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A Tale of Two Heroes
All grandparent-grandchild relationships are special. But the bond between Lauryn Walls and her grandfather, Tom Rushworth, is unusually strong.
Their remarkable story began on January 8, 2008, when Lauryn's mom, Dea, took her to Dr. Susan Jacob at St.Vincent Carmel Hospital for persistent chest pain. Lauryn was only four years old at the time.
Noting Lauryn's poor color and enlarged spleen, Dr. Jacob recommended that Lauryn be taken to Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent. There, Lauryn was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.
"I was devastated and overwhelmed," Dea said. But those feelings were quickly replaced by a steely resolve. "I told my family, 'We're not giving up.'"
Two days after the diagnosis, Lauryn began two and a half years of chemotherapy. "It's standard to treat young, female leukemia patients for more than two years to reduce their risk of recurrence," said Jessica Goodman, M.D., pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent.
The treatment was successful, but Lauryn, now nine years old, isn't out of the woods yet. "Hopefully, she's cured, but I can't say yet," Dr. Goodman said. "When she reaches five years after treatment without recurrence, I would say she's cured."
The Race of His Life
During Lauryn's treatment, Dea became involved with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team In Training a program in which athletes train participants for endurance events to raise money for blood cancer research.
Dea completed a marathon and a triathlon, and became a coach for Team In Training. In January 2010, Lauryn's grandfather, Tom, then 60, accompanied Dea to a Team In Training meeting about the Elkhart Lake Triathlon Olympic event in Wisconsin. By the end of the meeting, Tom who didn't own a bike and hadn't swum regularly since childhood decided to compete in the grueling swimming, biking and running event.
When race day arrived, Tom knew something wasn't right. He struggled with a headache, and had difficulty breathing during the nearly one-mile swim. Soon into the bike ride, his headache worsened, his neck stiffened and his vision blurred. "My coach met me at the top of a hill with an ambulance and emergency medical technicians and told me I was finished," Tom recalled. "But I said, 'There's no way I'm stopping.'"
Dea and several teammates joined Tom in walking the 6.2-mile running portion. One hundred yards from the finish line, Lauryn spotted her grandfather, and ran toward him. Undeterred by his condition, Tom lifted her into his arms, and carried her across the finish line.
Strong of Heart
Tom didn't seek medical attention until the following day, when he went to the Emergency Department at St.Vincent Carmel Hospital. There, he was diagnosed with an aortic dissection a tear in the artery that carries blood out of the heart and was transferred to St.Vincent Heart Center of Indiana for surgery.
"Aortic dissection is one of the most painful conditions one can have," said Robert Robison, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at St.Vincent Heart Center of Indiana. "Tom told me he was embarrassed by his finishing time in the triathlon, and I said, 'You're the only one who competed with a torn aorta!'"
After six weeks of cardiac rehabilitation at St.Vincent Heart Center of Indiana, Tom made a successful recovery. Like Dea, he's thankful for the care that saved both his life and his granddaughter's life.
Join Tom, Lauryn and hundreds of more walkers at the St.Vincent Cancer Walk on Saturday, September 21st. Register today at www.StVincentCancerWalk.org