St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
By Julie Rattey
|Help from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
St. Jude, located in Memphis, Tennessee, is the only cancer center funded by the National Cancer Institute that is devoted solely to children. It is also the only private cancer center in the United States committed to caring for and supporting children with cancer regardless of the family’s financial or health-care resources. For more information, or to help, call 800-822-6344 or visit stjude.org.
Amanda flashed another impatient look at the clock. The red hand seemed to stutter and stumble over the seconds. Come on! she urged silently.
Feeling her right leg, which had been tingling slightly, go numb, Amanda shifted in her seat. I must have been sitting funny, she thought. She rubbed the leg to try to get the circulation going. But several minutes later, the leg was still completely numb. Frowning, she tried moving the leg, bending it, shaking it. Nothing.
Chandra, Amanda’s best friend, gave her a quizzical look. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“My leg’s gone numb. I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”
“You must have sat on it funny.”
Amanda shook her head. Her brow furrowed. “Actually, I think I’m going to have to go to the ER and get it checked out.”
“What about the match?”
Amanda tried to hide her disappointment. “No match for me, I guess.”
The doctor, who had just been reviewing the results of the CT scan, looked grave.
“No,” said Amanda, confused. First her leg had gone numb, then her arm. Now they were asking her if she’d hit her head. What could possibly be wrong with her? Her body flushed warm with anxiety and she felt a sudden urge to leave the room. The hospital equipment that mere moments ago had seemed solidly solicitous now seemed alien and unfriendly.
When she and the doctor returned to the waiting room, the doctor caught her father’s eye. “Mr. Dixon, may I have a word?” Her father got up quickly and followed the doctor into the hall. Her mother reached out comfortingly for Amanda’s hand and settled her daughter in the chair beside her. The hallway door closed behind her father with a sad, apologetic click. The effect was as that of a switch; Amanda felt her anxiety suddenly unleash itself in tears. “Something is wrong, Mom,” she said. “Something is really wrong; I know it!”
The ashen hue of her father’s face when he and the doctor returned confirmed Amanda’s fears. The doctor’s words came to her through a haze: A mass on your brain. Possibly a brain tumor. Ambulance. Hospital. Now.
Amanda’s mother had already left the room in sobs, searching for a telephone to call Amanda’s brothers and the rest of the family. Amanda was terrified. All she could do was cry. And pray.
In the time she’d spent at St.Jude’s, Amanda was beginning to think how wonderful it would be to own her own portrait studio someday. To spend her days really seeing people — gently peeling back the top layers of appearance to see what was nestled beneath, then finding ways to bring that essence to the surface and make it shine — that would be an amazing job.
I’ll make it happen, she told herself. Today I am 16, and soon I’ll be going home. Anything is possible.
Amanda’s voice quavered as she spoke her friend’s name into the telephone. How quickly the space of a few hours could change your life. Just last night, as on many other nights since she had returned home from St. Jude’s two years ago, she had talked with Chandra on the phone about school, sports, photography — everyday stuff . And now…
After finishing treatment at St. Jude’s, Amanda returned home where less than a year later, on March 15, 2008, she married her high school sweetheart, T.J. Burcham. Amanda plans to study business at Northeast Community College to prepare for opening her own portrait studio.
“Amanda, is everything OK?”
“I…” Amanda faltered. Somehow saying it out loud would make it all the more real. “I have
cancer again,” she said at last.
There was a deep silence on the other end of the line.
“I can’t believe it,” Chandra said finally, her voice soft and sad.
“I woke up this morning feeling like someone had put a heavy rock on my chest. It hurt to move. It turns out I have a cancerous mass on my lungs. I’m going to have to have chemo this time.”
“Where will you go?”
“Back to St. Jude’s.”
February passed quickly as Amanda settled back into St. Jude’s for a new round of treatment. Gazing out the window of her room, she stared at the bare, spindly branches of trees, the bare earth. Her head, too, was bare, and its smooth surface, devoid of the hair she’d smoothed and brushed and pulled into ponytails all her life, felt new and strange. But there was a comforting kind of communion in being laid bare at the same time as the earth around her: It was as though nature had decided to keep her company in her ordeal.
Spring stirred an excited impatience in her, however, and by the time June came, attending her high school graduation was nearly all Amanda could think about. When permission for a week’s stay at home was granted, Amanda was ecstatic.
“Amanda, how many pictures are you going to take?”
Chandra took time out from applying her lipstick to tease her friend, who was snapping away furiously on a disposable camera as she and her girlfriends donned their red caps and gowns.
Amanda replied by swiveling on her heels and aiming the camera at Chandra. Click.
“I give up!” Chandra said good-naturedly.
“OK, group picture!” Amanda commanded. Her friends gathered around her, laughing and talking. The changing room smelled of hair spray and perfume and, wafting in through the open windows, freshly mowed grass. Thank You, God, for letting me be here today, Amanda prayed.
As if reading her thoughts, Chandra gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I’m so glad you were able to come home for a week during treatment,” she said. “Graduation wouldn’t have been the same without you!”
Amanda smiled and advanced her camera to the next picture. “It feels great to be back.” CD
* based on the story of Amanda Dixon-Burcham