During the summer of 2007, Melinda was 13 years old. She enjoyed playing the piano, writing stories, developing her kitchen cuisine, and above all… dancing. Since she was old enough to stand on two legs, Melinda has loved dancing. By this time, ballet had become her passion, and she was taking dance classes 5 days a week.
In August of 2007, Melinda began to notice changes in her health. When it was more difficult than usual for her to breathe as our family hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls in June, she thought it was her imagination. But as we traveled northbound in August along winding highway 101 to Uncle Jeff’s in California Redwood Country, there was no mistaking that the curving roads were making her feel awful. She remembers trying to fall asleep while we were staying there, and noticing, for the first time, it was difficult to breathe lying on her back.
By September, Melinda was feeling poorly. She was dizzy, pale, and she was fighting fatigue. We began our weekly, sometimes bi-weekly trips to the doctor. The day we went for her very first appointment, her new doctor suggested that Melinda might be depressed! When I couldn’t hold back my guffaws at the thought of the doctor’s first diagnosis, she then ordered a blood test. I’ll never forget the look on Melinda’ face the morning she had to go for her first “poke” to draw blood; she was terrified.
When October arrived, Melinda had already had so many blood tests that the veins in her arms were beginning to form scar tissue. At this point in time, she was diagnosed with anemia and we were requesting more tests to determine the cause of the anemia. The iron supplements her doctor prescribed made her look and feel even more sick. As her health steadily declined, we kept requesting more diagnostic tests. She had a kidney ultrasound and an echocardiogram, and we even went to see a pediatric hematologist/oncologist who examined Melinda and then assured us that she did not have cancer.
As November rolled around, we were desperate to find out what was wrong with Melinda, so that we could get help for her. By this time, she was barely able to participate in her daily ballet classes because she had no energy. She would become very dizzy, and she had what she called a high-pitched “dolphin cough” when she would exert herself. At our very next appointment with the doctor, we asked for a chest x-ray to check on that cough, and the x-ray came back abnormal. Melinda’s new pediatrician ordered a CT scan, and we finally found what was making Melinda so very sick. She had an enormous mass in her chest that was constricting her airway and also the flow of blood in her body. Dr. Gonzalez was very kind and gentle when she told Melinda and I the results of the CT, and we will always be grateful for the time she gave us alone to hug one another and cry. We had such mixed feelings– we were so happy to find her problem, but at the same time, we now knew that our precious girl would have a huge battle ahead of her to get well.
On November 29th, 2007, we met Dr. Daniel Greenfield at Cottage Hospital. Immediately, we felt confident with his care. The next day, Melinda would have a PET scan and then, soon after, she would need a biopsy. Because the mass was so large, there was a danger of her airway collapsing during surgery and special anesthesia arrangements were made beforehand to assure Melinda’s safety. Unfortunately, the first biopsy did not provide information for a diagnosis, and Melinda had to undergo a second biopsy surgery. On December 18, 2007, Melinda was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Finally, we knew exactly what was wrong with her, and now, finally, we could begin an all-out attack on this dreadful enemy that had invaded her body.
Two days after Christmas, Melinda checked in to Cottage Hospital to have surgery for the insertion of her PICC line and to begin her first round of chemotherapy. She had a severe reaction to the anesthesia, and she was still battling the effects of the reaction when the first chemotherapy drugs began pumping into her little veins. This became the most difficult day of Melinda’s life. I remember lying next to her in her hospital bed, holding her hand as she moaned from excruciating stomach pain, and the tears rolled down her cheeks. All I could do was cry with her and tell her, “at 13 years old, you are going to be a cancer survivor.”
January, February and March of 2008 brought chemotherapy rounds 2, 3 and 4. Each round, Melinda would spend 3 days at Cottage Hospital, and she grew to love her nurses who gave her tremendous care. She named them the Blue Chemo Fairies because of the blue, protective gowns and gloves they wear when they administer chemotherapy. One night, Melinda played the piano (“Can’t Help Fallin’ in Love with You”) in the waiting room for her nurses. Another time, she made them a delicious, Valentine’s Day gingerbread house. On her last hospital chemotherapy day, she planned a party in her room and invited all of the nurses. She taped a balloon to her bald head, wore her Goofy gloves, blasted dance music, DANCED, brought cookies she had made from home, and she had games to play like “Pin the Bag of Chemo on the Mass.”
With four months of chemotherapy behind her, April brought 3 weeks of radiation, and daily drives to Santa Barbara. Once again, Melinda brought gratitude to those who treated her. The Cancer Center will most likely never be the same post- Melinda. Each day she would bring her enormous stuffed gorilla named Antonio and he would dress as a different character. Some of his more memorable characters were: super-hero dressed in tights, mask, and cape; biker with leather jacket, bandana, and dark shades; ballerina with tutu, tights, pointe shoes, and tiara; and for the last day, he wore a chef’s outfit while carrying a basket of Melinda’s home baked cookies to thank everyone for their outstanding care.
Throughout Melinda’s illness, she has continued to dance as often as she possibly can… and many times when it really seemed like it should have been impossible. Somehow she was able to perform in the Nutcracker last year while she was recovering from biopsies and while she had a huge mass in her chest that made it difficult for her to breathe. As soon as her blood counts came back up during her rounds of chemotherapy, there Melinda would be, in class at the ballet bar, doing whatever she could with the strength she had that day. She claims that her bald head just helped her be more aerodynamic in the turns!
Fast forwarding just a bit to September, 2008, Melinda has been dancing 6 days a week at the Academy of Dance in San Luis Obispo. Our family is filled with overflowing gratitude to everyone who has helped Melinda. To Dr. Dan Greenfield, Dr. Irma Gonzalez, Nurse Pam, Child Life Specialist Jaynie, the outstanding staff at Cottage Hospital, the Teddy Bear Pediatric Cancer Foundation, The Academy of Dance dancers and teachers, and to our loving family and friends, we thank God for your gifts to us. Each time we see Melinda dance, we’ll remember what you did for her, and we will forever and ever be grateful for what you have done for us.