devon-vickers_web.jpgEditor’s note: This is the printed version of a message that Devon Vickers, 18, delivered at the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City on March 30.

A young girl who lay calmly in bed but was suddenly awakened not only by the strident and jarring clamor from the night’s thunder storm, but most notably by the excruciating and agonizing twinge that her abdomen had most recently succumbed to and had been overwhelmed with.

As the young girl lay in bed, she gripped her stomach firmly, in hopes of suppressing the sharp pain she had been burdened with night after night.  She had hoped that these pains would only go away, never to return, however, they did return, full-fledged, more powerful and unbearable as ever.  In addition to nights filled with cold sweats and insomnia; fatigue-filled days, and a significant lack of appetite. 

This was supposed to be a vacation! Filled with time spent with relatives, road trips, sleepovers, amusement parks… but instead, this young girl spent half of her vacation in Atlanta with her aunt, uncle and cousins in pain, and the other half of the time, trying to camouflage this pain with false attributes of glee and bliss, when this wasn’t the case at all. 

After returning back to Miami, what was supposed to be a mere morning appointment to the child’s pediatrician, quickly evolved into a chain of appointments with numerous doctors around the city of Miami. 
Waiting room after waiting room, doctor after doctor, the child slowly and understandably grew tiresome and irritated.  She underwent X-rays, and an ultrasound, which shockingly displayed a picture of her spleen.  The actual spleen wasn’t the shocking part, but the size of it. 

According to the doctor, the young adolescents’ spleen was four times larger than the average adult’s.  Before she knew it, she was lying in a stretcher in the outpatient section of Joe DiMaggio’s Children’s Hospital. Many nurses and doctors cascaded in and out of her compartment only securing privacy if the curtains were drawn back.

After hours of waiting, the young child found herself awakening to what seemed like faint sounds of crying.  It was her mother. She lay motionless, not knowing whether to console her mother in her apparent grief, or follow her inquiry and question it.

The diagnosis

Her mother was of strong character and poise, therefore the young girl knew if her mother was crying, something must have really been bothering her. The child’s mother hastily wiped her face in attempts to veil her current state of misery as a short, stocky man entered the draped stall.  The identification tag positioned on his left breast recognized him as Dr. Iftikhar Hanif. 

“He has a very delightful smile, and his strong Middle Eastern accent was comforting,’’ the young girl thought to herself. 

But little did she realize that this state of comfort would soon dissolve into a state of confusion and disbelief. 

Dr. Hanif began to speak, but the young girl grew distracted, and his words were quickly subdued.  As she turned her attention to her mother and father both standing beside her, she noticed a disheartening glimmer in both of their eyes.  As she began to become enthralled in the gaze of her parents’ eyes, the disregard of the doctor’s discursive medical chatter came to a screeching halt when the young girl heard the word… leukemia. 

After hearing that one word, the young girl became overwhelmed with emotion.  She sat completely motionless, not knowing what to think do or say.  The young girl had some knowledge of what leukemia was prior to this moment, but not enough to erase her fears of missing school, losing her hair, and most pressing…death.

The young girl later learned that she had what was called chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, which was a cancer of the white blood cells.  It is caused by a change in the genetic code of some of the cells in the bone marrow.  In these cells, part of chromosome 9 moves to chromosome 22, creating an abnormal chromosome  (the Philadelphia chromosome) which makes an enzyme that signals the body to make too many white blood cells, thus creating trouble.

The 11-year-old girl now found herself in a hospital bed, throwing up all the contents she had for lunch.  She felt weak, nauseated, and helpless.  It was the effect of the medicine used at the time to treat CML, called Hydroxuria.  Although she had many sleepless nights, and sickness-filled days, her spirits remained high. 
The staff was extremely warm, always making jokes and comforting her during times of pain, and most surprisingly, the hospital food was edible!!

The wonder drug

Despite constant visits from friends and family drowning the sick girl with their love, support and reassurance, she knew she needed a miracle if she ever wanted to become a “normal” kid again.  That miracle came in the form of tablets.

It was called Gleevac, the new wonder drug, her long-awaited miracle.  It was approved by the FDA only months before her diagnosis. Gleevac suppresses the enzyme that signals the body to make too many white blood cells, with fewer chances of side effects.  This meant no chemotherapy injections, seeing as the Gleevac was a form of chemotherapy, just in tablets. 

She was filled with joy.  She got to go home after spending only two weeks in the hospital. She was able to keep all of her hair and return to school that August, and all she had to do was take four pills every night. 
This was truly a miracle, and a step further in becoming the girl she was once, or so she thought.

In the months ahead, she entered middle school, no longer plagued with the burden of leukemia.  As a result of the Gleevac, she was now in remission.  Her doctors restricted her from involving herself in any physical activities, and she still had to attend doctor visits weekly.  When arriving to school late on appointment days, fellow classmates often badgered her about tardiness. 

Not wanting to reveal her secret, she would often divert the conversation in another more interesting direction, which always seemed to work.  She didn’t want to be treated “differently” because of her sickness; she wanted to live life like any other pre-teenager at the time.

Now a teenager, she felt like she knew everything, as most teenagers do.  For a period of time, out of stupidity and ignorance, the young girl briefly stopped taking the “wonder pill.”  She figured she was “cured” and that she did not need the Gleevac anymore. She felt as though it was holding her back.

But eventually, her doctors and parents found out, and they were livid, and, more than ever, concerned.

The young girl now understood what dangers she put herself through, and how naïve she had been thinking and acting by taking it upon herself to discontinue her medication: The same medication that she had once revered, and referred to as the “wonder pill.” 

From that moment on, she swore to herself that she would always take her medication, as she now fully understood the consequences if she didn’t.

It was now a new school year, time for changes, as this now young woman entered high school.  In the beginning, her feelings toward her school were of great disdain and sadness. Most of her friends had gone to a different high school, therefore with a feeling of dejection, she felt alone with no one to talk to.

But this quickly changed as the year progressed.  She became overly active in extra-curricular activities, meeting new friends, and even joined the track team.  Her grades were the best they had ever been, while taking AP and honor classes, her GPA sky rocketed, and landed her on the principal’s honor roll.

Her interest in English and Social Studies also earned her the Freshman English Honors & AP World History Award. Later that year, she went to Regionals with her track team, and earned a Varsity Letter.

The relapse

Freshman year at Barbara Goleman High School was unforgettable, and the young ninth grader only had higher expectations for the following year. 

But then, she heard these words: “It seems that the leukemia has come back.’’

These words were like the devil himself.  Whenever joy and happiness prevail, evil sneaks up out of the shadows and surprises you.  I sat there as if frozen in time, while I replayed those words over and over inside my head.  Wishing, hoping, and praying that I misunderstood.

Prior to and after my re-diagnosis of leukemia, it was as though I had been watching my whole life unfold through the eyes of someone else; like a third person.  This is where faith comes into play!

In the Webster’s dictionary it reads as follows: Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing. A belief that is not based on proof.  The obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise or engagement, and the observance of this obligation.

I have to disagree to a point with at least part of this statement. The faith I hold in my heart is based on the obligation of loyalty I made to Jesus Christ when I was confirmed as a young teenager, or when I walked down this pathway with my family and vowed my life to Jesus Christ, or by merely repeating every night, “I pray my Lord my soul to keep.”

But the faith I hold in my heart is based on proof.  What is this?  Isn’t this proof, this sacred scripture as valid as any other piece of legislative documentation, or historical artifact out there?! 

Excuse me.  It is more valid!

Because we have seen miracles and truths and promises answered through this piece of proof alone that I have yet to see through any piece of legislation passing through Congress. 

I do not know about you all, but THIS IS MY PROOF!  I have lived through hell and back, and every time return back to my proof!    

Hell is undergoing two days of chemo and five days of radiation. Weeks of distressing throat pain.  Not being able to swallow anything, to the point where I was given daily doses of morphine around the clock to numb the pain.

Hell is as days are slowly creeping by and fading away, so are your recollections of who you are. 

One morning, as I looked through the mirror, days after losing my hair, I was startled by the person I saw gawking back at me. This person was no one I had ever seen before, somewhat of a stranger.

As I glared back at my reflection, into the eyes of this new me, I noticed that the radiance that once stood affectionately in my eyes was no longer present.  It had been kicked out by a now ominous and dismal appearance, now accompanied with a bald head.

It had been like the life, my spirit, had been sucked out of me, only to return if I allowed it.

I had been sucked into the world of hopelessness, lethargy, and indolence.  In addition to restlessness, while nurses strolled in and out of my room at all times of the night, I was only to be awakened to cold hands, poking, prodding and beeping machines.  Some nights if not all were filled with tearful wishes of being back home.

Faith and family
I decided the only way to get out of this never-ending abyss of unhappiness was to rely on my faith and family. I entrusted all of my problems to God, as my mother and I prayed and read the Bible every day in search of guidance and patience.  The scripture we read daily was Psalm 121, and it goes as follows:

Verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth!’
Before anything, we must believe that God has a plan. A plan for me, a plan for you, a plan for all of us.  And although we do not realize it at the beginning, realization will dawn on us in the future.  Because hindsight is 20/20.  The same God who spent six days creating the heavens, seas and earth, is the same God who will get you through whatever obstacles you are experiencing in the present.

Verse 5: “The Lord watches over you!’
Not his secretary.  The Lord sees everything! As he “is your protective shade!”  As far as I am concerned, the Lord stayed with me.  I thank the Lord for getting me through those days. I thank the Lord for giving me and providing me with my family, because I truly do not think I could have made it otherwise.

Verse 8: “The Lord keeps watch over you as you come both now and forever.’’  Forever is a long time.  Eternity. This tells me one thing, I have to have faith.  Faith that if the Lord could get me through that, then He could get me through anything!!

Weeks began to pass, and I slowly began to notice a drastic change in my physical appearance.  The scale at the clinic confirmed this apprehension, by displaying my weight of 135 pounds.  In translation, I had gained over 20 pounds since my discharge from the hospital, and always found myself eating.

The doctors assured me that it was simply the steroids, and that I would lose the weight as soon as I was taken off of them. This sudden modification of me was another test of my faith and strength, as I often avoided looking in the mirror.

The excess weight made me feel sluggish. I couldn’t walk up the stairs without losing my breath. This was all new to me, being that I was always fit and in shape. I  slowly began to gain my energy back, but there was still this nagging feeling of melancholy.             

Returning home

I wanted to go home, I wanted to be back in my house, be surrounded by my family and friends, feel the cool Miami breeze against my face, I longed for all of this.  I was soon allowed to go back to Miami; this was certainly what I had prayed for night after night.  Being able to sleep in the comforts of my own room, and see all of my friends and family.

Being back home was everything I could have asked for, and although my tests have come back negative for leukemia, I still must take daily precautions in protecting my health.

When out in public I must wear a mask, protecting myself from possible viruses and common colds.  When wearing my mask out in public, it does cause people to stare, and at first made me feel uncomfortable and awkward, and at times still does.  However, I put my health before anything. Despite the gawks and stares, I recognize that I am me and can’t change who I am. 

From the time when I was first diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, I had this desire to be “normal,” pretending I was unchanged from all of this. But looking back now, I realized I am not normal, I am unique, and always was, with or without leukemia. 

This disease does not characterize who I am, but rather who I have become, and who I will flourish to be.  I now no longer ask, “Why me?’’ Instead, thanks to the advice of a wise friend, I now say to myself, “Why not me?’’

I am Devon Vickers and I had chronic myeloid leukemia. I am a survivor! I am a Christian and a believer in Jesus Christ!

Devon Vickers graduated summa cum laude from Barbara Goleman High School in Hialeah on June 2. She began her studies as a freshman at the University of Florida on June 30.  With a major in political science and a minor in business, she plans to pursue a career as a lawyer.

Photo: Devon Vickers