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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital
At the Forefront of Kids' Medicine

With Brave Wings She Flies

Rachael Elliott was getting ready to spread her wings. Cancer nearly grounded her.

The 18-year-old from Leaf River, Ill., was attending community college with plans to transfer to a four-year college and become a teacher. But while working as a cashier at a Farm and Fleet store during the 2012 Christmas season, Elliott passed out. She also started feeling more and more tired, but blamed it on holiday stress and studying for finals.

A few days later, Elliott — who almost never stayed home ill — looked at her mother and said, “I don’t feel well enough to go to school.” After nearly fainting at an immediate care center, she was brought by ambulance to Swedish American Hospital in Rockford, Ill.

Hematologist/oncologist Harvey Einhorn, MD, gave her the news: “You have a type of leukemia, but you are going to get better.“ The diagnosis was acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer that is highly curable in children and young adults. Elliott recalls the moment as “upsetting, but also encouraging, because I got reassurance right away.”

Einhorn referred her to the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital.  

“Teens and young adults have different needs than children and older adults who have cancer,” said Elliott’s physician Jennifer McNeer, MD, a member of the AYA care team. “Rachael’s life was just taking off. We didn’t want her putting it completely on hold during treatment.”

Comer Children’s is more than a two-hour drive from Leaf River. So McNeer asked Einhorn to take care of some of Elliott’s infusion sessions in his Rockford clinic. She could attend school when she felt up to it. 

After the first four weeks of chemotherapy, the leukemia went into remission – a good predictor of a positive outcome. Even so, the side effects of treatment led to several hospitalizations at Comer Children’s, including 10 days in the intensive care unit. “It was tough,” Elliott said, “but also amazing to see how strong my body was.” She decided not to work or attend school for 12 months, calling it her “gap year, a little late.”

Elliott went back to school, earning her associates degree in May 2015 — the same month she finished treatment. She transferred to Grace College in Warsaw, Ind., and will graduate this year. She wants to teach English in middle or high school. 

Today, Elliott, 22, closes her emails and text messages with a distinct signature: “With brave wings she flies.” It comes from a poem she found on Pinterest, a website she spent many hours visiting while undergoing treatment. 

With brave wings

She flies

Over the cliffs of wonder,

Into the abyss of surprise.

 

She doesn’t know what’s coming next,

And I think that’s for the best,

Her courage and her heart

Will get her through the rest.

 

“The words really spoke to me back then,” she said. “I had a sense that I could do this.”