• TheDMonline.com Staff Member?
  • Log In
Share |

Blessing born from burden

Chi Omega Tau, along with the Make-A-Wish foundation, grants local cancer-survivor, Erica Yeager’s wish
Phillip Waller | The Daily Mississippian
Phillip Waller / The Daily Mississippian

 

Meet 17-year-old Erica Yeager, a self-described country girl from Waterford who enjoys fishing, riding four-wheelers and spending time with her family.

In October 2010, she was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria or PHN, a life-threatening blood disease known to lead to leukemia.  

Fast forward to today — after multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a grueling bone marrow transplant — doctors have now proclaimed Yeager a healthy teenager. After conquering a rare disease and completing a full year of recovery, how will she celebrate?

With a trip to Disney World, of course!

Thanks to the Chi Omega Tau Chapter of Ole Miss and Make-A-Wish Foundation Mid-South, Yeager, her sister and her parents will depart on July 2 for a week-long, all-expenses-paid trip to the land of roller coasters, castles and cotton candy. She said she could not be more excited.

“My sister Leslie and I have always dreamed of going to Disney World,” said Yeager, an upcoming high school junior. “I just never imagined it would actually happen.”

Such disbelief was surprising, considering the teenager’s “anything is possible” attitude. Even on the day she heard her diagnosis, Yeager remained the embodiment of calm resilience, as Yeager’s mother, Cheryl, pointed out. 

“For a while, we were told Erica just had anemia,” Cheryl said. “But after five visits to the doctor, they realized it was much more serious. I remember rushing into her school (Potts Camp High School in Marshall County) and pulling her out of class. I told her the doctors had found something in her blood and that it didn’t look good.”

But Yeager didn’t let the news get her down. 

“Erica simply looked at me and said, ‘God has had me in his hands for 15 years. He’s going to keep me safe,’” Cheryl said. “Later that night, she went to her beauty review with a smile on her face.”

Yeager credited faith and family as the forces that helped her push through the illness and maintain a normal life.

“I don’t feel like I’ve changed that much,” Erica said. “Sure, I don’t have as much hair and I can’t go swimming, but I’m still the same old Erica.”

While the experience did not change Erica, her parents claimed to undergo their own personal transformations.

“Before Erica was diagnosed, I thought I was on top of the world,” Eric Yeager, Erica’s father, said. “When the doctor called and broke the news, it floored me. I broke down right there. Ever since that day, I’ve never again taken life for granted.”

Erica’s mother expressed the changes she made in her own life.

“I used to be a bit of a worrier prior to all this,” Cheryl said. “Now, I don’t let things get to me like they used to. I’ve learned to be strong for my family.”

Simms Haguewood, former philanthropy co-chair of the Ole Miss Chi Omega Tau Chapter, helped organize a scavenger hunt around campus for Erica, which included girls dressed as animals, villains and princesses and Chi Omega house boys posing as princes for the day.

“When Erica reached her final destination — the Chi Omega house — and we revealed that she’d be going to Disney World, she put her head in a family member’s shoulder and began crying,” said Haguewood, 22, who just graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in elementary education. “I think everyone in the chapter room teared up at that point.

“It made me look at myself and say, ‘I haven’t accomplished anything.’ Here is this 17-year-old girl who’s beaten a life-threatening illness. She still wants to go to college to become a nurse and work at St. Jude. It made me want to push harder and use everything God gave me.”

Caitlin Adams, also a recent graduate of Ole Miss with a degree in journalism, served as the other philanthropy co-chair for Chi Omega and said she too was inspired.

“Erica was dealt a really hard hand in life, but she still has an amazing attitude,” Adams said. “We should all stop to realize how fortunate we are.”

Haguewood and Adams spoke regularly with Billy Anderson, the volunteer at Make-A-Wish, who helped coordinate Yeager’s case. Anderson, of Olive Branch, expressed how it felt watching everything come together.

“I’d interviewed Erica when she was in the hospital; that was when she mentioned Disney World,” Anderson said.

“Then, I was at the Chi-O house (about eight months later) when she was told she’d be able to go. I wish I had it on camera. There must have been 300 girls standing there wearing Disney-themed outfits and singing to her. It’s probably one of the neatest things I’ve seen dealing with a wish,” Anderson said.

Disney World was not the only surprise. The Chi Omegas presented the Yeager family with a digital camera and a set of luggage stuffed with candy, magazines and movies.

“I couldn’t believe how wonderful those girls were,” Eric said. “Some people say sorority girls are snobs, but I’m a country boy and they couldn’t have been more kind to my family and me.”

Make-A-Wish Foundation is one the Chi Omega Tau Chapter’s two philanthropies, along with the Gardner-Simmons Home in Tupelo for neglected and abused children under the age of 21. 

Every two years, the Chi Omega Tau Chapter grants one wish to a child facing a life-threatening illness using money the chapter raises.

When Erica arrives at Disney World, her sister, Leslie Yeager, will be standing right beside her — appropriate, considering the 10-year-old saved her older sister’s life.

On June 28, 2011, Leslie donated the bone marrow necessary for curing her sister’s blood disease.

“The doctors took the bone marrow harvest from Leslie and immediately put her in recovery,” Cheryl said. “Most people are bed-ridden for a couple days after such a procedure, but after two hours Leslie got up and said she wanted to see her sister receive the transplant.

“We went to the transplant floor, but the doctors weren’t going to let her enter Erica’s room. Eventually they changed their minds, and Leslie was able to watch Erica receive her bone marrow.” 

“I was happy I did (the transplant),” Leslie said. “I knew I wouldn’t have my sister if I didn’t.”

Erica said she did not take her sister’s sacrifice for granted.

“One of the best parts of this trip to Disney World is knowing my sister is going with me,” Erica said. “It’s kind of like returning the favor.”

It turned out Disney World was not the only blessing born from burden.

“Erica has earned the respect of a lot of folks,” Cheryl said. “She isn’t afraid to look at people and say: ‘There is nothing you can’t do.’”

In a situation where many would be inclined toward self-pity, Yeager said that attitude was never one she would consider.

“I never thought, ‘Why me?’” Erica said. “I was put through this for a reason. I’m not here to feel sorry for myself. I wake up every morning and thank God for my life.”