North Carolina teen finds courage in fighting leukemia
HOPE MILLS, N.C. (AP) — Lea Jordan rocked a look for senior prom that only she could.
Wearing a medical mask, a slick bald noggin and a staggering amount of determination with her ballet-slipper pink beaded gown, she refused to miss out on one of the milestones of her teenage years.
“I never wanted a wig when I got bald,” she says. “I decided I was going to rock it. I wasn’t going to hide it and I was going to be proud of the battle I was battling.”
Lea looked like a warrior princess that night, and she’s been living like one ever since.
Not even a month after her early graduation from South View High School in January of 2017, Lea was diagnosed with leukemia. Her fight has robbed her of moments that many of us take for granted, but her courage in the face of extraordinary hardship is inspirational.
“There are words that you never think you’ll hear, especially at 17 years old,” she says. ” ‘You have leukemia,’ ” she remembers, still looking shocked as the words come out now, two years and three months after she first heard them.
“I was speechless. I remember my mom walking across the room and holding me. Next thing I know, we were at the ER. Two days later I had a port in my chest, and the next day we were starting chemo before I could even realize what was going on.”
Lea’s mother, Tammy Jordan, was in shock.
“At first I thought, it’s just a touch of cancer. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be good,” she says.
“As a parent, you never imagine that anything like this would ever happen to one of your kids. It was out of the blue. We were blindsided. Our world was completely upside down.”
Lea had never even been to the emergency room. Her family is of the “rub some dirt on it” school of injury treatment. But here they sat, trying to begin to get their minds around the gravity of the situation they now faced.
They couldn’t possibly know what battles Lea would fight, the medical terms that would become familiar descriptions of her wounds — chemo-induced neuropathy, avascular necrosis, toxic leukoencephalopathy.
They couldn’t possibly know how strong, wise and courageous a teenager could be.
. . .
A month or so before graduation, Lea noticed that her lymph nodes were swollen. She shook it off and focused on school. Then she started to feel more tired than usual.
After graduation, as she mulled plans to start school and become a nurse, she knew something was off.
“I just didn’t feel like myself,” Lea says.
Less than two hours after her appointment for blood work, she received a call from the doctor’s office saying she needed to come in for urgent results.
“It happens like that,” she says now, standing behind home plate at Municipal Park where she works as a scorekeeper during evening softball games.
She played ball on these same fields growing up. She wants to coach a team in the future.
“I’ve persevered through this and I’ve not missed a chemo appointment or a doctor’s appointment — nothing. And I won’t. I refuse to sink,” Lea says.
Her last chemotherapy appointment is scheduled for June 14. Four days later, she’ll ring the bell at Duke Cancer Center in Durham, signalling the end of her treatment.
Now, the fight pivots from leukemia to the damage inflicted by chemotherapy.
. . .
Lea has blind spots in her right eye. She can’t straighten her elbows due to “bone death” caused by a lack of blood supply.
The stabbing pain in her fingers and toes, and the fallen arches caused by neuropathy are better now. She had faced the grim possibility that those conditions would last a lifetime.
Once, after waking from a nap unable to move her right side, she believed she’d suffered a stroke. The next day, it was her left side that was paralyzed.
Those conditions were caused by toxicity on her brain from the chemo. Her body absorbed it and Lea continued to fight.
“It’s never a physical thing. It’s always mental. If you mentally push yourself, you can do anything,” she says.
Lea is the youngest of four siblings. She has a sister and two brothers. They all share close relationships.
She adores her nieces, nephews. One of them, Silas, clings to her as she says, “I couldn’t have done any of this without my family. They all push me to do better every single day. There’s been days when I wanted to give up and all I do is think about my family. I couldn’t imagine it without them.”
Through the isolation of watching her friends and acquaintances get on with their lives through social media accounts from her hospital room where no flowers or peel fruits that might carry bacteria are allowed, she has heard the heart-rending sounds of loss.
“I’ve heard mothers’ screams when their babies die,” Lea says. “I’ve heard it all.
“I try not to let any of it get into my head. I have to keep fighting for me and for my future and for my family. I can’t give up.”
Tammy’s heard it, too, the beeps and sirens of emergency. She thinks of the parents she’s talked to in the hallway, the ones who knew about clashes with insurance companies, the ones whose children were struggling.
She’s noticed that Lea never tried much to connect with other patients, opting instead to hang out at the nurses’ station after hours when she could leave her room without a mask.
. . .
Just two more treatments.
Tammy tells her daughter on the worst days: “Tomorrow will come and a better day is around the corner. You just have to get through this next minute, this next hour.”
The miles are adding up on Tammy’s car but she won’t think about a new one until after the bell rings.
She keeps a bag packed by her dresser. The unexpected has become routine, but she has her Lea, and Lea has the situation in perspective.
“Everybody looks at me weird because I make jokes about my cancer but my thing is, you can either sit around all day and mope about it and be upset or you make it a positive and live everyday like you might not get another,” she says.
“Every day you wake up, be grateful just to wake up.”
Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com