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Fight for life puts college out of reach

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Massaponax High School senior Lexy Quance will graduate next month, on time, despite a grueling battle with leukemia. Her sights remain firmly set on college. (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE–STAR )

Massaponax High School senior Lexy Quance will graduate next month, on time, despite a grueling battle with leukemia. Her sights remain firmly set on college. (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE–STAR )

Lexy Quance believed her parents when they told her she’d get what she wanted if she worked hard enough.

She clung to that promise after she was diagnosed with a leukemia that usually strikes older people, not teenage girls like herself.

If she was going to fulfill her dream—to go to college and become a physician assistant—she had to keep her grades up, no matter how sick she got.

In the midst of high fevers and joint pain, spontaneous bleeding and blotchy rashes all over her body, Lexy kept a textbook in front of her swollen face. She studied, even when her mother encouraged her to rest.

“That’s not what’s important right now,” Tracey Quance would tell her daughter, but Lexy wouldn’t listen. “It’s like she never even considered that she might not make it. It was all on her to get her schoolwork done.”

Lexy will graduate in June with the rest of her Massaponax High School class. Because of her determination—and college-level courses she took before her illness—she has a grade point average of 4.038.

The teenager also has a damaged heart, liver and kidneys from drugs and treatments used to save her. She will not be able to have children.

But even with everything that’s already happened to Lexy, another obstacle stands between her and her dreams. This time, it’s money.

MEDICAL RARITIES

Lexy, whose real name is Alexis, is the daughter of Jared and Tracey Quance of Spotsylvania. He’s a civilian computer engineer for the Coast Guard, and she’s a registered nurse.

The Quances also have a 10-year-old son, Nathaniel.

Before Lexy got sick, she juggled Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities.

She was editor of the school’s paper and a cheerleader, a homecoming princess in 2012 and a prom princess in 2013. She volunteered in the emergency room of Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center.

In November of her junior year, Lexy was in and out of medical facilities, trying to figure out what was causing unexplained bruises and horrible chest pains.

In December 2012, a month after her 17th birthday, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The average AML patient is 66 years old, according to the American Cancer Society.

Her type of leukemia starts in cells that normally develop into different types of blood cells. It is so aggressive, it can be fatal within months, according to the cancer society.

Doctors at VCU Medical Center in Richmond started chemotherapy right away, and horrific complications ensued. Lexy had ulcers down her throat and into her digestive tract. The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea were so bad, she sometimes fell asleep on the bathroom floor.

Then, she discovered she had another medical abnormality, in addition to having a senior citizen’s disease.

Her base stem cells were defective and predisposed to cancer—something doctors said they’d never seen, according to Lexy’s family.

“No matter how much chemo she would undergo and how many times she would go into remission, her cancer would always come back,” according to Lexy’s medical history, which is posted online.

After a third and even more aggressive round of chemotherapy, Lexy had a bone marrow transplant in May 2013. Things looked good, initially.

This is Lexy Quance, post bone-marrow transplant. Days later, her lungs shut down.

This is Lexy Quance, post bone-marrow transplant. Days later, her lungs shut down.

‘REALLY CRUMMY ODDS’

Jared Quance jokes that his family chronicles every medical misery through photos, and the gallery of Lexy’s illness ranges from inspirational to ghastly.

One photo was taken three days after the transplant. Lexy had a mask over her mouth and a knitted hat on her bald head. Her shirt read: “Fight like a girl.”

Doctors told her that the more active she was, the better chances her new bone marrow had of succeeding.

In her typical “overachiever” fashion, her mother said, she forced herself to walk, even though the pain was so bad she sometimes cried the whole time.

But this photo was taken on a good day. Lexy had stamina to walk two laps that morning instead of one.

Nine days later, she was in intensive care. Her lungs failed first, followed by the rest of her organs.

She spent 42 days hooked to ventilators, oscillators, dialysis and an ECMO machine, which does the work of the lungs.

Her family received “some really crummy odds” of survival as Lexy’s days in ICU turned into weeks. At first, she had a 40 percent chance of making it; later, those odds slipped to “single digits,” her father said.

“She was one of the sickest patients I’ve ever seen survive,” said Christina Wiedl, Lexy’s lead doctor.

LIFE-OR-DEATH MATTERS

Her parents had to make life-or-death decisions for their comatose child. They allowed anti-viral drugs to save her life, knowing they would damage vital organs.

Lexy came through the coma, even though she couldn’t raise her head or lift a hand at first.

Doctors let her return home to receive infusions of the various drugs she needed to fight infection and allow her body to accept someone else’s bone marrow.

She underwent months of therapy to be able to walk, talk and eat.

When she started to feel like herself again, the first thing Lexy did was reach for her books.

“There were times when I would take the medicine and feel a little bit better—not absolutely horrible,” she said. “I’d do a little bit and take a break.”

She even taught herself advanced calculus, said her best friend Sydney Bullock, who’s been at Lexy’s side as much as possible.

Lexy always knew when she needed to rest, her friend said. If she wasn’t sleeping or getting treatments, she was doing homework.

Megan Butler, a registered nurse involved with Lexy’s care since the beginning, couldn’t grasp how Lexy managed such complex classes, sick as she was.

“I have never seen a patient remain so committed to her academics in the midst of such chaos,” Butler said, adding that Lexy’s GPA is “nothing short of remarkable.”

FINANCIAL HARDSHIPS

Lexy, who is now 18, wants to major in biology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, then study at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

She always wanted to be a physician assistant, but decided to specialize in pediatric oncology after her experience. She got frustrated when doctors told her they knew how she felt.

“Well, not really,” she would think.

She’s gotten medical clearance to attend college—and has been accepted to Christopher Newport.

The problem is finances.

Lexy didn’t qualify for financial aid before she got sick because her parents made too much.

They had put aside money for their children’s education, but had to dip into those funds as medical bills multiplied.

The Quances have good insurance, but their part of the bills has far exceeded their annual deductible. In 2013, they paid more than $40,000 to cover what insurance did not.

The same year, Lexy’s mother didn’t work for 11 months so she could be at her daughter’s side.

The Quances depleted their savings and retirement and maxed out their credit cards.

“We thought that we had planned well financially,” Tracey Quance said. “But we weren’t ready [for this financial catastrophe] even though we thought we’d spent our lives getting ready.”

The Quances don’t qualify for any loans for Lexy’s tuition because of their debt. Lexy missed out on scholarships because she didn’t want to apply for them before she knew she’d be well enough to go to college.

The Quances sought financial help from the Marine Corps (in which Jared Quance served), the nursing board, American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, but nothing was available.

Lexy Quance races to do schoolwork during a short visit home prior to her April 2013 bone marrow transplant.

Lexy Quance races to do schoolwork during a short visit home prior to her April 2013 bone marrow transplant.

HASN’T LOST FAITH

After seemingly running out of options, the parents created a page on YouCaring.com, a free online fundraising site. They’re trying to raise $60,000 to cover two years of tuition, believing they’ll be in better financial shape in two years and that Lexy can apply for scholarships.

Jared Quance said co-workers asked him if Lexy could attend a community college to save money, and he isn’t opposed to the idea. Then, he and his wife recall how hard Lexy worked during the worst moments of her life. She kept her end of the bargain, even though she had good reason to slack off on her studies.

“I’m not going to let her be penalized when she put the extra effort forward,” he said.

Friends of the family who have watched the Quances go through medical hardships—and almost lose their daughter—are astounded at the financial one they’re facing.

“They have been through hell and things just keep seeming to go wrong for them,” said Kelly Stevenson.

Lexy’s doctor says Lexy is well enough—and more than strong enough—a year after her transplant. She continues to face issues typical of transplant recipients, such as problems with liver function, but is a “mature young woman . . .with such a sense of who she is and where she’s going in life,” Wiedl said.

Meanwhile, Lexy’s hair has grown back, thick and curly, and her smile is as golden as ever. While she’s frustrated by the financial setbacks, she hasn’t lost faith.

“I’ll get through college somehow,” she said, “even if I only get to go away for a year.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

HOW TO HELP

A fundraising page has been set up for Lexy Quance on YouCaring.com. Her page includes details about her ordeal and photos. Donations can be made at any BB&T branch. Checks should be written to the Alexis Quance Donation Fund.

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