The Atwell family celebrated Thanksgiving twice last week.

They gave thanks to God on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. They also gave thanks to God two days earlier, on Katelyn's 15th birthday.

Four times in the past two years, doctors told Sharon and Ray Atwell that their daughter, Kate, was going to die.

Kate, their baby girl, who in the sixth grade was on the swim team, the drill team and played French horn in the band.

Kate, who at the end of sixth grade noticed a slight pain in her back and thought she'd pulled a muscle. It wasn't her back. It was her bones and her blood.

Kate was 12 when acute leukemia was diagnosed.

"I'm going to look like Tweetie Bird," she told her friends after she was admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy.

"Big eyes and no hair."

A few weeks later, Kate contracted a rare and usually lethal form of bacterial spinal meningitis.

Her brain stem and nervous system were badly damaged. She was in a coma for months.

She also developed shingles, an inflammatory skin disease.

The pain and stress of that triggered violent seizures that lasted up to 12 hours and recurred for weeks.

During these seizures, her body temperature would rise to 106, 107, 108 degrees. Her heart would beat 200 times per minute. Her blood pressure would soar to 190/135.

Surgeons operated on her brain 20 times in 20 months.

Each time it seemed like Kate was beginning to surface, something would go wrong and she'd slip back under.

Then something wonderful would happen.

A bad test would turn out to have been misread.

A doctor would think of something he hadn't thought of before, or would try something she hadn't tried before.

A family member or friend would show up at just the right time to bring Ray and Sharon rest and comfort and strength.

Strangers would happen by to offer a word of prayer, encouragement and hope.

One day at the hospital, Sharon met a woman coming out of the chapel. The woman gave Sharon a blanket. She said a hundred nurses had prayed over that blanket.

"This is for your little girl," the woman said.

"She's going to get worse before she gets better, but that child is going to be fine."

Kate's seizures began the next day.

A couple of weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Kate was sent home to die.

But each time it seemed that Kate had slid under the surface for the last time, she would rally and surface again.

"When I felt the most discouraged, God gave me a little Kate miracle," Sharon said.

A miracle in the form of a hand squeeze. A blink. A smile. A wave.

Sharon's favorite came late in September 2000.

Every night since Kate was a little girl, Sharon tucked her in bed and said, "I love you, Katelyn." And Katelyn said, "I love you, too."

After Kate got sick, Sharon continued the ritual. More than a year passed and Kate couldn't or didn't respond. Then, one night:

"I bent down to tuck Kate in and gave her a kiss and said, `I love you, Katelyn,' and as I backed away she mouthed the words `I love you, too,' " Sharon said.

Every time Kate surfaced, Sharon would do a little dance and say, "It's a God thing, it's a God thing."

Sharon and Ray rejoiced in Kate's many rebounds. They endured so many of her relapses that they also began to rejoice in those as well.

They prayed that the coma and the seizures and the setbacks were giving Kate's body time to fight and rest and heal.

They prayed all the time. And they never prayed alone.

Within hours after the cancer was diagnosed, family and friends and fellow members of Germantown Baptist Church set up prayer lines and chains for Kate. They even set up a prayer Web site for her.

Sharon put up a map of the United States in Kate's hospital room. Every time she found out that someone somewhere was praying for Kate, she stuck a pin in that location.

Soon, there were dozens, then hundreds of pins in the map.

The Atwells sent out regular "Kate Updates" that included specific prayer requests.

"We need to ask God for another miracle," Ray wrote in August 1999.

"We need for Him to restore the damaged nerves to her brain. That is about as specific as we can get right now."

The Atwells received E-mail prayers from around the world, praying for Kate's organs and nerves and blood cells as well as her operations and medications and therapies.

People weren't just praying for Kate, though. They also were praying for Sharon and Ray and Kate's big sister, Crystal.

"I'd get to the point where I just couldn't go anymore, I just couldn't do anymore," Sharon said.

"And then I'd feel this washing away of my fear and exhaustion. All of a sudden, I'd have this strength and insight I hadn't had.

"God and the prayers of others carried us through."

Kate got rid of her tracheotomy tube Aug. 21.

She had her last chemotherapy treatment Sept. 18. Her cancer is in remission.

She stood for the first time in more than two years Oct. 8.

She took her first step Nov. 5.

Kate spent her 13th and 14th birthdays breathing and eating through tubes.

Last Tuesday, she spent her 15th birthday breathing and eating and laughing on her own, wheeling herself around her home.

Her mom and dad and big sister spent the day being thankful.

Thankful, that not long before Kate got sick, they had moved from Florida to Memphis, home of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

That when Kate first got sick, they happened to be back in Florida, where a doctor who had known Kate all her life didn't waste any time getting a diagnosis.

Thankful, for doctors, nurses and others at St. Jude and Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center who never gave up on Kate, especially when they had every reason to give up.

For the comfort, strength and faithful prayers of family, friends and strangers who showed up at the very moment they most were needed.

For a loving, generous and mighty God.

"Each day we marvel at the little ways in which God reveals himself through Kate," Sharon said.

Mostly, they are thankful for Katelyn Nicole, whose own faith is as big as her smile and as strong as her will to survive.

"I guess God just decided I needed to stay here for a while," said Kate, wearing her favorite Tweetie Bird shirt.

In recent months, Kate has learned again to eat and talk and walk (with a little help).

She is learning again to read and write and figure.

She won't make the school swim team anytime soon. She did make the Olympic Team.

On Dec. 14, Kate will be one of the local torchbearers for the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay.

Kate's leg of the route is 3.2 miles. She doesn't plan to wheel herself the entire distance.

She plans to walk part of the way.

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