Former Cook Children’s Patient Says Cancer Prepared Her for COVID-19
For Leah Vann, wearing a mask and keeping social distance is nothing new. While many of us are adjusting to this way of life, she adopted these practices 10 years ago as a young cancer patient at Cook Children’s. She says that experience has prepared her to get through COVID-19.
In a recent essay published on NBC News’ website, Leah explained how face masks and forced social distance once marked her as 'cancer girl.'
“I spent a year of my life in rooms with filtered air, marked by rare trips to the outside world; even a decade later, a warm hug triggers a lingering anxiety in me,” she wrote in the essay. “That experience informs how I practice social distancing today.”
Leah was a 15-year-old athlete in her hometown of Aledo, Texas when she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). What followed included months of intense chemotherapy and a lot of time isolated on the hematology/oncology unit at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth.
“At the time, I was super angry because I mean, I've been through so much. I lost my dad to leukemia when I was 4 years old,” Leah explained over the phone from her home in Chicago. “I basically had the identical cancer to my father's. Now I’m starting chemotherapy, my hair’s falling out and this is high school, when you’re supposed to be having fun.”
Leah vividly remembers the day she got the news. She had just been rushed to the emergency department (ED) at Cook Children’s following an appointment with her pediatrician. Some unusual symptoms, such as fatigue and extreme bruising, led her doctor to run a blood test. He found her white blood cell counts to be exceptionally high.
In the ED, the attending physician told her “I have no doubt in my mind that you can make it through this, but this is going to be a battle.” Those words stuck with Leah for the next several months as she endured grueling treatments. She couldn’t leave her room without wearing a mask and visitors had to keep a safe distance from her. No touching was allowed.
It was tough, but after her last round of chemotherapy Leah was enrolled for a natural killer cell transplant. It was a clinical trial through St. Jude and it worked. She’s been cancer free ever since.
While being a cancer patient consumed nearly a year of her life, Leah didn’t let it slow her down.
“I didn't want to be held back. I wanted to graduate in my class and ultimately did,” she said.
She went on to attend the University of Texas as an undergrad and became a sports reporter. Today, she is pursuing a Master's of Science in journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She says she’s had a lot of time to process what she went through and has learned some things that are helping her get through the current pandemic.
“When I was in the hospital, I scheduled things around watching ‘That 70’s Show’ on TV, reading and doing schoolwork. I needed to keep myself occupied,” Leah said. “I'm basically doing the exact same thing now, just with less restrictions.”
And she says it is much easier to wear a mask now, then it was back then.
“We're in this moment where everybody's wearing a mask and they're cool and stylish, whereas mine were those paper Cook Children's disposable masks,” Leah explained. “There's a difference between wearing a mask when no one else is wearing one, and wearing one when everyone around you is wearing one. It’s a lot easier now.”
Leah hopes sharing her personal story will help others realize there are many out there who have been forced to wear a mask and social distance to protect their own health. And she says it’s something we should all do now in a sort of ‘golden rule’ kind of way.
“I've done it for my own protection. Now, I'm doing it for my own protection and for other people's protection.”
Her advice to all of us, including those fighting cancer now, is to take the precautions advised by doctors and scientists and to be patient.
“Just take everything day by day and see every day what you can do to lift your morale and make you happy,” she said. “If it's watching TV, learning a new craft or doodling in a journal, I don't care what it is, but try to find something that does occupy yourself and makes you happy.”