Life Interrupted

Two seniors face an uphill battle against medical traumas

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Tina Dang

Senior Jade Bowen sits in her hospital bed at Seattle Children’s Hospital on Nov. 9. Bowen was diagnosed with leukemia in June and received a stem cell transplant on Nov. 12. Her skin has many burn marks from the radiation treatments. “It’s a living hell,” she said.

Unexpected changes are normal in a high school student’s life. A dip in grades, getting a giant pimple on picture day, being dumped all seem so traumatic. That is, until something truly traumatic actually happens. For two Cleveland seniors, their lives have been interrupted by medical conditions that are wreaking havoc on their young bodies. One was left paralyzed in a car accident; the other diagnosed with leukemia. This story is the first in a series as The Journal documents their road to recovery.

“There’s something wrong with me”

Senior Jade Bowen sits on her bed at Children’s Hospital, the lights of the room reflecting brightly on her hairless head. The room is sterile except for the few accents from her home life. She skillfully turns off the alerting signals from the machine beside her, which supplies her with medicine to treat her cancer-stricken body.

Senior Jade Bowen holds her IV as her nurse injects her afternoon dosage of medicine on Nov. 9 at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Bowen was diagnosed with leukemia in June and received a stem cell transplant on Nov. 12.
Tina Dang
Senior Jade Bowen holds her IV as her nurse injects her afternoon dosage of medicine on Nov. 9 at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Bowen was diagnosed with leukemia in June and received a stem cell transplant on Nov. 12.

Bowen’s everyday life took an abrupt turn when she learned of the disease developing inside her 17-year-old body: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Since June, Bowen has been courageously fighting against adversity unimaginable to the standard teenage girl. She has battled through the pain of countless needles and the even more dreadful pain of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. While her struggle opened with devastation, Bowen has continued to push through.

Leading up to her diagnosis, Bowen experienced a stretch of illness. It started with the vomiting. She found herself constantly throwing up and falling asleep easily. Bereft of an appetite, Bowen could not eat. For two weeks, she was unable to attend school due to her poor health. She eventually sought medical treatment and to her dismay, the doctor told her she was merely constipated.

“This is more than constipation; there’s something wrong with me,” Bowen stressed. Her symptoms continued to get worse.

While she sat in her car waiting for her shift at Arby’s to start, she attempted to eat some grapes.

“I need to eat,” she thought.

Almost immediately, Bowen began to throw up. Overwhelmed with nausea, she returned home and passed out.  She was awoken by the sharp sensation of her left and right sides caving in.

Bowen gets emotional as she recalls the day she learned she had leukemia.
Tina Dang
Bowen gets emotional as she recalls the day she learned she had leukemia.

“Mom, we have to go to the emergency room,” Bowen urgently told her mother, Kari Childs.

Bowen was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where she underwent several blood tests.  Doctors immediately referred to her to Seattle Children’s Hospital where her worst fears were confirmed.

“The doctor told me, ‘You have leukemia.’”

Since her diagnosis, Bowen has been in and out of Children’s Hospital. She has endured a number of painful tests, treatments and surgeries. Because of her weak immune system, she is unable to attend school and visitors are kept to a minimum.

“I miss being around a lot of people that are my age,” Bowen said. “I lost a relationship that I had for a while, but I have a lot of people supporting me.”

Numerous rounds of chemotherapy have left visible scars on Bowen; the radiation has left her skin is blotchy and peeling. She decided to shave her head after her hair began to fall out.

On Nov. 12, Bowen underwent her third surgery – a stem cell transplant. Bowen is thankful for her donor, whose cells were a solid match to her own. She is looking forward to one day meeting the donor.

Bowen is expected to stay in the hospital for another month after the stem cell transplant to make sure there are no complications. Until then, she tries to stay focused on the positive.

“Jesus keeps me strong every day,” Bowen said. “This is a hard fight, but I can do it.”

Phong Ton is having to readjust to life in a wheelchair after being severely injured in a car crash last May. The senior attends school part time to accommodate his rehabilitation schedule.
Robyn Gamboa
Phong Ton is having to readjust to life in a wheelchair after being severely injured in a car crash last May. The senior attends school part time to
accommodate his rehabilitation schedule.

“I thought I was dead”

Phong Ton tries to release his seatbelt, but cannot feel any sensation in his fingers. Just a few moments earlier, he was cruising down Interstate 5 with his peers. In the blink of an eye, Ton found himself staring at the roof of the 1995 Lexus GS3 in which he was riding. The car had collided with the beige Toyota Camry carrying four of his friends.

On May 28, Ton’s usual adventures with his friends took a traumatic turn. He, along with seven of his classmates, were involved in a severe car crash while driving to Westfield Southcenter Mall. The Lexus carried four boys as it went over a guardrail and rolled 100 feet down a steep embankment. Ton was trapped inside the vehicle.

“I remember going over the embankment and rolling a couple times. Then we slammed into [a] tree…” Ton said. “That’s when I realized I couldn’t feel anything. I was trying to get out of the car but I couldn’t lift my legs. I thought I was dead.”

Ton spent 11 days in the Intensive Care Unit at Harborview Medical Center before being moved to Seattle Children’s Hospital. He suffered a fracture in his C6 vertebrae, an injury that left him paralyzed.
Courtesy of Phong Ton
Ton spent 11 days in the Intensive Care Unit at Harborview Medical Center before being moved to Seattle Children’s Hospital. He suffered a fracture in his C6 vertebrae, an injury that left him paralyzed.

Six boys were treated at Harborview Medical Center, but only five got to go home. Ton spent 11 days in the Intensive Care Unit after undergoing surgery for a collapsed lung and a fracture in his C6 vertebrae, an injury that would leave him paralyzed. Ton also has limited use of his hands, making it difficult to perform the every day tasks most people take for granted. He can feel sensation below his chest, but has no mobility in his legs.

“I’ve been walking pretty much all my life and then one day it got taken away from me,” said Ton. “When I was in the hospital, I was like, ‘Man, why me?’”

Ton was later transferred to Seattle Children’s Hospital where he spent nearly 60 days in rehab that involved grueling physical therapy sessions. He was discharged in early August. The time he spent in the hospital took a toll on his emotional state.

“I was really depressed for a long time,” he said.

Today, the senior shows up to school every day in the same coordinated outfits and cheery attitude that his peers have come to expect from him. But the gravity of the changes that have taken place in Ton’s life is hard to grasp. He credits his support system for helping him remain positive and persevere through adversity. According to him, there are many factors that allow him to be the same person he has always been.

“My mom is there for me, because sometimes I just feel like, ‘what’s the point?’” Ton said.

Like Bowen and many others who find themselves in difficult situations, Ton turned to religion for support.

“We weren’t ever really too religious, but when the accident happened, that’s what we fell back on,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with it, but if it helps people get through hard times…”

The Journal will be following Jade Bowen and Phong Ton as they wind down their road to recovery.

Next month: support systems.