Teenager who survived brain cancer wins 2 medals for track
May 7, 2017
DUNCAN, Okla. (AP) — There is almost always a deeper story of adversity behind every moment of triumph. Jocilyn Gregory's story is no exception.
Jocilyn Gregory, a freshman at Duncan High School, has had a whirlwind weekend of interviews since a video her mother took of Jocilyn running in her first track meet was posted online. In the video, Jocilyn can be seen running the 100-yard dash, surrounded by her teammates who keep pace beside or just behind her. Jocilyn is visibly smaller than her peers, and their pace is slow, but exuberant cheers from the stands are heard in the background as she crosses the finish line in first place.
Her mother, Shawna Weis is the loudest voice of all in the video; her passionate, throaty cry of "Go Jocilyn!" as the video begins is a familiar sound, full of the pride all parents share as they cheer on their children in their pursuits. But it is a cry that also contains something more.
Shawna Weis was at work as usual on that May, 2006 afternoon in Oceanside, California when she got a call from her children's daycare. The daycare staff had laid four-year-old Jocilyn down for her nap as usual that day, but when naptime was over, they couldn't rouse her.
Shawna's voice wavered as she described the phone call to The Duncan Banner (http://bit.ly/2p8n1ST ), "They didn't know if I wanted to come get her, or if they should go ahead and call an ambulance. I was not in my right mind when I heard that ...the fear... I probably should have let them just call an ambulance. I came and got her. I got her to wake up, I could get her to talk to me, but she just kept saying 'I don't feel good, I don't feel good'. So we took her to the hospital."
Visits to the doctor were something the family was familiar with. For several months, Jocilyn seemed off balance, and was sick to her stomach every morning. She always seemed to feel better following these episodes, but they happened so frequently that Shawna took Jocilyn in to see the pediatrician multiple times. "I'd take her to the doctor, and it was always 'It's probably a virus. It could be an ear infection. She had new shoes — maybe she just doesn't walk on balance (sic) in her new shoes.'"
So in Shawna's mind, as she rushed into the emergency room that day with Jocilyn in her arms, the episodes were unrelated.
"I kept asking them to do a cat scan," she said. "I thought maybe she fell at school and somebody didn't see, I don't know. And the doctor was frustrated with me, but he did it. They took her in for a cat scan, and when he came back, he had tears in his eyes. I just knew it wasn't good. He said, 'She has a brain tumor. We have to fly her to a specialist. Now.'"
Jocilyn was immediately helicoptered to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, which is a 45 minute drive from the hospital in Oceanside. The emergency room doctors at the Oceanside hospital insisted that Shawna was not to drive after her alone. By the time Shawna arrived in San Diego with her mother, close to an hour later, the neurosurgeon was waiting for her at the entrance.
"The neurosurgeon said, 'We'll get her tumor out, and go from there.' They prepared me for what might come. They said she might not make it...that there's no predicting what's going to happen because it's the brain ...and I just thought, 'People have tumors all the time. We will go in, take it out, and everything will be fine.'"
The next step was preparing Jocilyn. Giving news like this to a child, especially your own, is something Shawna says no parent can feel prepared for.
"How do you tell a four-year-old that they have to have brain surgery? Or even if you should? I don't know. I told her there was a sick bug in her brain and the doctors had to go in and get it. We were all crying, and she said, 'You can't hurt steel.' ...That's been her motto in life since then."
The quiver in Shawna's voice steadies, and her tone changes to one of pride and wonder.
"She wasn't afraid. She wasn't worried. She knew she was going to be okay. So we believed her. We just kind of let her lead the emotion. And if she knows she's going to be okay, well, you can't hurt steel. We have always lived by that."
After 17 hours in surgery, Jocilyn emerged and spent the following week in the Intensive Care Unit. Shawna said at that point, the family still had no idea what they were dealing with.
"The neurologist came in and said, 'We need to set up a family meeting with you and the oncologist.' And still at that point no one had said the word 'cancer', I couldn't figure out why we would need the oncologist. Then the oncologist came in with a big notebook. He said, 'This is our mind map, and this is how we treat this type of cancer.' To hear that word...just kind of solidified it. I knew then that this was bad news."
This was the beginning of what would turn out to be a total of five brain surgeries, 14 months of chemotherapy, and eight weeks of radiation for Jocilyn. Jocilyn spent nine months of that time in her hospital bed in a near vegetative state. Unable to walk, talk, or even sit up on her own; she was dependent on a feeding tube for survival.
It was a dark time for Shawna, especially considering she had another child to look after. Her son, Braiden Gregory, is just 18 months younger than Jocilyn.
"It was hard. I was a single mom at the time. I had to be there all day, and ignore Braiden, or be with Braiden and ignore Jocilyn, and ...Braiden had just turned three. He spent all weekend with us at the hospital, but during the week he'd stay with my parents. So not only were we dealing with the emotion of her treatment, but I just kept thinking, 'Am I a bad mom? Am I neglecting my son? What kind of emotions is he going to deal with later and life with this?' We got through it. It was like a vacation when Braiden would come to the hospital on the weekend, the hospital staff was great. It got to where I could tell myself, 'This is a really sad story, but we're going to make it as happy as it can be', because you never know...it sounds cliché, you don't know what tomorrow brings, but we lived that. I got up that morning and went to work, and my kids got up and went to daycare like it was a normal day, and our entire lives changed."
More changes were on the horizon for Jocilyn. One day, she did more than just lay in her hospital bed — Jocilyn made a sound, and that was just the beginning, Shawna said.
"With therapy and miracles and strength, she started making noises. It was almost like the progression of a newborn baby. She learned to roll over, she learned to sit up. Then she went to a wheelchair, she could hold herself up in a wheelchair, but we had to push her around. She spent six months in a wheelchair before she started using a walker for short distances."
Finally a holiday came, and with it Jocilyn's first strides toward independence.
"She was five-and-a-half when she took her first steps independently. It was Halloween. We were getting ready to go trick or treating, I remember she was in her Cinderella princess dress, and we were going to put her in her wheelchair to go trick or treating, and she was standing, holding onto the couch. And I said, 'Come on, we've got to get into the wheelchair to go trick or treating,' and she just let go of the couch and walked right over to her wheelchair."
In 2010, Shawna, Braiden, and Jocilyn moved to Duncan; following Shawna's parents moved near Ft. Sill.
Here, Shawna found a new physical therapist for Jocilyn, who still required twice a week sessions. That therapist was Jenny Ledford, the wife of Jocilyn's track coach, Todd Ledford.
"When my doctor wanted me to do something, to help me get some exercise and stuff, I thought about running track, and the coach said, 'Okay! I'll put you in track!' Running the 100 meters felt good. Because even though people have cancer, they can still do...they can still run and they can still help themselves to beat it." Jocilyn said.
According to Shawna, Jenny Ledford always knew Jocilyn was born to run, and considering what challenges Jocilyn had faced in her physical therapy sessions with Jenny, Thursday's triumph was all the sweeter.
"Jenny had said she remembered when Jocilyn first started therapy," Shawna recounts. "Jocilyn wanted to run, they would tell her to walk, and she was always trying to go faster than her little legs could keep up with, so she would kind of stagger off to the side, and then fall, and then try it again, and stagger and fall, so for Jenny, it was so exciting for her to see her stay in that straight line for that length of time. I was so excited to see her run and cross the finish line, that I didn't even think of that — that from a therapeutic side, she was actually able to keep her balance, stay in between the lines, and have the body mechanics to be able to run that distance. And on top of that, she got a gold medal, and everyone cheered and hugged."
It's been 11 years since Jocilyn's diagnosis. She has been in remission for 10, and though there is always a risk of cancer returning down the road due to her exposure to chemotherapy, Jocilyn is considered officially cured.
It's a giant worry lifted from Shawna's shoulders, but she is still concerned with the very real challenges that Jocilyn may still face.
"Jocilyn understands that she's different. She understands that she has limitations, but she doesn't ever want to be seen like that ...she's always wondered, 'Why can't I do track like them? I can walk like them, I can talk like them, I can play like them, why can't I do what they do?' She likes to run. She's always liked to run. It was such a sense of independence for her. Thursday was like the baby bird has left the nest kind of feeling because I'm used to always having to hold her hand, or to be right next to her in case she falls, and we've been partners, our family has been a team in all of this therapy and all of this treatment, I've been right next to her this entire time and I haven't missed a single thing and for me, that day...I got to sit in the stands and just be mom. And she spread her wings and she flew. On her own. And I didn't think about illness and I didn't think about what we've been through, and the challenges, I just stopped. I thought, today she gets to shine. She gets to show everybody that no matter."
Shawna stopped for a moment and fought back tears.
".I don't know if anybody thought she couldn't do it. I fear that as her mother. I fear that she's going to get made fun of, for a split second I thought...there's eight or ten different schools out here, what are those kids thinking? But they all just lined up, you could see all of these different uniforms just lined up on the sides of the field, and just ...cheer. I've always known she was a great kid, but this is the way that everybody gets to see that she's a great kid. It was such a good lesson for her, what team sports and unity are all about. It's not about winning. It's about finishing. Not letting anything stand in your way. No matter what it is."
Shawna hopes that other people can be inspired by Jocilyn's journey, as she herself is; and that Thursday's track meet will be the start of new friendships for Jocilyn.
"It was a good life lesson for me to sit and watch her, and all I could think was, she's touching so many people's lives in just this 45 seconds. People out there, we are all guilty. Myself included. We make excuses, there's always a reason why we can't do something. And she doesn't do that. She never has. Proud isn't a big enough word. There were total strangers coming out of the bleachers, hugging her, crying, and high fiving her."
Jocilyn is over the moon about her new found home-town fame, and has enjoyed being interviewed by 'the news', though she says it's all been a bit hard to believe.
"I think it's awesome. Because I didn't know that when I was running that race, that I was so famous with the news and stuff...I was kind of nervous. They called and I didn't know if they were coming or if they were just kidding or something. But they're not! So I got ready ...It felt really good. They told me about my medals and stuff ...like I won. And I'll be ready to do another race soon."
It seems that Shawna's wish for new friendships for her daughter may just come true, because as the interview ended, a young teenage girl walks up to Jocilyn and gives her a hug.
"I just wanted to say you did amazing in track, you did really good."
"Thank you!" replies Jocilyn, who appears a bit bewildered.
Shawna laughed and gently pokes Jocilyn in the arm. "See? You have all kinds of friends now, you're famous!"
Information from: The Duncan Banner, http://www.duncanbanner.com