Merry Christmas and a Modern-Day Holiday Miracle Comes Early!

Happy Holidays!

May your days be merry and bright!


So, I’d planned on doing another cute and quick “Weekly Inspiration” this week, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas with something inspiring for the holiday season and the upcoming new year…that was until Sunday afternoon.  I know I say this a lot, but God really does have a good sense of humor.  He knows me too well and just when I think I have things all figured out, the bag packed and I’m on my way, He reminds me who’s really in charge by turning it all upside down and backwards…humbling, but a good reminder!  Anyway, I had this “thing” happen on Sunday afternoon that unraveled those plans and a lot more.  I don’t even really know what to call it without sounding “woo woo” about the whole thing, and, I assure you, there is nothing “woo woo” about it at all.  It was very tangible and very real.  I think, by the time you get to the end of this, you’ll agree what happened is quite amazing and not “woo woo” at all.  So here goes…

I have to begin by circling back for a moment, so those who know this, bare with me for a sec.  I don’t mean to say this a million times for those who’ve heard it before but I have to mention it again because it’s important to the story.  For those who don’t know or are just joining us, my younger sister, Lauren, died quite suddenly when we were in college.  She was a freshman and I was a junior at the University of Georgia and one day she was a healthy, vibrant 18 year old athlete who’d just finished her fall exams and the next she was gone before the doctors could even figure out what was wrong.  We learned later that she died of meningococcal (bacterial) meningitis (GET YOUR KIDS VACCINATED!) and was “sick” less than 14 hours.  She made brownies, went to bed and was dead by 2p the next day.  There’s obviously more to that story, much more, and it’s part of the upcoming book, but my point in telling you all this is to “set the stage”, so to speak, and give the context for what happened last Sunday.

As I said in my last posting, with my two-year post-transplant scan behind me (Yippie!!!) and my stellar, blessed results, I officially graduated from the Bone Marrow Group.  On Monday Neil and I had our final visit with my transplant doctor (I’m a sucker these days for anyone who will tell me how healthy and healed I am…:)) to go over a few things, discuss any questions I had moving forward and, basically, just get a high-five for a job well done for everyone involved.  Everything went wonderfully well and I marveled aloud to Neil what a different experience this last visit was from the first, over two and a half years ago.  I think I saw a nervous twitch from Neil out of the corner of my eye when I brought up the first visit (I write about that in the book too–a story all it’s own!) but I can’t be sure.  Let’s just say that the “tone” of the first visit, compared to this one, was a polar opposite.  I went on to say that never in my wildest dreams in the beginning could I have anticipated being where I am now.  At the time I would have just been happy to have all my limbs still attached when it was over and just survive at all, given the odds we were facing, let alone being totally healed and thriving on the back end…but, then again, a lot has changed since then on every level.

That said, what I didn’t expect was my doctor’s response to a question I asked about the actual statistics that I faced with my diagnosis when I first came to him.  I’d been concerned since the airing of the TV shows (NBC’s Atlanta & Company bit.ly/awJSIR and XFINITY’s Conn TV http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy2j4BPTUHU) about the comment of my having “less than a 1% chance of survival” because I realized I didn’t really know for sure and, up until this point, I hadn’t wanted to know.  There is so little data on the type of cancer I was diagnosed with — as in, I was the 4th of 5 patients to receive this treatment and, to my knowledge, 4 of the 5 are “doing well”, where others who receive the “standard” protocol did not survive past 2-5 years of their diagnosis…thus the “You do know what this means, don’t you?” comment from the specialist at MD Anderson.  On some level she was right; they were “experts” in this and had only seen 20-something people with this rare type of cancer since the 1970s, none of whom had “done well”.  And yet she was wrong.  There was another option, one she didn’t know about, the one that helped save my life.

Anyway, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting anything or shining the spotlight on something that wasn’t 100% true.  However, we all seem to love numbers, and if that’s what gets people to see the magnitude of the miracle we witnessed, then so be it…but I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight.  I knew that my transplant doc was the only one who could answer this question, given that all the other doctors I have spoken with or been treated by are quick to confess that they know nothing about it.  If I had a dollar for every time someone said “Well, we just don’t know…it’s so rare…”…I’d be Oprah rich!), so I took the opportunity to ask him.   I told my doctor that I recognized the irony of asking this question on my last visit when most patients want to know this on their first but that I hadn’t wanted to know it at the time.  I knew it was bad, that the odds were stacked against me.  I didn’t need anyone to further explain the direness of the situation or what I was up against.  I made the decision from the beginning to shield myself from all of that, by choice and not denial.  As I said, we’re hardwired for numbers and I didn’t want any of that in my head.  I went on tell him that in recent months I’ve been asked this question, “What were the odds?”  And now, now that it was over and I was moving forward in my life and starting to help others by sharing my story more,  I was finally in a place where I did want to know, even needed to know and felt OK with it.  He answered my question by saying, “Well, you can’t ever say 0%………….But given the type of cancer you were diagnosed with, its aggressive nature and the advanced state it was in, it would not be unfair to say that we didn’t……… expect you to do as well as you did.”  I, of course, always had a sense of that, no one blew any smoke or tried to pretend otherwise, but to hear it, to know that no one expected me to survive this was something altogether different.  And I have to tell you, I left with my chest a little puffed out, knowing that, not only did I have the answer to my question and didn’t have to amend or retract my statement from TV, but we’d just gotten more confirmation of the miracle that occurred, the miracle that no one expected.

Neil, Me and Dr. Bashey on my LAST visit with the Bone Marrow Group!!

And, if graduating from the bone marrow group wasn’t wonderful enough, listen to this! (And this gets us back to my original story…little detour there but it all ties together, I promise.)  So, on Sunday Neil and I were doing our usual Sunday morning thing and were about to get ready to go to church.  We go to Buckhead Church here in Atlanta and we’d gotten an email that week about the increased numbers of attendees due to the holiday, New Year’s resolutions and such, asking us all to try and go to the early or late services, instead of the regular afternoon one, in order to have open seats for the increased number of visitors and make them feel more welcome.  Given that we’d already missed the early service and we had plans during the evening one, we decided just to stay home on this particular Sunday and watch it on the computer.  They put all the messages on their website a day or so after they “air” and have a large archive of messages you can watch.  This has come in especially handy when we are traveling or at the beach and can’t go in person…very convenient!  There was a talk on gratitude called “I Owe Who?” that I really wanted to see anyway, so we decided to give our seats to the visitors and watch it on our couch instead.  Well, it was, once again, an amazing message, so much so that one particular verse prompted me to pause the message mid-way through and get up to go get my Bible.  Now I have to be honest here to do justice to this story and tell you that I hadn’t pulled out this particular Bible in over a year.  To not sound like a total heathen, I do read the Bible, but often read it from Neil’s copy (he’s much better about it than I am), on our iPad or on the screen at church where they put it up during the message.  The point is, I hadn’t opened this specific Bible in quite some time but I was “moved” to on this particular day.  As I flipped to the back to underline and flag the scripture Andy, our pastor, had talked about, I came across something that made my heart stop and my breath leave me.  About 100 pages from the scripture I’d looked up was a card from my sister Lauren.  I vaguely remembered putting it there after I’d stumbled across it six or eight months ago when I was looking for something else in our basement.  I’m not a “keeper of things” but, for obvious reasons, I have things of Lauren’s that I’ve kept through the years.  That day, several months ago, I was looking for a reference book from Physician Assistant school to look up a medical question a friend had asked me about.  In my search I opened a container and again my heart had stopped.  Sitting on top of her neatly folded high school letter jacket was a card that had my name on it.  I recognized her writing instantly and my heart leapt and stopped in the same breath.   Even still, after all these years there was a moment when rational reality was suspended for a few precious seconds and I thought, “Could it be…?”  It was as if she’d put it there for me to find, even led me to it, giving me a gift in the only way she could give me one now.  I’m sure I put it there at some point, although I have no memory of it, when I was packing her things away years before.  As I looked at the card I was both scared and anxious at the same time to open it.  Would it upset me?   What did it say?  I lifted the previously opened flap of the envelope and slid the card out.  As I stood there in the basement and read over the words, tears began to stream down my face.  I’d been having a tough time, dragged behind the crazy train of hormones and having a little pity party that even though I jabbed myself in the hiney every ten days with a hormone shot, I still felt terrible and it didn’t seem to be getting any better.  I seemed to be at a crossroads too, with the treatments ended, but still piecing my life back together, I didn’t know which way to go next, and the hormones weren’t helping.  When I read her words, I felt air in my lungs again, felt the clouds part over my pity party and a glimmer of light start to shine again off in the distance.  I sank to my knees in gratitude for the gift of her words and for speaking to me in the only way she could.  You could explain it a million ways, chalk it up to coincidence or luck, but in those moments you couldn’t have told me any different.  It’s one of those moments when you know, that you know, that you know.  If you’ve ever had one of those experiences, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If not, then trust me on this one, it’s very real.

As I said, I vaguely remember taking the card after that incident and putting it in my Bible, although if you’d asked me the day before, the minute before, I found it again last Sunday where it was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you and it would’ve taken me a moment to even recall the prior incident in the basement at all.  But here it was again, her card.  So once again I opened it, slid the card out and read it, trying to remember before I opened it what it said, what occasion she’d originally given it to me for.  I would have guessed a birthday prior to reading it this distant second time, but it wasn’t.  Here’s what it said:

Lauren gave me this card for my high school graduation.  She was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school at the time (as evidenced by her cute note at the bottom of the card).  I graduated from high school in 1994 and yet she used it, God used it, to speak to me over a decade later.  She died 3 years after she gave this card to me.  I “found” and reread it over 13 years after she died and then again THE DAY before I “graduated” from the Bone Marrow Group.  Is your hair standing up????  Mine was.  So if you ever wonder if there are Angels among us, I am here to tell you I’ve caught a glimpse of them in seen and unseen ways, in the nurses on the Bone Marrow Unit of Northside Hospital, in the ways that Lauren still speaks to me that are absolutely unexplainable and in two people, who, on opposite sides of the planet –one a missionary in India and other a preacher’s wife I worked with here in Atlanta– both spoke the same exact words shortly after I was diagnosed, both saying, “This is not the end, it is simply a way for you to move closer to God.”  I was so desperate at the time, I so wanted to believe that, I so hoped that they were right, but I didn’t know.  It didn’t seem possible.  But I hoped and I clung to that with all my might.  Hope is a magical thing.  When you lose hope, you lose everything.  I saw the look in people’s eyes who had lost hope in the bone marrow unit and it’s a look you never forget.  And that’s what I want to do, give people hope.  Even if it’s just to say that miracles are possible, that right here, right now, modern-day miracles are happening…that their work situation, their marriage, their grief, their anger, their fear, their brokenness, their guilt, their health, whatever it is, can turn around, can get better and even lead them to a life they never could have imagined…that, that is what I want to do.

We all find ourselves broken at some point, we all struggle with something.  Suffering is suffering and I want people to know that there is help beyond anything we’ve been taught, patiently waiting to be asked for the help we desperately seek.  We, after all, have free will.  So if you take nothing else from this, please take this:  Ask for help when you need it.  Even if you think you’re talking to the air, ask for what you need and then open yourself up to look for the response.  It may not come right away, but it might.  Ask for it to be clear and kind.  Ask for your heart’s desire and dare to trust that anything is possible, even if it seems silly or just on a whim.  The silence won’t tell on you and you might just get the answer, the insight, the help or the nudge you’ve been seeking.  But I’m not here to tell you what to believe, we each must decide for ourselves what it true and right.  You can think I’m crazy or chalk the story above up to that, just a story or, at the very least, a very interesting “coincidence”.  All I know and can speak of is what has been my experience, what has happened to me and what I believe.  And I believe, for the reasons above, and a million more, that, despite what it looks like, that Something beautiful is happening…™ and I know, beyond all doubt, that there are Angels among us and a larger hand is at work on all of this, patiently waiting for us to ask.  And that the silence speaks, all the time, if only we would listen.

I hope that you all have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah or whichever holiday you celebrate this time of year.  Neil and I have decided to stay in town and celebrate the holiday this year by feeding the homeless.  We’ve been so blessed and it feels right to give back and serve those who are not as fortunate.  My family and I did this the first Christmas after Lauren died because we just couldn’t bear to “celebrate” much of anything that year.  It was a wonderful experience, mercifully shifting our focus off of our own suffering by relieving someone else’s for a little while, even if only in a small way.  This year we have much to celebrate and we find ourselves in a constant state of gratitude and joy for all we have, all that has occurred and so much more.  We are blessed beyond words and want to be good stewards of the favor that has been showered down upon us.  My entire existence now centers around this one thought, “How may I serve?”

May you all be blessed.  Have a wonderful holiday.

With so much love,

Alyssa

I know the holidays are a busy time of year and that this is already long, but I’ve put the links to two of my recent “mini-postings” that I hope you’ll take a look at when you have a minute:

“We Phillips’ are Tough!”

Weekly Inspiration: Stretch yourself…I double-dog dare you!

And, as one of my friends says, “all typos are intentional” :)

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