Living Proof

October 27, 1994|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Sun Staff Writer

If Elizabeth Edsall has a greater appreciation for life than many girls her age, it's because she knows how easily it can be taken away.

And if the Severn School junior remains a strong advocate of teamwork, it's because she has been warmed by the comfort and security that comes from not dealing with a crisis alone.

Edsall, 16, doesn't want to be treated differently from anyone else. But her battle with cancer as a young child separates her from most athletes.

No matter how many games her field hockey team wins, they won't match her single greatest triumph.

When she was 3, Elizabeth surprised the doctors who said she probably wouldn't live through the week, and if she did, might suffer heart and liver damage. And she proved wrong those who thought she would lack the strength and endurance to play sports.

Edsall is an honor student and a starting sweeper at Severn. She is part of a defensive unit that has shut out nine opponents. And she is a bundle of energy, helping to organize homecoming festivities and food drives.

Her asthma, which doctors aren't sure was caused by her illness, is controlled with an inhaler. She goes to Johns Hopkins Hospital once a year, though Dr. Peter Rowe, an intern when Elizabeth was first diagnosed, says, "We count her as cured."

And her parents count their blessings each time they watch Elizabeth at one of Severn's games.

This is the way Doug and Peggy Edsall imagined their daughter would be. Cancer never was a part of the equation.

'It's not possible . . .'

The disease certainly wasn't on their minds the morning they loaded the car and took their three children, including sons Doug and Chris, to the beach. Everything seemed fine until that night, when a little girl who had just passed her 3-year-old checkup started to hemorrhage as she was about to take her bath.

From there, the Edsalls' lives wouldn't be the same. "It just didn't make any sense," Peggy said.

Elizabeth was rushed to her pediatrician in Annapolis, who felt a mass on her kidney. She then went to Johns Hopkins, where further examinations showed a Wilms' Tumor, a form of cancer that is one of the most curable if caught in time. But Elizabeth was at Stage 4, "and there are only five stages," Peggy said.

Fifteen malignant tumors were discovered in her lungs, and doctors told the Edsalls they would operate on Monday to remove the kidney, then begin radiation and chemotherapy treatments. They would do the best they could. No promises.

"I went into denial immediately," Peggy said. "I kept saying, 'They're crazy. It's not possible for a child to be so active and have a wonderful appetite and be so in sync with life, and suddenly being told she may not live through the week.' "

"I was more of a basket case than my wife," said Dr. Edsall, a professor of geology at the Naval Academy. "All I ever wanted was a daughter. When they gave the prognosis, it was extremely difficult."

Elizabeth underwent radiation for several weeks, and chemotherapy for almost 18 months. She also was subjected to two lung exploratories before her fifth birthday.

"I recall a lot of it because I was in a lot of pain and I was really sick," Elizabeth said, "but I also remember a lot of happy times because I had a lot of friends in the clinic."

It took awhile for Elizabeth to regain her coordination. She fell down the stairs in her house a couple of times and had difficulty putting one foot in front of the other. But her motor skills gradually returned.

Driven to excel

"You'd never know by looking at her or watching her play that she had been sick," said Severn goalkeeper Jill Stursa. "It's kind of startling when you first hear about it."

"She is a person with a great deal of drive," Rowe said, "and she hasn't let the residual disability in her lungs limit her efforts to participate in sports and other activities."

It didn't stop her from being awarded a scholarship to a field hockey camp at St. Paul's School for Girls during trials there earlier this month. Or being named an alternate to another camp in Lancaster, Pa.

"She's been playing great," said Severn coach Amy McConnell. "Many times, it's come down to the front line of the other team and her, and she's been able to stop the ball. The whole defense works well together."

That's what is most important to Elizabeth. The teamwork. Everyone being viewed the same, no matter their level of skill or medical history.

"We don't really talk about [the cancer] because it isn't a big deal," she said. "It's not anything that should make me any different."

Humble beginnings

When she entered middle school at Severn, she wanted to try every sport. But she couldn't even run two laps around the football field.

"I felt really down," she said, "but then I said, 'I've come this far and I have to do it because I want to do it.' I decided I wasn't going to let what happened to me affect me."

She eventually worked herself into condition, "and now I'm part of a wonderful team. I'm the happiest I've ever been," she said.

And she is dedicating a large portion of her life to making others happy. Her visits to Hopkins are made, in part, to offer "positive reinforcement" to the children who are fighting their own battles. And she eventually wants to become a doctor like her role model, Brigid Leventhal, the director of pediatric oncology at Hopkins during Elizabeth's ordeal.

Leventhal died of cancer last February, and Elizabeth says she now is more determined to make a difference in the world through medicine.

"She was everything," Elizabeth said. "She cared so much for what she did and she had a love for her job. I want that."

After what she has overcome, could anything possibly stop her?

"She's a Hopkins miracle," Peggy said. "And absolutely perfect. She's a child parents just dream about."

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