Memories of Ella

Pictured: Ella had been battling a rare and aggressive type of cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma since being diagnosed as a toddler. Photo credit: Jerry Sowden

In my 30 years on this planet, I have been relatively – and thankfully – unaffected by cancer. My family and I have been blessed with mostly good health.

As a journalist, I’ve written a little about a lot of things. One assignment, in particular, will stick with me forever. I met Ella in 2011.

Ella had been battling a rare and aggressive type of cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma since being diagnosed as a toddler. She spent most of her short life fighting it. When she was seven years old, doctors told her parents there wasn’t anything else to be done. Ella didn’t have much time left, so Chad and Jessica McNellie wanted to take their daughter on her dream trip to Hawaii. Because Ella had already gone on a Make-A-Wish trip, funding for a trip to Hawaii posed a problem. That was where I came into the picture.

I met with the McNellie family in their home to get the scoop on what they were trying to do, as well as some background on Ella. What struck me immediately was the positivity radiating off of them all. Here they were, going through likely the worst thing a person can go through, yet they welcomed me into their home with graciousness like I was a dear, old friend. And Ella, whose body was riddled with cancer, was sweet and effervescent. I loved her immediately.

I wrote the story, letting the public know about the fundraising efforts. Not long after, I was able to write a follow-up story letting people know the money had been raised. Ella, her parents and older sister embarked on the dream vacation to Hawaii. She swam with dolphins. She attended a luau and learned to hula dance. She played in the ocean. It was a dream come true for her.

But soon after returning home, Ella began to weaken. Once more, I was welcomed into the family’s home to talk. It was just a few days before Christmas.

I could physically feel the change in the atmosphere of the home since my last visit. The sensation was foreign to me. To sit so close to someone who was dying, and not just someone, a beautiful, sweet and innocent child…it was nearly unbearable.

I wanted to leave immediately. I wanted to stay forever. But after a while, I knew it was time to go. So I said goodbye, knowing it was likely the last time. The weight of that knowledge was soul-crushing. Ella’s father walked me to the door, and we hugged. Before I knew it, he was sobbing into my shoulder and tears were falling down my face. I was sure they would never stop.

Ella passed away mere hours after that. I knew I would have to write about her death. The community had rallied around her and her family and had fallen in love with her, just as I did, so it was only right to memorialize her properly. But I didn’t want to. It was too hard, and I felt sorry for even thinking of my own grief when her parents, these wonderful people, were the ones who had experienced something so horrifying, unnatural and unfair.

It’s been more than five years since Ella passed away, and I still think of her and her family often. Because of them, I’ve seen what real strength and perseverance look like. And it’s because of them that I have even the slightest grasp of the effect cancer has on people, both those suffering from it and their loved ones. And although the work I do at Roswell Park isn’t in the direct medical care of our patients, being part of this team still feels like I’m doing something, even if it’s small.

Ella’s voice was a lovely sound I’ll never forget, with its happy, bright sweetness that I hear echoed when my own daughters speak. While I wish her story had had a different ending, I am grateful to have had the chance to be around her and her family, for they unintentionally helped shape the way I see things now.

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