Kelly Gay's Pasta Dinner Speech at the Dave Scott's Triathlon
Good evening everybody! It’s great to see so many Team In Training participants all in one place! What’s even more amazing is that each of us in this room has a reason for being here that’s different from every other. I am honored to be able to share MY reason with you tonight.
I have been a full time coordinator for Team In Training since the end of December 2005, but my connection to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Team In Training started several years prior to that. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. My sister, Jessica, had just come back from a week at the beach with her best friend and their family. The next morning Jessi woke up with a sore knee—so sore she couldn’t walk. Since it was a Sunday morning and the regular doctor’s office wasn’t open, we got her in the car and shuttled her to the emergency room. She was an ex-gymnast of more than 10 years; we all figured she’d agitated a previous injury. However, they took x-rays and ran tests, and discovered that her knee was in perfect condition. After a few more tests, they concluded she had Mono. They wanted to keep her overnight to monitor her, and then send her home the next morning. Very routine. Later that evening, however, we received a visit from another doctor, who said he’d seen her test results and just felt that something wasn’t right. Everything appeared to be in the “normal” range, but he was uncomfortable. He told us that, worst case scenario, she might have Leukemia. Only a bone marrow biopsy would tell us for sure.
That night was the first night Jessi spent in the hospital. My mom stayed with her and I spent the night at my aunt’s house. I don’t think any of us slept. By 1:00 the next afternoon, we had the news: Jessi had Acute Myeloid Leukemia—the type, we found out, that is the hardest type of leukemia for someone her age to beat. The shock was overwhelming. Here was a 15-year-old girl, the healthiest person I knew, MY sister—and she now had cancer. There were many tears that day and a lot of new fears. I know I was scared, I can’t even imagine how Jessi felt. She was a trooper though, and from the very beginning, she was determined to defeat the cancer. Fortunately, they had caught it in the very early stages. By that evening, her doctors had her started on chemotherapy and by the next day, we found out that both my mom and I were perfect bone marrow matches—something so rare it’s pretty much unheard of. Though Leukemia was a tough diagnosis to handle—we would have much preferred that it turned to out be Mono—her prognosis was looking pretty good.
I’ve spent a long time talking about those first days because they were a big turning point in Jessi’s life, especially, but also in my own. It was the point at which cancer was no longer something “other people” came down with. Cancer, Leukemia, was here and now, affecting one of the most important people in my life.
Jessi spent the next four years in and out of the hospital… in and out of treatment… in and out of remission. She had weeks and weeks of chemo, and hospital stays as long as a couple months at a time. Over the course of the four years, she had a full bone marrow transplant, followed by a partial transplant, followed by another full one… for all of which, I was the donor. She even BEAT AML, the first time! The hardest leukemia to beat, and she never relapsed with it. When Leukemia came back that first time, it was in a different form, A L L, which she fought the rest of her battle.
Jessi is truly my hero. Even though she was sick, she never let it change her outlook on life. She made lists of the things she wanted to do when she was healthy, and during the times that she was healthy, she made sure to do as many of them as she could. Her list, posted on the side of the refrigerator, says:
(If you couldn’t tell, she wasn’t allowed to go to the beach, and she couldn’t eat salad!)
When she had to miss her senior prom because she wasn’t allowed to be around that many people, her boyfriend set up a spectacular prom at home for her—dressed in a tux, brought dinner from her favorite restaurant, and danced the night away. For her Make-A-Wish trip, Jessi chose to go to Colorado to snow ski, it was her first time in a commercial jet, first time seeing snow, and her first time skiing in any manner. One of her favorite memories of that trip was the snowman she and her boyfriend built—which they named Spike, for all of the pine needles they stuck in for hair. Even during the times she was sick and in the hospital, she remained upbeat. She named the rolling IV pole Wiley, wrote big messages to the helicopter crew with window paint, as the helipad was right outside, and, always the artist, she drew the Finding Nemo characters for a young boy with Leukemia in the room down the hall. She was required to carry her box of medications with her every time she visited the clinic, and so she named her box “Jessi’s Pharmacy”—she even made a sign for it that said “Jessi’s Pharmacy: Open 24 Hours”.
I’m her sister, so I get to brag just a little bit. She taught herself both her sophomore and senior years of high school—including advanced placement English, Physics, and Calculus! She earned As in all of them. Her doctors were always amazed when they came in and found her studying calculus in the middle of a chemo treatment. She earned a 1570 on the SATs—which means she missed only THREE questions, all in English, none in math. And she earned a full ride to the University of Florida to study architecture-- a dream she’d had ever since she learned what an architect was. In fact, she had so many scholarships she would have actually been getting PAID to go to school.
It is very difficult to tell you this last part, but two days before Jessi was to move permanently to UF to start classes, she found out she had relapsed again. That was at the end of December 2004. She spent that entire spring fighting her battle the hardest she’d ever fought, but in the end, her body couldn’t handle the combination of medications and side effects any longer, and she passed away on April 17, 2005.
My sister’s story is why I’m here tonight. Team In Training became a huge part of Jessi’s support system during her four-year battle. She became a patient honoree early on when a family friend trained with TNT for the Walt Disney World Marathon in her honor. Every time I entered her hospital room, there were new cards from TNT participants. They called often, and even visited on occasion. When she was healthy enough, she would go out to the social events and kickoff. She thought it was amazing that TNT participants would dedicate so much of their time for HER, someone they’d never previously met. She was even able to make it out to the Disney marathon finish tent that last January, even though she’d relapsed. She simply told her doctor, “I’m going”, as only Jessi could say. And she went—she even made us get up at 2:00 am to see everyone off to the start line!
There is one last part of Jessi’s story that I’d like to share with you. Jessi was very artistic, and one day she found a way to unite her love of literature and famous sayings with her love of art, all taped to her bedroom door. I was in college at the time, so every weekend I’d come home and find a few more quotes arranged on her door. She worked so hard on that arrangement. What’s so special is that it meant something important to her—the words were thoughts and ideas that either made her laugh, or inspired her, words that helped her get through each and every day. I’d like to leave you with a few of those thoughts that have inspired me as I have trained this season.
The first is by Thomas Edison… “If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” Think about that for a second. Remember a few months ago, if you were like me, you could barely make it to the other end of a 25 yard pool, you hadn’t been on a bike in years, and the thought of running 6.2 miles after swimming and cycling was just incomprehensible. Yet we’re here! We’ve each put in hundreds of miles in training! We’ve surpassed every boundary we thought we had, and we kept going! Tomorrow will be a challenge, but thanks to our coaches and to our own determination, we are well prepared.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “You see things, and you say ‘why?’ but I dream things that never were, and I say ‘why not?’” Each one of you has said, “why not? Why can’t there be a cure?” and you’ve done something about it. Each one of you has raised thousands of dollars in critical funds for blood cancer research. When a cure is found—and I truly believe that a cure WILL be found—you can know that you were a part of it! You have reached out and touched the lives of the patients and families in your communities, and I want you to know from someone who has been on the recieving end of that compassion, that you DO make a difference, you DO change lives.
The last one, the one that makes me smile every time I walk by Jessi’s door, says… “Yesterday was the deadline of all complaints.” If you knew Jessi, you would understand how appropriate this was to her personality… Tomorrow, all the aches and pains of training will disappear. The long hours, the hot weather, the sore muscles will all be fading memories. Tomorrow is all about finishing that one-mile swim, 25-mile bike, and 6.2 mile run. Even if you’ve completed triathlons before, tomorrow is a new accomplishment. Each and every stroke you swim, every mile you cycle, and every step you take represents a giant leap towards a cure for the blood cancers. Tomorrow is for you, for Jessi, and for each of the people and patients you hold dear in your hearts.
Tomorrow is my first Olympic distance triathlon and my first Team In Training event as a participant. I am truly honored to be able to share those experiences with such an extraordinary group of people. Jessi is my hero, but Team In Training participants like yourselves were her heroes. Thank you for your months of hard work and dedication. Go out there and do your best tomorrow—most importantly, have an AMAZING time!!! I’ll see you on the course!