When you ask 11-year-old Avery about herself, she’ll tell you that her favorite color is blue and she loves to be outside. She likes pickles, and cats, and basketball, and she has her own therapy dog.
“Well, she’s not really a therapy dog. She’s Ruby Jean,” Avery says of the big-eared rat terrier who used to live with her grandparents but is now stuck to her like glue.
Avery will also tell you that on April 5, 2017, after several episodes of bone pain and abnormal bruising, she was diagnosed with pre-B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“I knew it was bad,” she said. “I knew what leukemia meant, but I didn’t know a lot of things about it. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be able to go to school, or how many years it would take. I didn’t know what would happen, or if there was a cure or not.”
Her mom was scared too.
“It’s terrifying to hear those words: Your child has leukemia,” Crystal said. “You don’t know what to think, what to expect.”
Despite their fears, the family stayed strong, and their huge support system began to form immediately. The day after her diagnosis, Avery’s entire family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – came to the hospital to be with her.
When Avery came home from that first hospital stay, Ruby – the only member of the family who couldn’t come to LCH – realized something was wrong and has been by her side ever since. Ruby has provided comfort, entertainment, and companionship throughout the intense treatment, earning her the honorary title of therapy dog.
Once Avery was diagnosed, things moved quickly. Her doctors at Atrium Health's Levine Children’s gave her blood and platelet transfusions to prepare her body for the first round of chemotherapy.
“The first time I got blood was kind of crazy,” Avery said. “I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know what it would feel like. After a while, I felt fine.”
Two days later, doctors placed her port and began her 10 months of chemotherapy treatment. In total, she spent 90 days in the hospital, and her family made 250 trips to doctors and hospitals in Charlotte from their home in Lincolnton. A nurse herself, Crystal was familiar with the disease and its effects. Still, she was surprised by the amount of blood her daughter needed throughout treatment.
I’m very thankful for all the people who donated and helped me and saved my life."
“The one thing I didn’t realize was how much blood she would need,” Crystal said. “She received 17 units of blood and four units of platelets through the course of 10 months.”
The cancer cells attacked Avery’s good cells, and the chemotherapy designed to destroy those cancer cells also destroyed her good ones. Both factors contributed to low blood counts and required Avery to receive transfusions.
“I could look at Avery and tell if she was tired,” Crystal said. “How pale her lips were, how pale her skin was, and how short of breath. She got to the point where she could tell when her body needed the blood. But once she received the blood, her face would pink up, her lips would pink up, and she felt better. It gave her a lot of energy.”
Her mom and sister have started donating blood, and they hope to host blood drives to continue giving back.
“I’ve given two units so far and plan on giving every chance I have,” Crystal said. “When it’s your family member, you realize how important it is. It saved Avery’s life. When you’ve been helped so much, you want to help other people. We are so appreciative of what it does to help our kids and our family members. One thing about donating blood is it’s free. It doesn’t cost you anything.”
At her young age, Avery also understands how important those blood donors are to people in situations like hers, saying, “I’m very thankful for all the people who donated and helped me and saved my life.”
Now in the maintenance phase of her treatment, Avery is slowly returning to school and getting back to all the fun things she missed out on during her journey.
“Even with all the blood and all the chemotherapy treatments that she’s had, she’s remained positive,” Crystal said. “We’ve had great family support, great friend support, community support.”
When Avery was first diagnosed, her friends from school wrote her cards and sent gifts. Her church members painted special rocks to show their support. The whole community helped raise money through a T-shirt fundraiser.
Her sister’s softball team from Belmont Abbey College even came to the hospital to visit her. All 22 members squeezed into her room. The team asked Avery to throw the first pitch to kick off their 2018 season. They hope to hold a blood drive this season as well to continue showing their support.
“They say that pediatric cancer is rare, but it’s not,” Crystal said. “Avery was the first of three in April of last year in this area to be diagnosed with leukemia. So we’ll always need blood.”
“Giving others hope...
Thanks to local blood donors.”
“Her life was saved ...
And now she's saving others”
“Jamal says his life is nothing short of a miracle...
Thanks to local blood donors.”