A community comes together to fight cancer

Dec 6, 2023
Haley in her room at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Doctors say her positive attitude is contagious. (COURTESY)

LEESBURG | When Lena took her 13-year-old daughter, Haley, to the doctor Oct. 11, 2023, she had no idea their lives would change overnight.

After several tests and a trip to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Haley was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), also known as B-cell, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Undeterred by the diagnosis, Haley requested LED lights, posters, and items from her locker to decorate her hospital room.

Immediately her friends from St. Paul Catholic School, Leesburg, and Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala surrounded the eighth grader with prayer both in person and online. The HaleyStrong Facebook account already has more than 1,000 followers.

“The second we found out we told family, then (we) sent a message to the principal. The teachers were so loving and kind,” Lena recalled.

St. Paul Catholic School students in Leesburg gathered to show their love and support for fellow student, Haley, who was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia in October. (COURTESY)

Doctors at Shands began treatment right away. When Florida Catholic spoke to Lena Nov. 16, Haley was already on the last day of the first 29-day cycle. Days later, the family learned the treatment was working, putting Haley in remission.

A Facebook post shared a biopsy was performed to see if there were leukemia cells present in the bone marrow.

“The biopsy came clear!!!,” the post announced. “There are zero leukemia cells in Haley’s bone marrow. This means she’s technically been induced into remission!! This is a huge step and a huge answer to (our) prayers. We still have a long road ahead of us.”

The post explained the next step for Haley is “consolidation,” during which chemotherapy would eradicate any possible leukemia cells. The chemotherapy could last almost two years, less if Haley responds well. Doctors are hopeful, adding Haley’s attitude makes a difference.

Haley and her older sister, Hannah, along with their mother all attended St. Paul Catholic School through eighth grade. Father Matthew Hawkins, parish pastor, and priests who formerly served the parish, including Father Martin Nguyen and Father Mark Wajda, reached out to the family. So did staff members of Trinity Catholic High School, where Haley hopes to join her sister next August.

Scrolling through the social media page, #HaleyStrong posts testify to contributions of prayers and acts of love focused on Haley’s recovery. To support Haley, the volleyball team at Trinity Catholic wore orange socks and t-shirts in honor of leukemia patients and prayed for Haley and her family before the game.

“(Trinity Catholic) has been there for Hannah recognizing, it’s emotional for your sibling too,” Lena said.

St. Paul Catholic School eighth-graders in Leesburg designed their t-shirts with Haley in mind. The orange ribbon signifies support for leukemia patients and students signed the ribbon in a symbol of solidarity. (COURTESY)

Because Haley loves dance, friends decided to create the HaleyStrong t-shirt logo with a dancer on it. Eighth graders at St. Paul embraced the design and added a cancer ribbon filled with their signatures. Haley wears it on her chemo appointment days.

Homeroom teacher Sissy Revord explained the cascade of love showered on Haley. “When a member of your family is hurting, you all hurt. Our hearts want to help and so it has been with Haley. From the moment we heard of her diagnosis, our school family, and especially her classmates, united around her to form a protective spiritual wall and virtual hug. The service projects initiated by the students and prayer services held for Haley give her school family the opportunity to show her we love her, are with her in spirit and that she truly is Haley Strong. It helps us journey to healing together.”

Fellow student, Hannah W., described it as though “a piece was taken from (their) class” and the community’s prayers help them feel they are being made whole again.

Other catholic school students, many who have never met Haley, are now prayer warriors on her behalf, including some from St. James Cathedral School in Orlando. Browsing through the HaleyStrong page one can see the deluge of love from local businesses to sports teams and even her orthodontist.

“All of these people, schools and (the) parish are in our life for a reason,” Lena said. Admitting her own occasional struggles understanding why her young daughter is suffering, she is comforted in knowing God will help her through it.

“When faced with this incredible trial, what do you do?” she asked rhetorically. “You go to God first. There are moments when you get weak a little bit. But because we have that faith, we know there’s a purpose for Haley. God is going to show us that purpose.

“That’s what our life’s built on – family and faith,” she said. “You just can’t let the negative thoughts come in. (Haley’s father) will have a bad day and then I’ll have a bad day, but we lean on each other to get through those bad days. It’s constantly leaning on God, no matter what.”

Lena said they have a lot to learn from how Haley is handling it all, with a maturity beyond her years. Due to treatments, Haley remains close to Shands Hospital with her mother. Although Haley participates in the celebration of Mass via livestream, she misses altar serving and hopes to return when her immune system is stronger.

Despite fatigue and pain, Haley attends school virtually and turns in her assignments online. She is determined to join her sister at Trinity Catholic next fall. She’s also been assured she will be able to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation this spring.

“It makes me feel really loved and helps me know I’m going to beat this because I have all this support keeping my spirits up,” Haley said. She acknowledges learning about her illness was tough. “I first thought about everything I would have to stop doing — not being able to go to school, dance, (or) participate in plays.” But spending time with her mom, assured her Grandma Judy is interceding on her behalf, feeling God’s presence when she prays, and writing poetry about what she is going through — cancer, friendships, Jesus — is helping her process the feelings.

Looking ahead, Cullen R., a fellow St. Paul’s classmate offers a prayer for his friend. “Haley has engraved her name in all our hearts. As we pray for her, may the Lord fill her family, friends, and loved ones with His presence. We ask the saints and angels to intercede so that Haley receives a healing touch. We also ask for Blessed Carlos’ (Acutis) prayers on her behalf, through Christ, our Lord.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, December 08, 2023