Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU honors graduates treated for cancer and blood disorders

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Graduation season is upon us and high school seniors all around the country are donning caps and gowns to proudly accept their diplomas. Each graduate is ready to tackle the next chapter in their lives full of dreams and future plans.

The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Medical Center and ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation hosted a special graduation ceremony on June 6, in the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building. This annual celebration honors graduating high school students who have received care from the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic. This year’s ceremony celebrated the graduates’ pasts as well as their futures.

This year, 20 students representing seven public schools and one private school from across Virginia were recognized for their accomplishments. This included 19 oncology or hematology patients and one sickle cell patient. The students continued their academic studies while often undergoing treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, transfusions and bone marrow aspirations.

“This particular celebration is unique, not just because it’s being held in a medical center, but because these students had the additional challenge of meeting their educational responsibilities while dealing with massive challenges to their health,” said Rev. Tom David Siebert, chaplain, Department of Pastoral Care at the VCU Medical Center, during his opening remarks.

India Sisler, M.D., interim chief and assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Hematology and Oncology, spoke on behalf of the staff from the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic.

“This is really our favorite event of the year. We close down the clinic entirely so everybody can be here,” Sisler said. “Most graduations are about the future and that’s what you will hear at your graduation. Someone will stand up and say, ‘think about what you’re going to accomplish, how you’re going to touch the world, how you’re going to inspire.’ You all have already touched the world, you have already inspired and you have already learned the hard lessons. We are just so grateful to be able to be a part of that and we can’t wait to see what you guys are going to do.”

Christopher Murphy, Psy.D., the keynote speaker, spoke about “Hair Loss, Hickmans and Blood Counts: Overcoming Adversity,” a topic the students related to well. Murphy was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 14 years old so he knew what it was like to be a cancer patient in middle and high school. He shared his story and some of the hard lessons he learned along the way. In closing, he said, “Resiliency is the ability to bounce back. Bend, not break. When you’re in a tough situation you can’t change, embrace it and make it your own.”

Alexandra “Ally” Diesel, a graduate from Cosby High School in Chesterfield County, knows the importance of being resilient. Diesel is a three-time cancer survivor. Diagnosed with leukemia as a baby, she went into remission and lived a full life until she turned 11, when the cancer returned. She was homebound during her entire sixth grade year while she received treatment. The leukemia went into remission yet again and she returned to school for seventh grade.

“It was challenging, missing the time from school and returning not having hair, wearing a hat, enduring the stares,” Diesel said. “It was a challenge catching up academically, but it’s just something you have to jump back into. You have to get it done.”

When her cancer returned for the third time, Diesel was in high school. She had to be pulled out to begin another round of treatment, something that was all too familiar. This time, her treatment included a bone marrow transplant. Her sister, Tori, was her match and donor. Among cancer patients, a bone marrow transplant is considered a “rebirth” or second birthday. She received her transplant three days before her 17th birthday. This day, as well as her birthday, is now an annual day of celebration for Diesel and her family.

Now a cancer survivor, Diesel too has learned hard lessons on the road to recovery. She shares some of these lessons in her essay, a requirement for all of the students, “The experience of having cancer has taught me compassion and to stand up. It has made me a better friend and student and it has helped me stand up for other people being bullied for their disabilities. The advice I would give to other young people recently diagnosed or currently going through treatment is to stay strong and to never give up hope because you can make it through cancer. You have family and friends who love you and you have people to help you fight your battle.”

Diesel’s resiliency and hard work has paid off and she will be attending Mary Baldwin College this fall as a criminal justice major with hopes of becoming a forensic crime scene investigator. All 20 of the graduates will be attending college in the fall at universities such as Texas A&M, University of North Carolina, University of Mississippi and Virginia Tech.

Scholarships from the ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation, OSCAR-Sickle Cell Association of Richmond and memorial funds were awarded to several of the students. Diesel received the Melissa Robertson Memorial Scholarship presented by Debbie Robertson.

Alma Morgan, educational consultant at the VCU Medical Center, who worked closely with each student to ensure they were on track academically and helped with the transition back to school, closed out the ceremony by telling the graduates to “go conquer this world.” They appeared ready for the challenge.


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Debbie Robertson (left) presented Ally Diesel (right) with a scholarship in memory of her daughter Melissa Robertson.
Debbie Robertson (left) presented Ally Diesel (right) with a scholarship in memory of her daughter Melissa Robertson.
The graduating class of 2014 with representatives from the ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation
The graduating class of 2014 with representatives from the ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation
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