Saturday, December 21, 2013

Team Emily: UConn would be no match

UConn would have no chance against this team. The Old Dominion Lady Monarchs are on it, including coach Karen Barefoot. So is Carrollton Fire and Rescue, Portsmouth Firestation 1 C, Sentara College of Health Sciences and U.S. Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton. Ditto for Girl Scout Troop 517, the Western Branch Bandits, Geico Claims Liability School, the U.S. Marines 3rd Intelligence Battalion Okinawa, Mrs. Baiza's class at Chittum Elementary….

Team Emily.

Add LadySwish to the list, too.

We're on board to show our support for 9-year-old Emily Friar, who idolizes the teen band One Direction and has only recently grown tall enough to ride the Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens. She's crazy about her American Girl dolls -- she's got two identical twins -- and four of them stare back at you in her room. It's a room full of craft supplies, puzzles, board games, stuffed toys, snow globes and recently added, an ODU basketball hoop.

Lady Monarchs

This room is on the eighth floor of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk. It's home for Emily, who has been there since the Monday after Thanksgiving and where she will spend her second straight Christmas instead of at home with her mom, Kelly, her dad, Terry, and her 5-year-old sister, Caitlyn.

Only it's not home. It's leukemia. It's cancer, a word mom Kelly Friar refused to say to Emily until one day Emily asked, "Is it cancer?" Kelly, who just lost her 42-year-old sister Tracy to breast cancer in September 2012, won't google acute myeloid leukemia (AML), either. She can't read about statistics and odds and data. This isn't a numbers game. This is Emily.

Chittum Elementary bus drivers

AML is when too many white blood cells turn cancerous and multiply when they shouldn't. The abnormal white blood cells interfere with the body's ability to function. It's the rarest form of leukemia among children. Emily has it.

A little more than a year ago, Emily got a fever and then another and another. The first trips to Patient First and then another doc resulted in an answer that most moms accept with a grain of salt -- it's viral and will run its course. Then Emily's temperature spiked to 103, and the abdominal pain was excruciating. Kelly didn't waste any more time with doctors offices and headed for CHKD. When mono was mentioned, Kelly groaned at the prospect of the long recovery time.

Kelly  had been dealing with the ER doctor when he told her mono was ruled out. He said he was going to bring an oncologist into the room.

Terry was outside the door with Caitlyn. "You need to get in here now," she told him.
Mrs. Baiza's class at Chittum.

A few hours later, a bone marrow test confirmed that Emily Friar, 8, had leukemia. It was Dec. 13, 2012. A day later her central line was put in and the chemo started on Dec. 15. Treatment time was four months. That's 20-plus days in the hospital, then roughly five days at home before the cycle was repeated.

The treatment seemed to do its job. Emily came home in April and returned to third grade at Chittum Elementary in Chesapeake. "She was leukemia-free, or so we thought," Kelly says.

Monthly, she had checkups. The lab results had been good until November. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Kelly and Terry learned Emily had relapsed.

"That means I'm going to be in there for Christmas again," Emily said when told the news.

In medical terms, the news means different and more aggressive chemo -- three different kinds in all -- and again lowering Emily's immunity to zero as chemo kills the good cells along with the bad. That's why everyone who enters sanitizes hands immediately and why Emily's bedsheets are changed every day and why her time in the CHKD playtime is without other kids and why she wears a mask covering her mouth any time she leaves that hospital room. Always in tow with her, too -- a clunky IV pole far taller than she.

A bone marrow transplant appears inevitable and would likely be done at Duke University, but Kelly and Terry and Emily aren't there yet, so talking too much about an uncertain future is overwhelming.

All of this continues to overwhelm a family that saw none of it coming. Terry and Kelly, both agents for Geico, were enjoying their careers along with the girls, a pair of giddy sisters who one-up each other often, bicker on occasion but love each other to pieces.

From Okinawa

"You don't know the words," Emily says as Caitlyn tries to sing "Joy to the World" along with a DVD playing in the portable player. Both are sitting on Grandma Paula's lap in the eighth-floor room.

"I can hum," says Caitlyn, angling to thumb-wrestle anyone who comes into the room.

Emily continues to sing.

"Up on the house top, click, click, click...."

Kelly no longer works at Geico; Terry is taking family leave. Neither has hair. Kelly shaved hers as did Paula; Terry didn't have much before and has none now. One parent or the other is in the room 24/7, though Paula is a huge help, visiting from Ohio. Kelly points to the two pillows on the pullout couch that don't look terribly comfortable, though she's not about to complain.

This room, these four walls that often feel as if they are closing in, is home, only it's not.

So enter Team Emily, an idea that started from the father of one of Emily's classmates. Somehow it caught on and now in addition to shirts and bumper stickers with the logo, there is a Facebook page that recently surpassed 4,100 followers, many of them groups holding up signs of good wishes followed by #TeamEmily. Initially Barefoot donated a signed ball, but that was only the tip. Emily has visited ODU's locker room and the Lady Monarchs have visited her hospital room. Emily has cheered for them; the Lady Monarchs clap for her.

"I wear the green bracelet Emily made me every day," says Barefoot, who learned of Emily through her former volunteer assistant, Sara Jones, who died earlier this year of cancer at age 40. A special seat in the Constant Center is for Emily during home games.

US Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton
Team Emily continues to mushroom to proportions the Friars never imagined. Emily gets a kick out of visiting the page and seeing the photos, well wishes and level of support from groups she's never heard of much less met. Packages come regularly in the mail -- so much so that Terry has taken to sending some to Caitlyn so she doesn't feel excluded.

"Where was that package she just got from?" Kelly asks.

Terry thinks for a moment. "Cypress."

Terry and Kelly are grateful for the support. When they think about what gets them through, they list each other, family, friends, Team Emily, the Western Branch community but mainly it's Emily -- a little girl so shy it's hard to get her to meet the gaze of a newcomer; a little girl in a One Direction robe, monkey slippers and a green knit cap to cover her baldness; a little girl who has a tabby named Samson and a guinea pig named Goldie she misses; a little girl whose story inspires so many…..

Mrs. Elswick's class at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, the bus drivers at Chittum, the United States Coast Guard, Girl Scout Troop 123 ….

Team Emily. Are you on board?

CEO of Team Emily

Show your support for Emily by liking her page here.

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