When Shayla told her dad, Tom Mitchell, that she didn’t feel well and that she might have a sinus infection, he didn’t think anything of it.
Unfortunately, it was something much more serious than a sinus infection.
It was a very large cancerous tumor that was taking up two-thirds of her chest. The tumor grew so big that it caused one of her lungs to collapse.
They ate dinner in a room on the pediatric oncology unit of Fairfax Hospital.
They would end up having their next 450 meals in that hospital.
And many hundreds more after that. Shayla was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease and Tom was scared to death.
“I had to become braver than I ever thought possible… I had to have a really tough conversation with a very scared 16-year-old girl. I wound up purchasing two sterling silver ‘feather’ bracelets from an American Indian art store near the hospital, a small feminine bracelet for Shayla and a larger one for myself. I ‘spread my arms and held my breath’ and went into the room to have a ‘talk’ with a sweet little girl,” he recalls in a piece posted on StillBrave.org.
They talked about lots of things that day and promised each other that they would get through this tough time.
He also made a series of promises to his daughter.
He promised that he would wear the bracelet until she was cancer-free, that he would stay in the hospital with her every night she had to stay there, and that he would stay brave as long as she did.
The next few years were tough. They spent lots of time in the chemotherapy clinic and had to watch Shayla think about things like blood transfusions, radiations, painkillers and more.
“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… often we talked about the wind and about feathers and about being brave,” Tom recalled.
They even had some really scary moments. One where Shayla’s pacemaker/defibrillator started to malfunction.
“It shocked my daughter inappropriately several times as she was screaming, ‘Help me Dad!'” she cried out.
“‘IT’S SHOCKING ME! …IT’S SHOCKING ME!’ The damn thing was hitting her with powerful jolts of electricity designed to restart someone’s heart if it stops beating,” Tom remembers. “But she was wide awake, and her little heart was beating just fine all on its own.”
But Tom never gave up on his promise.
“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… and that’s all I have to say about that!” he says.
The two remained strong and Tom says that Shayla even took really good care of him.
But eventually, the day came where doctors said there was nothing more they could do for Shayla.
Tom struggled with how he was going to tell Shayla that she was going to die. But Tom still kept his promise.
“I did, of course, have that conversation with her. And as unbelievable as this may sound 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,” Tom explained.
During Shayla’s final days, he realized that she was being brave for him the entire time.
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After Shayla passed away he started a nonprofit to help children with cancer and their families to stay brave during their fight.
You can learn more about Still Brave at stillbrave.org.
Hear Tom’s story below.
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