Thursday, December 22, 2005
There are miracles—like 13-year-old Haley Baxter surviving a six-pound malignant ovarian tumor and returning to captain the Salinas Christian School cheerleaders in under nine months. Then there are miracles—like seven full-grown women voluntarily shaving off all of their hair.
“I’ve never even heard any kind of situation that had this outpouring of love,” says Libby Baxter, Haley’s mother and one of the women who went bald. “I was amazed six other women were willing to shave their heads for my child.”
Rachel Failano, a registered nurse at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital along with both of Haley’s parents, came up with the idea. An ovarian cancer survivor herself, she knew Haley’s hair would fall out after chemotherapy. So along with a team of SVMHS staff, she gathered volunteers to give Haley some very visible support—and collect pledges for each brand-new buzz cut to help offset the Baxters’ mounting medical bills. The final goal was $1,000.
A surge of support from the SVMHS’s extended family, however, netted 20 volunteers and over $11,000.
It wasn’t the only time a group rallied around the unblinkingly brave young girl with freckles.
“The day I went into surgery at Stanford [last January],” Haley says, “the whole school went to church and specifically prayed for me.”
It was the first of two surgeries to remove the tumor (described by Haley as the size of “a stretched out volleyball”) that her pediatrician, Dr. William G. Koehne, first thought was a lymphoma when he discovered it during a visit. He called for further tests and X-rays that day at Memorial Hospital, which led to Haley’s immediate transfer to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford Medical Center.
“She was facing a very ominous situation with an extremely large tumor,” says Dr. Koehne, “It was a risky proposition just in terms of the surgical incision, an extensive and precise procedure. And the tumor involved many organs of her lower abdomen.”
When Haley arrived at Stanford, she had to undergo several days of treatment just to ward off looming acute renal failure so she could have thesurgery.
Then came the chemo.
“The second obstacle was very intense [chemotherapy treatments] carried out over the process of months,” says Koehne. “During all that she was very courageous and had an unbelievable amount of support.”
Her mother still shakes her head at her daughter’s poise.
“She handled it all much better than me,” she says.
For her part, Haley concedes that she wasn’t always the portrait of poise.
“Sometimes at home or on the way to the hospital, I just kept my crying hidden,” she recalls, “and cried small.”
Ultimately, though, the four rounds of three different types of chemo (and a second surgery) took away more than just hair—they took away remnants of the once-massive growth. In addition to her doctors and friends, Haley credits her faith for granting her strength to survive.
“I just knew I would get through,” she says with a steady look that belies her years. “I kept praying. I kept my faith in God.”
Now it’s something she gets to share.
“People will call me,” says Libby, “and say ‘A friend’s son is getting diagnosed. Do you think Haley could talk to him?’ Haley has this huge heart and is such a loving kid. We’re finding that there’s a plan for her.”
Haley says she knows what to tell those kids. “If it isn’t good,” she says calmly, “keep the faith.”