Deborah Messick could tell something wasn't right. Her 8-year-old daughter Keilea, twin to Keola and younger sister to Kana Annie, would occasionally complain of headaches during the summer of 2009.
As the school year and third grade started at Evans Elementary, the headaches became more frequent, though usually cured with medicine and rest. Soon, though, Mrs. Messick worried that Keilea might be suffering from migraines, and her pediatrician gave her a prescription to try.
When it didn't help, he sent Keilea for a CAT scan. Afterward, mom and daughter left to grab lunch. They were less than 10 minutes away, sitting in the car at a Chick-Fil-A drive-through, when Mrs. Messick's phone rang.
They needed to pack their bags and head to the hospital, the doctor said. The scan had found a tumor near the base of Keilea's brain, and they needed to operate.
"That was the biggest shock of my life," Mrs. Messick says. "I couldn't even talk" She couldn't believe anything could be that wrong; after all, while in the waiting room before getting the scan, Keilea had been turning cartwheels - literally.
As Mrs. Messick tells the story of the months that followed, she recalls events by their proximity to holidays: a week before Keilea's birthday, a few weeks before Christmas, a few days before Valentine's.
Those events include surgery, a rare bacterial infection, still more surgeries, long stays in the hospital, and, finally, improvements such as a switch to oral antibiotics, Keilea's first playdate at home with a longtime friend, her first return to Sunday School at Warren Baptist Church. That latest milestone was on Mother's Day.
Keilea can't go back to Evans Elementary yet. But thanks to the school's homebound program and tutoring from her teacher, Dawn Kozlowski, she's on track to advance to the fourth grade next year, and will again be back in class with her brother as she has since they were kindergartners.
While she's been away, though, Keilea hasn't been forgotten - and neither has her family. From fellow members of Kana Annie's Girl Scout troop and to the school's PTO and church members, help has come for the family a little at a time.
"Obviously, it was a big financial thing from the beginning," Mrs. Messick says. Work was tough in her husband's construction trade, and she was a stay-at-home mom who was staying most of the time with Keilea at the hospital. Her own mother's help at home was a Godsend, as was assistance from friends, family and the school.
Even so, "We're still trying to dig out from under things being past due," Mrs. Messick says Her pending divorce isn't making it any easier.
Their school family is again stepping up, though. This Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m., they'll hold a fundraising spaghetti dinner at Evans Elementary. For just $5, diners can either get a takeout meal at a drive-through, or come inside the cafeteria. They'll also have baked goods to sell, and all the proceeds go to help the family.
In addition, the Messick Medical Fund is accepting donations at any branch of Georgia Bank and Trust.
"We invite the entire community to come out and have a great dinner and help a sweet little girl and her family," says Teri Booth, Evans Elementary's PTO president.
Though unsolicited, the outpouring of friendship and generosity has been vital in keeping their spirits up through what has been a nearly year-long ordeal, Mrs. Messick says. It's also given her a new perspective on life.
"Until something like this happens, you really take a lot of things for granted," she says. Now, she has a greater appreciation for not sweating the small stuff - and next to a very sick child, pretty much everything is small stuff.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)
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