By: Timothy Kays
About a year ago, Allie Herman was an active seventh grader, attending school in the same building where her mother, Amy Herman, is a teacher in Fayette, Ohio. Allie was active on the Lady Eagles’ Seventh Grade Volleyball squad, and was also in the process of gearing up for the Lady Eagles’ basketball season.
Allie’s junior high hoops career was short-circuited by a diagnosis of cancer that created a tsunami of support that spanned two states, several counties, and even more communities and schools. The battle was long. The battle was hard. The battle was both physically and emotionally painful and draining, but when Allie Herman walked into the Fayette School on August 15 for the first day of classes in the 2019-2020 school year, it became official…the battle was won.
Almost a year to the day when the first symptoms of the monster called cancer first appeared, Allie returned to her school and her classmates as a champion. An unassuming and timid champion…but a champion over cancer, nonetheless.
Allie and her family have come full circle. The full details of that long, harrowing journey were detailed by Allie’s mother, Amy, after class let out last week. It is a long story, but it is a story of how big actions can be undertaken successfully in small towns and villages. It is a story of how ‘family’ goes well beyond genetic bonds in these one stoplight (or less) communities.
“A week before Junior High BBC tournaments,” Amy began, “Allie complained that her knee was hurt and it had been bothering her off and on a little bit. We just did the ice situation. After volleyball was over, she started basketball conditioning. It still was hurting and it was getting worse, so we went to the doctor. They X-rayed it, said it looked suspicious, but they were going to treat it like a broken bone because what it looked the most like wasn’t a typical situation. It kept getting worse. We went and saw a specialist in Toledo, did an MRI. It was treated again like fracture. By November, Thanksgiving Day, she was in tears when she woke up.”
“I took her to the ER knowing we’re going to have to follow up with orthopedic, but hoping to get some pain meds. The ER doctor said we needed to get this checked out further…we did. We were in Columbus a week later, and December 4 she had a bone biopsy and was diagnosed osteosarcoma, which is a tumor of the bone soft tissue. She went right from there to Nationwide, and two days later had a port implanted and started chemo. Her chemotherapy regimen was a 29-week course very intensive. Most all impatient chemo until the very, very end. She had surgery February 22 to remove the tumor in her leg, and she had a total knee replacement. They also took part of her calf muscle, brought it around to the front to use as a new tendon that attaches that to the top of her knee.”
“She had another surgery April 22 to remove a tumor in her lung. That was able to be done laproscopically, so it’s a very small, very small incision, but a very successful surgery. It was right on the outside of her right lung, and she only had one little spot…it was like a centimeter and a half. So real little they were able just to go in and do it. She had a chest tube in, but that’s just normal. She was in the hospital for just a couple days, and then we were back home. Very minimal scarring from that; you wouldn’t even think anything of it if you saw it.”
Meanwhile, the chemotherapy continued. The end of her regimen began to be more outpatient. “We were lucky enough to have Toledo Hospital ProMedica coordinate with Nationwide,” Amy said. “We could do all of our outpatient stuff there. Labs, she had outpatient chemo there…all of that stuff. It was fantastic. There was never one bit of a lapse in communication between the two hospitals. They were just awesome networking together. They told us in the beginning that doctors that treat pediatric cancer, they’re very willing to work with other hospitals.”
“In the adult world, everybody gets a little bit more possessive of patients and money and things like that. In the pediatric world, everybody works together, and that was so true for us because being able just to go to Toledo for outpatient stuff was awesome. The nurses and doctors there treated Allie like she was their full time patient. It was great.”
There was another trip to Nationwide to be made, and in the overall panorama of the past twelve months, it was huge. “She finished her last treatment on July 30,” Amy recalled. “Her treatments were kind of weird because one of the types of chemo she had, you get it one day…and then they spend the next three days flushing it out of your system because they only want it in there to do what it needs to do. They want it out because it could do so much damage. So she finished chemo, but rang the bell four days later because we wanted to wait till she was going home. So we had my immediate family come down and celebrate. All the doctors and nurses came down, and it was pretty amazing.”
What is this ‘ringing the bell’ thing? Why is that so important? “I wasn’t sure to be honest,” Amy said. “I envisioned somebody going up and ringing a small bell. When a patient gets to ring the bell, they have finished their chemotherapy treatments and are cancer free. So Allie is cancer free; she has no signs of the disease from last scans. At Nationwide, you have two choices. You can either ring the bell which is attached to the wall on the 11th floor where they administer the chemo. Or they have a portable bell. It’s nice and big; it’s like five feet tall probably, on a big stand and they wheel it down to the Magic Forest.”
Wait a minute. Magic Forest? What Magic Forest?
“They have this area down there. It’s just really cool. These big green tall plastic like huge trees that make it look like a forest.”
This is after all Nationwide Children’s Hospital. It’s not exactly for adults.
“No it’s not; the whole hospital is for kids. It’s just amazing because it’s just huge. I used to think the Toledo Hospital was big, and Nationwide just dwarfs it. They have a Subway in there, and from Allie’s room on the 12th floor to get to Subway, it’s a mile there and back when you walk. So if you want a Subway, you’d better REALLY want a Subway.”
Returning to her original point, Amy said, “Anyhow, she rang the big bell in the Magic Forest, and it was amazing. A lot of the nurses came down. Her doctors came down; all of her therapists came down. Since it’s a children’s hospital, they have art therapy, they have music therapy. They have recreational therapy; she calls herself the recess lady. She’d come in with games and things for the kids to do. Her massage therapists, her physical therapists…they take care of everything that they could to make these kids heal better, but also feel better because when you’re feeling better, your body’s more prone to healing.”
“And so all these people came down to see her ring the bell, and it was just super special. My nieces were there, and her brother was there, and they all these little like plastic clappers. They were clapping their clappers really loud, and Allie was ringing the bell real loud, and everyone was just cheering. It was a pretty exciting day. I didn’t think I’d be emotional and cry…but I did. We all had neon shirts that said, ‘Just Beat It,’ because she wanted to be funny. She wanted it to be Just Beat It like the Michael Jackson song, but also she just beat cancer, so that was our little play on it.”
With the cancer eradicated, the door was opened wide for Allie Herman to walk into the Fayette Eighth Grade with her classmates…which is exactly what she did on opening day.
“She had her port removed on Tuesday the 13th, and started school on Thursday the 15th,” Amy said. “She was determined to be at school. Unfortunately, she also twisted her ankle on the leg that she had surgery on. So when she started school, it was a little harder than it needed to be, which put her back on crutches. She did it at physical therapy, outpatient physical therapy, and they weren’t doing anything that she hadn’t done inpatient. It was just a fluke, bad luck, whatever you want to call it.”
“She’d been off crutches since May. Her leg is getting stronger; it’s not back where needs to be yet. She’s doing outpatient physical therapy in Archbold, but she’s on crutches because of the ankle. The ankle is getting better. She’s walking on it now, so I don’t think she’ll be on crutches much longer. We go back next Wednesday to see her surgeon that did her knee surgery, but also to see the sports med doctor about her ankle, so we’ll try to get it all taken care of then.”
The Herman family has undergone an emotional roller coaster in the past year. The transition from the perception of happy and healthy, to an immediate call to action for a prolonged fight against a life-threatening monster called cancer, can and will test the very emotional and spiritual fabric of a family. Amy described that roller coaster ride, sometimes with great difficulty, beginning with the sudden, crashing descent into a new reality, a reality entered when one is informed…your child has cancer.
“When we took her down for the bone biopsy initially,” Amy said, “…we were thinking it was probably a bone infection, because that’s kind of what had been suggested was one of the options of what it could be wrong. It could be a really bad break; it could be a bone infection, or could be a tumor. So we were just banking on that it was a bone infection, because how could our kid have cancer; like how could that even be a thing? So when the surgeon pulled us in after the bone biopsy, while she was still in recovery, and said they had had done testing, and she did have cancer…I don’t even think you can say it’s a gut punch. It’s just like your whole body is struck in such a way that you don’t know how to recover from it. You’re hearing the words…and you’re bawling, and you’re leaning on each other. My husband (Kent) and I were just leaning on each other, because there’s nothing; there’s nowhere else to go. You can’t hide from it; you have to face it. And so then we started asking questions to the surgeon. You know, ‘What does this mean?’ What…I don’t even remember what he said.
He told us, ‘I’m going to let you stay back here in this room,’ because they pulled us into a small room. I said, ‘Can we just say back here because I can’t go back out to the big waiting room.’ He said, ‘Absolutely; stay in here. We’ll get you some drinks; we’ll get you some more Kleenex,’ things like that.
Then, when she was out of recovery, they came back and got us and we saw her, and she’s still groggy from having surgery. So how do you tell your 13-year-old daughter that the test came back and you have cancer, when she’s not even awake hardly? So we didn’t; we didn’t tell her. We just said, ‘You did great in the surgery. We’re going to have to go over to the hospital. They need to do a little bit more testing because we’ve just got to make sure that we can get you healthy and you can get your leg healed.’ So anyways, we get her out of recovery. We were kind of dazed for the lack of a better word. We drove her over to Nationwide; there was no reason for her to go in an ambulance or anything.”
“She wasn’t in a life critical situation, so we drove over. We were just talking, kind of trying to be calm on the way over. We got to Nationwide and got her to her room, and immediately there’s like 10 doctors and nurses in the room, and they’re trying to get things sorted out. They pulled Kent and I out for something, and they’re like, ‘How is she doing?’ We’re like, ‘We haven’t told her yet.’ ‘What do you mean, you haven’t told her yet?’ ‘Like, we haven’t had time; she wasn’t out of anesthesia yet. How do you tell your daughter she has cancer?’
So eventually we got everybody out of the room and we sat down with her, and we said, ‘Allie…the test came back, and you have a type of cancer called osteosarcoma. That’s why your bone has been hurting, and we’re going to get a plan straightened around.’ I don’t even think she cried. She was more like, ‘Well, can they make me better? Can they fix it?’ We’re like, ‘Yes they can; they have a treatment. They have a cure.’ ‘Can they cure me?’
‘Yes, they can cure you, but you’re going to have to work really hard at it. It’s not going to be easy.’ The next week; that was a super hard week. That was the hardest emotional week I’ve ever had. I called my dad, and I said you need to bring Braden (Allie’s brother) and mom to Columbus, and they came down. It was hard to tell Braden that she had cancer. He was 16; he’s a big kid, but he’s still kid, and then when you’re talking about your sister having a disease that is very serious, it’s scary. So we’d try to ease fears, but yet you’re still fearful yourself. It’s hard to instill confidence when there’s so much doubt in you when you hear so many terrible stories, sad stories, stories that don’t end the way you feel you want them to end.”
As she continued, Amy began to fight a losing battle against the tears that understandably demanded to make an appearance. “Throughout the whole thing,” she recalled with a shaking voice, “…you try to be hopeful. When the doctors tell you they can’t promise you anything, my husband kept saying, ‘Just promise me you’re going to make my daughter better.’ They were like, ‘We’re going to do everything we can,’ but they can never say, ‘we promise you.’ So then to know they can’t promise you makes it more real; that’s super scary. So then the first month was the worst.”
“The first month, month and a half was the worst because there was so much anxiety amongst us all, not only with Allie sick from the chemo, but just making yourself sick over worry and the uncertainty of what the future holds…there’s so much uncertainty and worry. So you’ve got fear, and uncertainty, and worry. Then you make it through the first couple of rounds of chemo and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’ve got three done. I’ve got three more to go.’ It was broken into six rounds.”
“I was like, ‘Allie, you only have three more rounds; you’re halfway done.’ So you start to get hopeful, but then you’re kind of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, like what’s going to happen, what’s going to go wrong, what’s going to be the problem. Knee surgery was rough, physically rough on her. She got sick, ran a lot of fevers, so there was a lot of worry involved there again. Lung surgery…we went into it a little bit more hopeful because we knew it wasn’t going to be as intensive of recovery because they were going to be able to do it laparoscopically.”
Amy described the rollercoaster effect of being conflicted, and how Allie’s support network came to their aid. “So then the cancers are out of her body…there’s no more tumor. You feel like, ‘No more tumors…we’re doing good, but you’re still always waiting. What’s going to go wrong? What’s going to happen? She handled chemo really well. She had two different types of chemo. One would make her really sick, and as a parent, it’s hard to watch them be really sick. It’s hard to watch her lose her hair.”
“That was probably the hardest part was when her hair started falling out, but we tried to make the best of it. When her hair sort of falling out, I called Lauren Beers. She got family pictures taken that day. I called Sam Lauber over at Salon Bliss; she got us in that night. Allie’s friends went with her. I got a haircut first…got my hair all whacked off. Then Allie got hers cut off too, but her friends were all there with her so she didn’t have to go back and face them later. They were there with her to help her through it, and she’s got a great group of friends that were able to do it. So it always helps that when you have these super sad moments, there was always like a silver lining to it. I guess you don’t mean like because they could share that with her.”
The silver lining grew brighter over time with the successful passage of every chemotherapy session. “And then we were outpatient chemo…Toledo,” Amy recalled. “So it’s like the light is getting brighter, at the end of the tunnel. We had the countdown of three more chemo, two more chemo, and then it’s the last chemo. And then it’s like…oh my God, you never have to have this chemo again, and you just feel this huge sense of like relief. But there’s still always that lingering, ‘What’s going to go wrong.’ I hate to feel that way because I’ve never been that kind of a person in my life.”
“Never, but when you get blindsided with a cancer diagnosis, you just keep your guard up, I think. So the day she rang the bell, we had all of our family come down. They got to come up to the 12th floor, see the floor, see her room. They have really very tight visitor restrictions because of the weakened immune systems that the kids have. They all got to come and got to see her room, and got to show them around and meet her nurses. Her nurses were awesome. She has such good friendships with them now, and that’s a really good thing.”
“And then, when there was the bell ringing, there was all kinds of people downstairs. Tina Keiser made the cupcakes for her which I thought was kind of special because of their journey. She was super busy, and my mom’s like, ‘Is there any way you could do cupcakes and cake popsicles?’ ‘What do you need?’
Mom told her, and she’s like, ‘Well, how am I going to say no to that? Of course, I’m going to do them for you!’ That was really cool, I thought. And then to watch Allie grab the rope and ring the bell. I wasn’t sure if she’d get after it, if she’d be timid because she’s kind of a timid kid inside.”
“She got after it, and I think when she rang it so hard, it was just kind of a release, like, ‘We got you cancer! It’s done; I beat you!’ It was that kind of a feeling like, ‘I got through chemo; I made it through all this hard, hard stuff, and I came out on the other side. Now I’ve got the rest of my life in front of me.’ That was just such a huge feeling of joy and relief and just fulfillment I think, of that long, hard journey.”
A family ordeal like this can give one pause for some heavy introspection, not just of one’s self or loved ones, but upon the perseverance of those who came before. “That perseverance does pay off,” Amy said, “…that all the kids who came before her who had this awful, terrible diagnosis, their losses were weren’t for naught because doctors and nurses were able to learn from what has been done in the past with other kids, and apply it to kids now so that we can have better outcomes.”
“I guess there’s a sense of pride in that I feel proud that Allie was able to beat cancer, but also that the kids who didn’t win their battles, their lives weren’t for nothing. I feel good about that. I feel like if they had to go through this terrible thing, if their families had to go through it, I’m glad that they can learn something from it and apply it to the future. So like Allie’s and different research studies, I want what she went through to help other kids in the future because it just is a terrible disease. I guess now the emotions we’re feeling are relief, and happiness, and a fulfillment of a of a dream to be cancer free, and I am just super hopeful for the future. I’m super thankful for her journey, and when I say ‘I’, I mean we…my husband and my whole family. We’re just thankful and happy to be back to school.”
Over the course of this war against cancer, support seemed to come from every corner. Sometimes, that support came from professionals who had ties to Fayette that seemed to be more than coincidental. Amy recalled, “There was the nurse she had in surgery (Dustin Linder) who is married to a girl from Fayette, Mallory Figgins. Mallory Figgins (who is now Mallory Figgins Linder) was from Fayette, and her surgery nurse at the James (The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital) in Columbus was married to her.”
“So how do you go to a hospital in Columbus as big as the James, and run into a nurse who’s married to a girl from the same town that you’re from? That was just completely crazy; it was crazy. Seeing him, knowing there was a connection to where we are from. He didn’t know us, but it was still a connection. He came up and ran in the 5K with Mallory, and that was neat. It was neat; it was kind of like full circle. We weren’t quite to the full circle by her 5K, but it was close enough. It was special to us.”
The schools of the Buckeye Border Conference (BBC), by population the smallest conference in the state of Ohio, all got onboard to raise funds for the battle in a potent organization that became known as ‘Allie Strong.’ Businesses like Don’s Automotive and Active Tactical Solutions brought in other people and businesses from outside of the villages of the BBC to join the Rally for Allie events that were seemingly cropping up everywhere. One of the biggest took place on Allie Strong Night on January 3 when the Pettisville Blackbirds flew into Fayette for a BBC tilt against the Eagles.
On this evening and others leading up to it, hundreds of brilliant yellow tee-shirts emblazoned with the words, ‘No One Fights Alone,’ were sold. After the conclusion of the game, those in attendance wearing the shirt came down to the gym floor for a group picture. There was no Fayette. There was no Pettisville. There was only unity under the banner of Allie Strong.
Support continued to pour in for Allie’s fight. Nowhere though, was there a stronger and more vibrant support network than the one found in Amy’s place of employment…the Fayette Schools. Talking about that hometown support broke down the final obstacle to free flowing tears.
“To me,” Amy said, “…it means that I’m super lucky, and I’m in the place where I’m supposed to be. It means that when I left Defiance College, got a job in Hicksville, and wanted to end up closer to home…and ended up AT home in Fayette, it was for a reason. I don’t think that this journey would have been the same if I were somewhere else, or if Allie was somewhere else, because Fayette does rally around each other, and supports each other.”
“Without my husband or really anybody in my family organizing any sort of a benefit or a fundraiser or a show of support, people in the community stepped up and did it on their own. You know, I think that families would usually lead that, but not in Fayette. In Fayette, family is bigger than just who you’re related to, because you belong to Fayette…the community of Fayette, the School of Fayette.”
“So when you’ve got different groups that are willing, and different friends, and even just acquaintances that are willing to lead these huge events, to support your family and support your daughter, it just gives you the warm fuzzies. It just makes you feel like you’re where you’re supposed to be. It makes you feel grateful, and thankful, and blessed for sure.”
Timothy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org