In April 1998, Melissa was a typical high school senior, preparing for prom, worrying about graduation, and looking ahead to college. She was only 17. She was a girl, just becoming a woman. She was supposed to be planning the rest of her life. She wasn’t supposed to be dying.
Melissa, on that bright spring day in April, was abruptly told she had an extremely rare and often fatal form of cancer, Meylodysplasia. In the span of seconds, her future, the path on which she had embarked, which had before stretched open and promising, shrank quickly and horribly.
She bravely mapped her journey, plotted on countless charts, penned by doctors and nurses, who, each day, faced her with a warm smile on their face and a deep pain in their heart. In the quiet of a doctor’s office or hospital room, amid the most frightening of circumstances, her struggle continued unabated.
Melissa did not take ill because she smoked, or because she ate too little of what was good, or too much of what was bad. Neither did she suffer some occupational hazard, though hidden effects of the environment on all of us is unclear. Rather, something inside of her, something physical, simply went tragically and horribly wrong.
But this is not a story of how nature conspired to take away life it had created. It is more the story of how one girl’s fierce determination, and her family’s love and commitment joined forces with the care and skill of a very special doctor and two very special nurses. And how together they fought. And how together they maintained dignity and compassion. And even humor.
Her struggle was a dizzying maze of numbers, of grim statistics and endless procedures. From the time of diagnosis to the cessation of treatment, blood counts became more commonplace than the time or temperature. While her life was not reduced to a number, numbers became the key to her life. The statistics are dismal for many adolescent cancer patients. They were impossibly bleak for Melissa. But her story goes beyond statistics, for in each battle with childhood cancer, there is a very human victory. Always.
John Donne said it best:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee; Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
Hers is a story of epic courage, of determination and resolve, of a brave young girl, in the midst of a desperate battle, with the possibility, and then certainty of death a constant companion. Throughout her ordeal, she demonstrated a quiet simple bravery facing an insurmountable challenge.
Even while facing death she lived. In spite of what she knew, in an extraordinary tribute to her determination and in an exultant celebration of life in the face of death, she lived. She would not eke out an ordianry existence. Her life was demonstrated in a "joyous, turn your head to the sky and laugh kind of living." Melissa never stopped expressing herself; her desire to excel, to live, to celebrate each new day overpowering her disease.
Finally, this story is not a story of just her. It is a story of dozens, indeed hundreds of doctors, nurses, family and friends. Of those known and unknown, who joined hands with Melissa, in a brave attempt to turn fate. She loved every one of those dear companions. And they her.
Her life was a confirmation of the skill, compassion and love of hundreds of others who helped her in her fight. Her struggle was an exhilaration of the human spirit, with its frailties and weaknesses, and its wondrous humanity. The ending to Melissa’s story was inevitable. For she, as will all of us, finally passed from this life. It was, after all, a matter of time. Here for only a brief time, however, her days were cut tragically short.