Charly's Hail Mary
By Olivia Ramirez
At first glance, Charly Erpelding is just like any typical 17 year old girl. She has a deep love for the “Harry Potter” series, a part time job at a bakery, a family she cares for dearly and friends she would do anything for. She’s often found volunteering at nursing homes, working up a sweat at the gym, mentoring students at Edison Jr. High, or playing fetch with her bulldog Wally. It’s rare to find Charly without a smile and a sunny disposition which is contagious to all she meets.
She certainly seems average, but she is far from it.
When Charly was eight, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, which is a rare form of bone cancer. A tumor was sandwiched between her ribs, touching a few vital organs such as her diaphragm, left lung and stomach. Treatment was very extensive due to the placement of the tumor and the rareness of the cancer.
“I went through fourteen rounds of chemotherapy, a few weeks of radiation, and a big surgery to remove the tumor,” Charly said.
The treatment was rigorous, especially for a second grader, but it certainly paid off when Charly was declared cancer free several months later. She returned to Bettendorf with less hair and more scars than she had left with, but she took this change in stride. She was often seen accentuating her bald head with colorful headbands and large, shimmering earrings.
When she arrived home after the last doctor’s appointment, friends from Charly’s elementary school and her many supporters were lined up and down her street with “Welcome home Charly!” signs. For those who care for her, seeing that her usual positive attitude and bright smile were still intact was a welcome sight. It was a joyous celebration of life, but an event that everyone hoped would never be necessary again.
Nine years passed, and Charly was doing exceptionally well. Her hair was feather soft and cascaded down to the middle of her back; she was recovering inside and out, and she was involved in all sorts of activities including National Honors Society and Student Council. She was entering her senior year of high school, which was supposed to be the most carefree of her life. Charly was ecstatic to finally stand at the front of the student section at football games and to be allowed to attend senior prom. She couldn't wait to finish out her high school career, and she wanted to end it on a high note. The simplicity of senior year would be a welcome change from her past. The biggest decision she would have to make was which homecoming dress she wanted, and of course, what her future would like after graduation.
But cancer doesn't care about senior year or homecoming, and it’s anything but simplistic.
Charly was five months shy of her eighteenth birthday when the pain began again.
“Starting May of this year, I began getting horrible pressure headaches that wouldn't really go away. They were bad enough to keep me from doing my regular activities,” Charly said.
She visited her pediatrician and found the source of the issue: a bump on the crown of her head that was mistaken as a pilar cyst, a clogged hair follicle which are fairly common.
In classic Charly fashion, the supposed cyst was given a name. Diana was a decent sized bump, but nothing to worry about just yet. The doctor planned on removing it, but to be on the safe side, they first wanted Charly to get an MRI to make sure there was nothing more serious happening.
“After the MRI, it was clear it was more than a cyst and I was up at Iowa City (Children’s Hospital) within the week,” Charly said, “so Diana lost the privilege of her name when she tried to kill me.”
Many more tests and scans followed, and their results confirmed what had already been suspected: Charly had Ewing’s Sarcoma for the second time in her life.
“I was devastated. No mother wants to see their child go through something like that, especially twice,” Tara Erpelding, Charly’s mother, said.
When the Erpeldings met with Charly’s oncologist, they were presented with two options of treatment.
“The first one was much more tolerable; lots of at home chemo and would at least keep me comfortable and give me a few more years. The second plan was an extremely difficult chemo regimen that involved lots of radiation and would be much harder on me. However, it was my only chance to get rid of the cancer for good. A big problem with this plan was that it wasn't guaranteed that it would be more effective than the first,” Charly explained.
Because she is almost an adult and is able to comprehend more than she was nine years ago, Charly got the overall say of which treatment she wanted. With the support of her parents, she chose the second option.
“It was a ‘Hail Mary’ decision,” Charly said, “but in my mind, it wasn't even a question at all. In the end, I want to be able to know that I did all that I could, no questions asked.”
When giving her response, Charly told the oncologist: “Let’s go for the Hail Mary.”
And so they did.
With Charly having to stay five days at a time for her inpatient chemotherapy and radiation treatments, there isn't much to do during that time in her hospital room.
“Treatments consist of Char and I watching a lot of ‘Glee,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ and online shopping because I have the absolute best taste. We also love trying takeout from new restaurants but some of our favorites are Red Ginger and Panera,” Andy Erpelding said. He and Tara would switch off during the stays so that someone could be home with Charly’s younger brother Will.
“Treatments are not ideal, but we keep things positive and try to make the best with what we have,” Tara said.
Making the most of bad situations is the motto of the Erpeldings. Tara, Andy, Charly and Will enjoy every second they spend together, which has made Charly’s illness a bit easier on them. Their bond is stronger than anything ever before, and it shows in the way they truly love and care for one another. They cherish one another, and the same goes for their extended family.
“There isn't a minute that goes by without our family surrounding us with love, strength and positivity. They mean the world to us and are the foundation of all our courage,” Tara said.
It’s clear that Charly’s positive attitude and unwavering sense of humor has allowed her to weather this storm so gracefully. She often makes light of her situation, which can receive some very mixed reactions.
“I was in Mr. Rankin’s speech class and we were doing random prompts. I got ‘if your life was a movie, what would it be called?’ With all the confidence in me, I walked up to the podium and said, ‘Hello everyone. Today I am going to explain why if my life were a movie, it would be called ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Watching everyone’s jaws drop to the floor is definitely one of my favorite memories of high school,” Charly said.
Charly certainly does have struggles, some pretty profound ones at that, but she has always remained resilient in the face of adversity and refuses to let anything deprive her of the joys of living. She shows her strength every single day by getting up and continuing to fight. If there’s one thing to know about Charly, it's that she’s not a quitter. There’s always hope. There’s always one more play in the playbook.
“Cancer is as much of a mental battle as it is a physical one. For me, I'm the type of person to never let something control my life and my happiness. I try to be kind to myself and remember that I’m doing the very best I can. There are always going to be hard days, so it's really important to find the value in your life. You have to be the happiest and truest version of yourself regardless of what life throws at you.”
Olivia Ramirez is a senior. This is her
first year as a staff writer for The Growl.