me a hug and kiss then called my dad and brother to come up from the hospital cafeteria. I looked around my room. I asked, “did I miss Christmas?” Ever since, my family has referred to this day as our “Christmas Miracle.”

You may be wondering why my head looks funny and I am wearing a helmet in some of my pictures. Well, after I recovered from sepsis, the bone around my first craniotomy became infected, and it was removed. To protect my brain, I wore a helmet for a year and a half, until I was finished with my treatment. I think I looked pretty sporty. I turned it into a hanging flower basket when I was done with it.

When I awoke from my coma, I didn’t have much strength. I couldn’t sit up in bed, I couldn’t walk. My parents and brother worked with me every day, teaching me the exercises the hospital physical therapist taught us. It was hard work. One of my doctors told my parents that I wouldn’t walk again. Boy did I show her! I did spend some time in a wheelchair. I learned to maneuver that chair quite well; I remember chasing my brother around the house. My parents considered it part of my physical therapy.

I celebrated eight years of being cancer free in 2019. Since then I have moved to Sequim, Washington, where I started high school. I’ve worked as a housekeeper near my home, a dishwasher at a bakery, and I’m currently working as a food server at a retirement community. I value hard work, determination and perseverance. By working and saving up I bought my first car, her name is Phyllis, she is a blue 1985 Volvo wagon. Phyllis is my pride and joy and I love her.

I have been accepted into Peninsula College to further my education. My career path hasn’t become clear yet, but I do have some ideas. I’m interested in medicine, science and overall creativity. The careers that interest me are possibly being a nurse, a chemist, or an interior designer. These careers have some form of science or creativity associated with them. All of them will have their challenges, and I am already an expert at overcoming challenges.

I have had an extraordinary life. My battle with cancer taught me two things: hard work pays off, and perseverance is the key to get through the difficulties in life. As I reflect on my past with cancer and transition to the person I am today, I realize that overcoming my experiences and obstacles has proven to me that I am capable of anything. I survived because I had to. I wasn’t going to let cancer beat me. I wasn’t done living! I had a lot of problems associated with leukemia but having been through cancer made me a stronger person both mentally and physically. I do believe that leukemia brought my family closer together. Having cancer was awful, but a miracle happened for me and my family. I fought cancer and I won.

Lillian Wendorf