Three young girls find friendship as they fight together
Written by Teri Flash • Photos by Legacy Photography
Eleven years ago, some friends with a common interest in tennis and a passion of doing good for others decided to start a tennis tournament to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. The Northwest Louisiana St. Jude Classic was created! This year, the 11th Annual Northwest Louisiana St. Jude Classic was hosted by Southern Trace Country Club on the weekend of September 13-16. With the help of many generous sponsors, 290 players and 50+ volunteers, last year’s record-setting fundraising of $56,500 pushed the event’s 11-year total net donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to $365,585!
All of the net proceeds of the tennis tournament benefit the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Their mission — to find cures and means of prevention for children with catastrophic diseases through research and treatment — is a constant driving force. It is through the pursuit of that mission that they seize every opportunity to help the children who go to St. Jude for care and, in so doing, create new knowledge that will help children throughout the world. Consistent with the vision of the founder Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion, or a family’s ability to pay.
The tournament kicked off the fundraising fun on Thursday night at the Calcutta Auction. Each year, the tournament committee honors a prince or princess who has successfully completed treatment at St. Jude. This year, it was a blessing to honor three adorable princesses, Della Montelbano, Avery Ella Buhl, and Abigail Hinkie, who are best friends and were diagnosed within 4 months of each other. They are 9 and 10 years old and went all the way through treatment together. In the most amazing and inspiring part of the evening, Heather Burchett (Della Montelbano’s sweet mother!) spoke at the Calcutta and told their heart tugging story, leaving not a dry eye in the room.
Della Montelbano was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia B-Cell in March 2015 at the age of 5. Her mom Heather picked Della up from day care the day before, and she was complaining of a headache and a sore throat. She had been sick with this same cold it seemed for about 2 months. She called and got an appointment scheduled with her pediatrician Dr. Gene Mack later that afternoon. When they got to the pediatrician’s office, Della was very sick and running a temperature of 103. They performed labs, and then Dr. Mack came into the room and looked at her, saying her throat was fine, but her ears looked infected. Then he looked at the labs and his whole face changed. His first thought was that they had done something wrong because the numbers seemed so off. He recommended more labs be drawn. Dr. Mack began asking about the bruising on her legs. Her mom said, “She is 5 and likes to play!”
He also noticed that she was pale, which is not uncommon when a child does not feel well. Dr. Mack pulled Heather out of the room and said the words that no parent should ever have to hear. “I think your daughter has Leukemia, and we are sending you to a blood specialist.” Heather’s heart stopped and jaw dropped. They went straight to the St. Jude affiliate clinic at Feist-Weiller Cancer Center. Nurse Nicole, who became like family, began an IV and drew more labs. It was scary how low her platelets were, and her immune system was at zero. Her mom was in full panic mode. “How are we going to handle this? How am I going to pay for this? How is this happening?”
Then, this charming man walked in with a most genuine and sweet face. He introduced himself as Dr. Jeroudi, and he explained that Della did have Leukemia, but not to worry because she was going to St. Jude. The good news is that St. Jude covers all the costs! They take care of all the medical bills, supplies, housing, and food while you are there. He emphasized that this road would be long, and it would not be easy, but there is a 94% cure rate. It would be a 2 ½ year long process broken down into three phases. The first phase would be living in Memphis for two months, the second phase would be traveling back-and-forth from Memphis for next two months or so, and the third phase would be given in Shreveport with some travel to Memphis. In the third, she would be getting weekly chemo treatments at the local affiliate clinic for the next 120 weeks.
As soon as the family arrived in Memphis, Della was scheduled for her first surgery and chemo injection. She received a bone marrow biopsy, spinal tap with chemo injection, and had a port inserted to make blood draws and chemo treatments easier for the patient. Della was so sick with pneumonia and rhinovirus that she was put in isolation for 6 weeks. After that, Della was finally able to experience St. Jude as all the other patients did. Her mom described St. Jude as a magical place made for kids to be kids. It is normal to see beautiful bald heads and kids with masks, wheelchairs or walking sticks, amputated legs or arms, access ports, or IV poles enjoying arts, crafts, bingo night, and all kinds of events that they finally were able to participate in.
Avery Ella Buhl was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia B-Cell in April 2015. Her story is eerily similar to Della’s. Avery Ella just couldn’t seem to shake this cold. She kept running fever and running fever over a long period of time, so Avery Ella’s mom took her to the pediatrician, who coincidentally was Dr. Gene Mack. He ran blood work, sent them to Dr. Jeroudi, and after being diagnosed, she was sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The day after Avery Ella arrived, the girls got word that they were both at St. Jude and were able to get together and visit! They immediately hugged each other and were so happy to see each other. Della had been so lonely for the first few weeks from being in isolation. Avery Ella said to Della, “I get to have my port put in tomorrow.” Della pulled down her shirt and said, “This is what it looks like. They have to stick a needle in it to get blood and give chemo.” Della and AE also started talking about the medicines and how nasty the liquid medicine is. AE said, “Yeah I’m taking pills so far, and it’s not too bad.” It was a great feeling to have someone to lean on that knew exactly how they were feeling and vice versa. Avery Ella had a hard journey during phase one. She was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia B-cell low risk, but after phase one, she was moved to high risk due to the amount of cancer cells still in her bone marrow.
Abigail Hinkie was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia T-Cell in June 2015. Abby’s family had been in a car wreck, and Abby was complaining of a sore knee, so they took her in to see her pediatrician. Her pediatrician did some lab work, and they immediately sent Abby over to Feist-Weiller Cancer Center. That night, she was airlifted over to St. Jude in Memphis. Abby was diagnosed with ALL leukemia T-cell high risk. Abby was very sick when she was first diagnosed. She did not get her port placement until about two weeks into her treatment process. Instead, she had a different kind of mechanism put in called a Hickman line. Basically, it is just a different way for them to administer the medicine and get blood from her. She was too sick to go under anesthesia.
All three girls were put on the same research protocol (ALL leukemia protocol 16), broken down into B-cell or T-cell low risk, standard risk, or high-risk, which determined the type of chemo and steroid that went along with their treatment plan. Each girl got a different chemo and steroid that they had to take based on the research trial. In 1962, when St. Jude opened, there was only a 4% cure rate for children diagnosed with leukemia, but because of the dedication to finding a cure and continued support for childhood cancer, there is now a 94% cure rate! These girls were on protocol 16, and 1½ years into their treatment, St. Jude rolled out protocol 17. These 3 precious girls’ fight, pain, hurt, and sickness all goes to finally finding a cure.
These three girls have spent the last three years doing homebound studies, and celebrating every birthday and holiday in a chemo clinic. They would go visit each other if one was in the hospital. St. Jude gave these girls hope and friendship beyond belief. They had someone to talk to about the pain or how scared they were. They would ask each other things like, “Have you had this procedure yet?” “Have you ever had this done?” “ I have to get my bone marrow test done tomorrow. How do you feel when you wake up from anesthesia?” “I don’t like getting my port accessed. What do you feel about that?” These are conversations that 8 and 9 year-olds shouldn’t be having, but these girls were. Della, Abby, and Avery Ella are strong, brave, and fierce little girls that just knew they were sick and had to do what the doctor and nurses said to do to survive. “The triplets,” as the girls were nicknamed by their oncologist, will be lifelong friends. Now, all 3 girls are cancer free and look forward to a bright future. Because of St. Jude, they had each other, and they had hope. Thanks to St. Jude, they have a CURE!
Della is now a 9 year old cancer survivor with a lively spirit who loves art, crafts, and, most of all, her best friends! Avery Ella is a 9 year old cancer survivor who lives in a fantastical world of fairies and imagination where anything is possible. Abby is a 10 year old cancer survivor who loves gymnastics, going on adventures, and, most of all, her family.
GRAND TOTAL DONATED TO ST. JUDE from 2008-2018: $365,585
The Northwest Louisiana St. Jude Classic is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization. Donations are tax deductible under our EIN #47-4926892. Northwest Louisiana St. Jude Classic Co-Chairmen are Teri Flash & Edmund Brown. For more information contact 318.393.0006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.