October 2, 2007

The Yellow Ones Are Best

photo by Scott Hammers/copyright Redmond Spokesman

The big blue beads are for spinal taps, when the doctor sticks a big needle between Jessica Mohler’s lower back. The little purple beads are for injections of all sorts, and it doesn’t really matter how many there are, as everyone’s lost count. The yellow beads are for good days, when everything goes perfectly for Jessica. Since her cancer diagnosis in June, she’s collected six.

The strings of so-called “journey beads” document Jessica’s four months with non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s Lymphoma, but there are no beads to mark the month of school she’s missed so far. She’s still bald, she still feels a bit weak when she has to climb the stairs, and she’s still got a port in her chest to pump in the chemotherapy drugs, but Jessica has all but decided she’ll be going back to school in December.

“If I’m not back in school by Christmas, I’m throwing a fit,” she said.

Jessica had just finished seventh grade at Elton Gregory Middle School when she got the diagnosis that spun her life in an altogether new direction. In the spring, she’d noticed a small hard lump in her right armpit, but waited until June 14, the last day of school, to see the family doctor. On the 19th, she had the lump removed – “it was huge, the size of an avocado,” she said – and on June 22, she was diagnosed. Eleven days after that first trip to the doctor, she underwent chemotherapy for the first time.

Since then, Jessica has spent the majority of her time in Portland, a city she says she already hated well before she got sick. Every other week she goes to the pediatric cancer ward at Legacy Emanuel Hospital for chemotherapy treatments lasting six to eight days at a stretch; on the off weeks, she’s there for blood tests, lab work, and the occasional blood infusion. Twice she’s raced over the mountains to be admitted to the hospital with a high fever suggesting an infection had made it past her weakened immune system.

For her mother, Tina Mohler, Jessica’s illness forced a rapid realignment of her family’s life. A single mother for the last two years, Tina took a leave of absence from her job at Bend Urology, giving up a steady income as well as medical insurance to care for her daughter. Friends took in Tina and Jessica, but she’s struggled to keep up with the cost of a $600 a month medical insurance premium and the cost of food, gas, and lodging necessitated by their regular trips to Portland for treatment.

According to Tina, it’s evident her daughter is getting a little restless spending so much time at home with her mother and away from her friends at school. Jessica’s been able to chat with her friends online, but, Tina said, it’s no substitute for face-to-face contact.

“She’s spent a lot of time with mom. She probably won’t be unhappy at all when she turns 18 and can leave home,” Tina said.

Jessica said she’s been able to read a lot in the last few months, and she gets some tutoring at the cancer ward in Portland, but she’s still concerned about missing out on school. In mid-October, her doctors intend to conduct a full evaluation of her condition to find out if she’s ready to go back anytime soon.

Despite everything that’s happened to her over the last four months, Jessica says she’s lucky. In her many trips to the cancer ward at Legacy Emanuel, she’s met dozens of children in much worse shape than her.

“Going through this is hard. Knowing what a lot of kids go through, little kids – I can’t get through it, how do they get through it? But some of these little kids, they’ve been going through chemotherapy their whole lives,” Jessica said.

This week, the Elton Gregory Sparrow Club will be selecting Jessica as its Sparrow for the 2007-08 school year. Started in Redmond in 1992, the Sparrow Club enlists school-age children to help raise money for classmates with serious medical conditions. Students take on community service projects, earning money pledged by businesses and individuals which is then passed on to the family of the child selected as the Sparrow.

Tina said the financial assistance offered by the Sparrow Club is appreciated, but just as importantly, Jessica’s role as Sparrow will mean more interaction with her classmates. A group of students from Elton Gregory are expected to drop by for a visit within the week, provided Jessica isn’t rushed off to Portland for treatment.

A fund has been set up to allow help Jessica’s family deal with the cost of her ongoing treatment. Donations may be made at the Redmond branch of South Valley Bank, or mailed directly to the Mohler’s at 1549 NW Jackpine Avenue, Redmond, OR, 97756.

-- story by Scott Hammers

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