Shayla Mitchell wasn’t feeling very well and couldn’t shake her cough. She asked her dad Tom if he could run her to the doctor, suspecting she had a sinus infection.
He gladly offered to pick her up after school the next day and run her there. They made plans to grab a bite to eat afterwards, too.
When the doctor returned to Shayla’s examination room, the look on his face was quite disconcerting. It turned out she didn’t have a sinus infection.
She had a huge cancerous tumor that consumed two-thirds of her chest. It had even caused one of her lungs to collapse.
To distract themselves, they ate dinner that night as planned. Except it was in a room on the pediatric oncology unit of Fairfax Hospital, Tom shared with Love What Matters.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but we would wind up having our next 450 meals in that hospital, as well as hundreds and hundreds of additional meals over the next couple of years.”
Doctors informed Tom and Shayla that she had Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease. The 16-year-old was beyond frightened.
But before he sat her down to tell her exactly was going on, he stopped at an American Indian art store near the hospital and bought a bracelet for each of them. Then, he broke the news.
“I talked with her about everything and nothing. I talked with her about the wind and about feathers and I talked with her about cancer. We talked about the word ‘brave.’ We held each other very tight for a very long time. I’m pretty sure we both cried, and we promised each other that no matter what, we would be brave; together we would get through this.”
Tom lovingly put Shayla’s bracelet on her wrist, then put on his. He made her a promise.
“That I would wear my bracelet until the day she was cancer free. That for every single night she had to stay in the hospital I would stay with her. That as long as she stayed brave, so would I.”
For the next couple of years, the two of them spent hundreds upon hundreds of nights together in the hospital and just as many hours in the chemotherapy clinic. Shayla endured a battery of tests, blood transfusions, radiation, massive doses of nauseating medication and even heart failure shortly after the chemo treatments began.
“…her poor little heart quit working, so they had to install a pacemaker/defibrillator into her chest.”
He held her hair back while she threw up. He held her hand when her hair fell out.
They cussed. They cried. They laughed. They tried to stay brave.
One day on the way to chemotherapy, Shayla was walking to the car when she began screaming. Tom didn’t know what to do!
“Help me Dad! IT’S SHOCKING ME! …IT’S SHOCKING ME!”
Shayla’s pacemaker/defibrillator installed to keep her heart rhythms correct began to malfunction and was jolting her with electricity. He grabbed a hold of her and held on tight, even though the malfunctioning device almost blew her out of his arms, he wrote.
“But I refused to let go. I just held her as tightly as I could and just like that. it stopped shocking her as quickly as it had started, and we rushed to the hospital. It turns out the manufacturer of this device had to recall thousands of them like brakes on a Chevy.”
Shayla endured a replacement surgery, a failed bone marrow transplant and even more procedures until one day, they were told there was nothing more the doctors could do. Tom was at a loss.
“How in the world was I supposed to have this conversation with my darling daughter? How in the world was I going to be brave enough to tell my daughter she was going to die? … I knew I had to be brave for HER! I did of course have that conversation with her, and as unbelievable as this may sound it turned out to be the most amazing, beautiful, magical, wonderful conversation I’ve ever had in my entire life, and one that I hope you NEVER EVER have to have…”
When Tom stopped speaking, Shayla whispered to her dad, “Am I still brave Dad?” He looked deeply into her eyes and noticed how worn out she was having fought for her life for so long.
That’s when he realized she hadn’t been bravely fighting for herself. She’d been brave for him.
A few days later, Shayla passed away. One thing Tom knows is that she fought hard, she fought valiantly, she fought bravely.