“Hey Dad, I haven’t been feeling too well lately, do you think you could take me to the doctors?” an ill teen asked her father. They thought it was just a sinus infection, but when the doctor entered her room with the results, the look on his face told them everything. The diagnosis was far worse than anticipated.
Tom Mitchell had his life turned upside down when his daughter Shayla was just 16 years old. The teen had begun to feel ill, believing she was suffering a sinus infection. She asked her dad to make her a doctor’s appointment, which he did. When he picked her up from school to head to the doctor’s office that fateful day, with a promise of dinner afterward, he had no idea life as he knew it was about to change forever.
The father-daughter duo did have dinner that night, but neither of them was very hungry as they just pushed their food around on their plates in a room on the pediatric oncology unit of Fairfax Hospital. Shayla’s sinus infection was actually a large cancerous tumor taking up two-thirds of her chest, which had caused one of her lungs to collapse. Sadly, it gets even worse.
Tom and Shayla ended up having their “next 450 meals in that hospital, as well as hundreds and hundreds of additional meals over the next couple of years,” Tom recalled in a piece he wrote for Love What Matters. Shayla was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease, and Tom was faced with discussing the deadly diagnosis with his very scared, sweet little girl.
“I talked with her about cancer. We talked about the word ‘brave.’ We held each other very tight for a very long time. I’m pretty sure we both cried, and we promised each other that no matter what, we would be brave; together we would get through this,” Tom wrote. The devastated dad also promised to stay in the hospital with Shayla every single night she was there. And, he kept those promises.
Tom and Shayla spent hundreds of nights together in the hospital and hundreds of hours in the chemotherapy clinic. He was with her through countless procedures, tests, blood transfusions, radiation, and medications for nausea and pain. When Shayla’s heart stopped working shortly after the chemo began, she had to have a pacemaker/defibrillator placed in her chest. Tom was there through it all.
“I held her hair when she threw up, I held her hand when her hair fell out, and we held each other a lot. We cussed a lot, and we cried a lot but interestingly enough we laughed even more,” he recalled, adding that they often talked about being brave. Then, as they walked to the car on the way to the chemo clinic one morning, something happened that rocked Tom to his core and will likely haunt him for the rest of his days, he admitted.
“The pacemaker/defibrillator they had installed to keep her heart rhythms correct and safe began to malfunction,” he remembered. As it shocked Shayla several times, she screamed for her father to help her. “The damn thing was hitting her with powerful jolts of electricity designed to restart someone’s heart if it stops beating,” Tom explained. But, Shayla was wide awake, her little heart beating just fine, all on its own.
“I pulled her close and held her as tight as I could. It shocked her AGAIN and nearly blew her out of my arms. But I refused to let go. I just held her as tightly as I could and just like that, it stopped shocking her as quickly as it had started, and we rushed to the hospital. It turns out the manufacturer of this device had to recall thousands of them like brakes on a Chevy,” Tom revealed.
The incident once again prompted the pair to talk about being brave as they faced more chemotherapy, blood transfusions, nights in the hospital, and heart surgeries. “There was also a failed bone marrow transplant attempt and yet, in spite of it all, Shayla never quit fighting and she still managed to find time to take pretty damned good care of me,” Tom wrote.
Then, the day came when the doctors told him there was nothing else they could do for his little girl. Tom was obviously devastated by the news, but it wasn’t just the thought of losing his daughter that left him deeply pained. There was the frightening reality that he had to tell her she wasn’t going to get better. This young girl, who should have had her whole life ahead of her, wasn’t going to live much longer.
“How in the world was I supposed to have this conversation with my darling daughter? How in the world was I going to be brave enough to tell my daughter she was going to die?” he asked. That’s when he reflected on a quote he once heard: “Can a man still be brave if he is afraid? … That is the only time he CAN be brave.”
Although he was scared, he knew he had to be brave just like he had promised Shayla he would be. Tom told Shayla about her poor diagnosis, and shockingly, the dad said, “It turned out to be the most amazing, beautiful, magical, wonderful conversation I’ve ever had in my entire life, and one that I hope you NEVER EVER have to have.”
“Am I still brave Dad?” Shayla whispered softly in his ear. At that moment, Tom put his hands on her face and looked deep into her eyes. He saw his baby was tired after fighting so bravely for so long. That’s when he realized that she hadn’t been staying brave for herself — she had been doing it for her dad.
A few days later, Shayla lost her battle with childhood cancer, but Tom knows she fought hard and she fought bravely. Shayla’s memory now lives on through the “Stillbrave Childhood Cancer Foundation” started by her father in honor of her bravery until the very end. In Tom Mitchell’s words, the foundation’s purpose is to “finish what Shayla could not” because no child should have to fight cancer and no parent should have to endure what Tom did.