A Dream Undeferred

October 22, 1995|By Allegra Bennett

The long, lean young woman bounded down the aisle of the auditorium at Southwestern High School and came to a stop at the foot of the stage. She wore a cover-girl smile, slim blue jeans and a fashionable bolero blouse that tied at the waist to reveal a midriff interrupted by an eye-arresting scar.

She waited to introduce herself to a guest speaker who moments earlier had finished a talk to an all-girl assembly on the importance of focus and setting goals in one's life. She was an enthusiastic young woman with dark, flawless skin and eyes that possessed the kind of clarity and sparkle that Mother Nature seems to reserve for the young and innocent.

"I'm Kathy Wade," she said, clasping her palms together in front of her chest in a shy, schoolgirl sort of way. "I was really encouraged by what you had to say. I'm focusing on being a super model. I'm doing a lot of modeling now and one day I'm going to own my own modeling agency."

Her confident assertions had the ring of an oft-repeated personal mantra and you did not doubt her claims.

The guest speaker quickly realized she was in the company of, yes, a bubbly, optimistic 17-year-old, but also a young woman who was hard-driving, singularly motivated and self-possessed. Gently prompted, Kathy Denise Wade talked unabashedly on that May day this year about the personal accomplishments she believes are propelling her toward the super-modeling ranks of Elle Macpherson and Naomi Campbell.

There was the first-place win in a local beauty pageant and appearances in several fashion shows. She had enrolled twice in modeling schools in hopes of obtaining a portfolio and developing the polish she needs for the big runway.

Then she shifted gears. Almost as an aside, she explained the scar on her belly. "I had my kidney out," she said simply. And then chuckling, she added: "I had a lot of things happen to me."

As if on cue, the auditorium lights flickered like dramatic punctuation to her words. But the lights were not in league with the storyteller. The custodian was signaling the stragglers to clear out of the hall so the doors could be locked. As student and guest ascended the aisle leading out of the auditorium, Kathy continued talking. But not about the operation she'd so suddenly announced.

She was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 107 pounds, she said. She liked going out. No, she "loved" going out. She was left back in the second grade because of poor academic performance and missed a year of school in the sixth grade because of illness. In the 10th grade at Southwestern, she was looking forward to transferring to Milford Mill High School in Woodlawn, where she had moved with her mother in the middle of the school year.

She had been on television the previous year, she was going to be on the radio the next day, and she was trying to pin down a job for the summer. She spoke stream of consciously and without elaboration. And then, suddenly, she veered off again.

"I've got to give a fund raiser," she said enthusiastically. "There's this leg I want. I've got to have it. It's really pretty and looks just like a real leg."

Her words were show stoppers. The story that followed revealed a horrendous medical odyssey that began more than five years ago and, today, still has not reached its conclusion.

It is the story of a young girl facing a terrible disease and yet not allowing herself to be devastated by it. Indeed, never allowing herself to lose hope, or to lose sight of her closely held goals.

In June 1990, doctors at Sinai Hospital discovered cancer in Kathy's right leg. On Oct. 5, 1990, 11 days after Kathy's 13th birthday, the leg was amputated. "I can remember when I had that surgery," Kathy says. "It was a terrible day."

'I couldn't believe it'

You could say that a school-yard fight saved Kathy's life. It was near the end of the 1990 school year at Fallstaff Middle School when Kathy let loose with one of those mindlessly cruel remarks children hurl at each other. She insulted a boy's mother. They got into it. During the tussle, the boy threw Kathy to her knees. Swelling resulted in her right leg and would not go down. When Kathy's leg hurt so badly that she no longer could do the routines of the marching band she had joined, she complained to her mother.

Kathy's mother, also named Kathy, took her only child from their home in West Baltimore to Sinai Hospital for an examination. "They took X-rays and about a week later they said she had cancer in her leg," Ms. Wade recalled. "I couldn't believe it."

Numb with fear, she and Kathy sought a second opinion at the Johns Hopkins Hospital's Children's Center. Sinai's diagnosis was confirmed. Kathy had osteogenetic sarcoma of her upper right tibia. Bone cancer. Mother and daughter were devastated. "We might not have found out," Ms. Wade said, "until it was too late."

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