For her school project, 16-year-old Lavinia Epps from Tulsa, Oklahoma chose to write a book about bone marrow transplants. It's not the easiest topic for a high schooler to tackle, but Epps has plenty of real life experience to rely on for inspiration. In August 2004, she received a bone marrow transplant at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. "When my book is completed, maybe you'll see me on Oprah," says Epps, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in September 2003. Originally treated at the University of New Mexico, Epps' cancer returned so she came to UCSF for her transplant.
In between hospital visits, Epps stayed in Brentwood, Calif. with her aunt, Lavinia Whalley. Despite being with family, it was tough for Epps to be so far away from home. "I was really sad that I didn't have any friends in San Francisco," says Epps. "But I became especially close with a lot of my nurses and patient care assistants. I loved the nurses, especially when they came in just to talk."
Epps still keeps in touch with a few of the nurses who used to stop in and chat with her regularly. "Mostly we just talked about how much we loved country singer Tim McGraw," says Epps. Her team of doctors — Dr. Mort Cowan, Dr. Biljana Horn and Dr. Elizabeth Robbins 7mdash; also did an incredible job of making sure she was comfortable. "The care Lavinia received from the doctors was extraordinary," says her aunt. "They were always able to fit us into their busy schedules."
Epps underwent an autologous transplant, in which she received her own bone marrow that was collected and frozen before she endured three high doses of chemotherapy. For each round of chemotherapy, Epps had to stay in the hospital for five days. "My spirits were really low during treatments," says Epps. "But once they were over, I realized they weren't as bad as I claimed them to be. I had to remember that it only goes up from here."
Epps said that being sick and undergoing a transplant at such an early age has taught her a lot. "I became much more aware of what's going on around me in the world that I normally didnt realize," says Epps. "Like I used to think that cancer was something that you only saw on TV. It happens to other people but not to you."
Now Epps is back home in Tulsa, enjoying the life of a typical teenager 7mdash; hanging out with friends, looking for a job and shopping. In fact, Epps recently went on a $3,500 shopping spree courtesy of the Make-A-Wish foundation, a non-profit organization that funds wishes for kids and teenagers with life-threatening illnesses.
A limousine chauffeured Epps to the mall where she bought clothes and CDs, and picked out gifts for her sister and her best friend. She also grabbed a few things for a young woman at her church whom she had never met. Like the nurses who looked after her, Epps knew this woman needed some comfort. "I had never met her before but it just felt good to be able to help someone else," says Epps.
Story written in April 2005.
Abby Sinnott is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.
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