ZIONSVILLE — High school graduation is a milestone to celebrate for any young person. For kids who made it that far after confronting a life-threatening disease, make that pomp POMP and circumstance, and most definitely, commencement.
Friday, 23 recent high school graduates and their families had a second cap-and-gown ceremony -- at Riley Hospital for Children, where the teenagers were treated for cancer and other illnesses sometime in their childhoods.
Some were diagnosed at birth with conditions such as sickle cell anemia, others were toddlers who might not even remember being sick, and others were recently diagnosed and still having treatment.
Among the group was Carly Chapman, 18, who just graduated from Zionsville High School.
She was 9 years old when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer.
Carly had to endure chemotherapy, going bald, many hospitalizations at Riley, many more visits for treatments and follow-ups — and she had a 7-inch section of her left thigh bone removed. That surgery saved her leg.
Her surgeon, Dr. L. Daniel Wurtz, tried something new with Chapman — a metal rod with an internal spring that could be triggered by external electromagnetic stimulation to gradually expand as she grew.
Previously, repeated surgeries were needed to implant longer rods as children grew; since the 2003 surgery to put the Repiphysis device into Chapman, there have been advances with sturdier rods that can be expanded through a tiny incision and the medical equivalent of a screw driver.
That's the kind of prosthetic Chapman had implanted a few years ago when the Repiphysis, which always was a temporary option, maxed out. Her last surgery was in December, when Wurtz actually shortened her left leg a bit because it turned out to have been stretched more than needed.
At 5-feet-4-inches tall, Carly had finished growing in height.
But by most other measures, she continues to reach for greater heights.
Carly is simply grateful for her family.
"The whole experience . . . really just taught me to be closer to my family and really cherish my family, because I love them and they looked out for me so much and took care of me," she said.
Carly is part of a multi-blended family. When she was 9, there were her mother and stepfather, Carrie and Mark Ryan; her father, Mike Chapman and his then-wife; her biological siblings, all older than she — Cole, Cassie and Chandler Chapman; her stepsister Katie Ryan, the oldest of the brood; Becky Beecher, who has worked for the family since Carly was a toddler and handled everything from tears and secret fears to laundry and car-pooling and is best described as a "family manager." That list doesn't begin to count aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, church family and close friends.
Since then, Mike Chapman has divorced and remarried and added a little sister and brother to the mix.
Even if the number of troops made it sometimes challenging to get everyone where they needed to be at the right time, and receiving the time and attention and parenting they deserved, it also meant that Carly had an army of supporters by her side as she battled. As a 9-year-old, she might have just expected that. As a young woman, she more fully appreciates it.
If her siblings ever resented that she was the center of attention so often and her needs dictated the family's activities, Carly said she never heard it — but she wouldn't blame them for griping behind her back.
"I think my siblings handled it first-class," she said. "If they complained, it was never around me."
In fact, Carly said she doesn't remember much about what must have been bad times. Yes, it hurt when her leg was lengthened and hospital stays interrupted family plans, but she said she recalls looking forward to going to Riley — because she liked the doctors and nurses so much.
"I remember wanting to have hair again," she acknowledged, and searched her memories for other instances of anger or fear. She giggled. "I don't know why, but I honestly don't remember the bad."
"I think it's just that everybody was praying and praying for me that I would feel that I was in God's arms."
And that's one key. Carly's family isn't big on overt sermons about doctrine or denomination or even prescribing any version of Christianity as the only way to go for everyone. But their faith is integral to their path, and it's the path the teenager is following.
She has enrolled at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a small Florida school that meets her three criteria: Christian, because she wants a Biblical approach to her studies; small campus, so she can walk and bike without over-taxing her knee; and in a year-round warm climate, as her knee becomes stiff and painful in cold weather. Moderate temperatures will make it easier to continue physical therapy to maximize her mobility during the next four years.
Carly plans to major in biology, with a pre-med focus, and then go to medical school to become a pediatric oncologist. That's a goal that developed during the past few years, and while Carly is open to new experiences changing her dreams, she sees herself combining her personal insights with formal education to help children confront a scary medical diagnosis.
Rather, that's the goal she hears being set for her — from above.
"Whatever God calls me into, I'll go into," she said. "If I change my mind, I change my mind. People change. Dreams change.
"I just want to be wherever God wants me to be."
Wurtz, her Riley surgeon, has watched Carly's curiosity about medicine grow — she has shadowed him in clinic and even in surgery to gain perspective. Wurtz knows what his vote on her future is:
"I'm hoping to see her back here as a colleague."
Over the years, Carly was an advocate for cancer education and Riley, raising money through school groups for breast cancer and lymphoma, appearing in a Riley commercial with Tony Dungy, working one-on-one with younger cancer patients — she took a 14-year-old boy in the middle of chemotherapy to her prom as her date in April — and never shrinking from the questions of friends or strangers about those scars on her leg, which she makes no attempt to hide.
"I never tried to hide it. I never felt a need," said Carly, who at 9 preferred to ditch her wig and boldly go bald.
She can't bend her left knee all the way and pushes through physical therapy to stretch and maybe gain few more degrees of mobility; she can't jump or run or risk the roller-blading and gymnastics she tackled as a competitive and athletic pre-cancer kid; she can't mindlessly eat however much she wants and risk becoming overweight, putting more stress on her prosthetic.
But Carly seems puzzled and as though she feels a bit sorry for someone asking about limitations.
"Why would I look at what I can't do? Look at what I can do!" she said. "I don't want people to feel bad for me. I don't feel bad for myself.
"I mean, I'm still alive!"