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Summer Strong

By Lauren Campbell

The FSU field hockey team walks onto the field, stand in line and listens to their starting lineup, with one pint-sized player standing at the end of the line.

She smiles and waves to the crowd as the loudspeaker bellows out her name. Although she is the smallest member of the team, she is also the strongest and most courageous.

Her name is Summer Baisley and at just 5 years old, she is already a cancer survivor and a member of a college athletic team.

The crowd cheers for Summer as a smile stretches across her face.

Summer endured chemotherapy for half of her life before ever knowing what it was like to be just like

any other 5 year old.

In fall 2010, Summer’s mother, former Framingham State student Marla Baisley, was at home with her then 2-year-old daughter and two sons when she noticed something different about Summer.

“She was walking funny,” Marla said. “I had thought she hurt herself at gymnastics.”

Summer had always been a healthy baby, so Marla knew immediately that something was wrong with her daughter. She scheduled an appointment to take her daughter to the doctor to have her checked out.

Summer had to undergo multiple tests before her diagnosis came in.

“When they told us Summer needed more tests, I knew something wasn’t right,” Marla said.

On Halloween 2010, Summer’s test results came in and her life changed forever. She was diagnosed with leukemia, and was scheduled to start her treatments at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester a few days later. She was just 2 years old.

Her treatment would last two and a half years. By the end of it all, half of Summer’s life would be spent getting poked and prodded in order to get her better.

“The beginning [of Summer’s treatment] was awful,” Marla said. “She was so tired and so sick. But through it all, she never complained.”

Despite all the treatments Summer had to endure, “She never had to be held down when she was given a shot,” Marla said. “She was always very brave and she was always smiling.”

Because of the chemotherapy, Summer started to lose some of her hair. It would come out in clumps, but would quickly grow back.

Marla said she wanted to shave her head to help her daughter feel better about losing her hair.

“She begged me not to do it,” she said of her daughter.

Despite Summer undergoing chemotherapy, Marla marveled at how positive her daughter was.

“No one wants to be pumped full of chemo,” she said. “But there was never a day Summer said, ‘I don’t want to go.’”

Although Summer stayed upbeat during her illness, there were times during her treatment which were hard for both mother and daughter.

Summer had to be placed on steroids in order to keep her strength up. At the time, she was a mere 18 pounds.

Marla said all her daughter wanted to eat was rotisserie chicken, shredded Mexican cheese and cucumbers.

“She was a healthy eater,” Marla said. “She was always hungry, but she snacked healthily. Her only downfall was freeze pops.”

However, while Summer was on the steroids, she was 35 pounds and stopped walking for four months.

“It was really hard,” Marla said. “It was such a drastic change for her.”

Along with helping her youngest child battle a life-threatening illness, Marla also had two other children whom she needed to take care of as well.

Caleb, now 14, was 11 when his younger sister was diagnosed with Leukemia.

“He adjusted very well to Summer being sick,” Marla said. “He kept to himself mostly, like a typical big brother. He even got the ]u shot to make sure he stayed healthy.”

Extra measures had to be taken when someone in the household was sick around Summer. Because chemotherapy weakens the immune system, the family tried to protect Summer as much as they could from the spread of germs.

Marla said while Summer was undergoing treatment, if her fever reached over 101 degrees, “It was an automatic trip to the emergency room.”

Marla’s younger son, Ryder, now 9, didn’t handle his sister’s illness as well as his older brother did.

“He was only 6 when Summer was diagnosed,” Marla said. “He definitely took it the hardest.”

Marla said her son struggled in the first grade and acted out nearly every day.

“It’s hard enough being the middle child,” Marla said. “Now, he had to deal with most of the attention going to his sister who was dealing with cancer. It was tough.”

As Summer got older and battled her illness, she continued to do what other children her age were doing. She took part in dance classes, played soccer and attended preschool.

Because Summer was constantly partaking in activities, even during chemotherapy, no one would have guessed she was battling a life-threatening illness. Marla said there were people at Summer’s school who had no idea she was even sick.

Marla said, “She was the healthiest, sickest kid. She never let having cancer hold her back.”

Two years into her treatment, in 2012, Summer had a dance recital that she had been anxious to take part in. Shortly before the day of the recital, she lost most of the hair on one side of her head.

Marla said despite having the dance uniforms already set for the recital, the whole team switched their headpieces to the opposite side of their heads so Summer could cover up her bald spot.

Throughout Summer’s treatment, Marla said she took pictures of “the good, the bad and the ugly,” because she wants her daughter to remember everything. “Summer was always 100 percent aware of what was going on.”

Toward the end of Summer’s treatment, in April 2013, UMass Memorial Medical Center informed Marla about a nonprofit organization called Team IMPACT.

“I had never heard of it,” Marla said. “I had no idea what to expect.”

Team IMPACT pairs children with life-threatening illnesses with college athletic teams for their seasons. They act as honorary members of the teams and attend games and practices.

After filling out the paperwork to get Summer signed up, Marla found out her daughter would be joining the Framingham State field hockey team. Marla was excited her daughter was able to be involved at her own university.

Once the Lady Rams found out they would be adopting then 4-year-old Summer for their 2013 season, they decided to make her feel as if she were a true part of the team by holding a pizza party for her in the spring.

Sophomore mid)elder Shannon O’Malley said, “She was very shy, but excited to meet us.”

At the pizza party, Summer was given stuffed animals, an FSU T-shirt and a foam finger.

“We gave her a stuffed giraffe, whom she had decided to name Chuck Norris,” O’Malley said. “At that moment, I knew she was really something special.”

Even during the summer, the Lady Rams made sure to take time out of their busy schedules to hang out with her. Marla said some of the team even came to her daughter's fifth birthday party.

“Summer was so excited to have them at her party,” said Marla.

The now 5-year-old Summer also got the good news from her doctors that she was in remission after fighting cancer for half of her young life.

Marla said watching her daughter go through chemotherapy and battle cancer allowed her to see the good in people.

“It takes a special type of person to do child oncology,” she said.

To celebrate Summer being cancer-free, the field hockey team took their newest teammate to her favorite place, Southwick’s Zoo.

Junior defender Emma Littlefield, who also serves as the on-campus ambassador for Team IMPACT, said, “Summer has a great support system of family, friends and now a team who will help her in whatever she needs in life.”

When the field hockey team started their practices, Summer was invited to join them on the field. After attending a few of them, Andrew Shapiro, owner of Play it Again Sports in Framingham, donated a field hockey stick, which was the perfect length for Summer.

When Summer attended practices and games, she was an enormous help to her teammates, and not just acting as a cheerleader.

Senior mid)elder Kaitlyn Ranieri said, “Summer helped pass out the balls during drills.”

Littlefield said, “We loved having Summer come to our games and count, ‘one, two, three,’ for us,” when the team assembled in their huddles.

On Nov. 2, the Lady Rams had their annual Senior Day game at which Summer’s name was announced over the loudspeaker. Marla said, “It was great for her. She loved hearing her name being called.”

Ranieri said she looks to Summer as a little sister.

“Having her walk out with me during the announcement of the starters was the best feeling ever,” she said.

When the team suffered a loss, Summer was there to help them lift their spirits. Littlefield said,

“Whether she knows it or not, Summer helps everyone else and is an inspiration.”

Freshman goalie Sarah Palace said Summer “gives us motivation.”

The field hockey team finished their season with a 9-10 overall record and made an appearance in the ECAC Division III New England Tournament. Next season, they plan to have Summer return.

Marla said Summer really connected with the team, and they are role models to her daughter.

“After years of undergoing chemo, it was nice to have something good in her life.”

She said her daughter has already made summer plans for the team. “She wants to go to the beach with them,” Marla said.

Summer has been cancer-free for six months. For the first year, she goes to the doctor once a month for check-ups. During her second year of remission, she will only need to see the doctor once every two months.

Palace said, “Summer is a cancer survivor and her story is inspiring whether she knows it or not.”

Littlefield agreed with her teammate and added, “She is a reminder that if you work hard, you can achieve, and giving up is not an option.”

Marla said Summer is getting up to speed with what her normal is. For two-and-a-half years, her normal was being in a hospital being treated for cancer.

“It’s all she knew,” Marla said.

Marla wanted to make sure her daughter never felt as if she were trapped while she was undergoing treatment.

“I never wanted to shelter her. I wanted her to do the things other kids her age were doing. I never wanted her to feel she was being left out because she was sick,” she said.

Ranieri said, “She has to be the strongest, most inspirational 5-year-old I have ever met.”

Now that Summer is cancer-free, her family is adjusting to her being a normal 5-year-old. Marla said when her daughter gets a fever or has a stomach bug, it feels weird not to have to bring her to the emergency room.

O’Malley said, “Summer is such an amazing young girl. ... She has been through more than most adults have been through in their entire lives. She is extremely resilient.”

Palace said, “Having Summer on our team taught us a lesson to appreciate the littlest things in life and to not take things for granted.”

Although the field hockey season just recently ended, the plan is to have Summer return for the 2014 season. Palace said the team hopes to have a real jersey for her by that time.

Palace said the team was able to give Summer 22 new friendly faces who will cheer for her no matter what.”

One day, she will be able to see how much of an impact she had on the field hockey team and how she helped them, the same way they helped her.

Ranieri said Summer serves as her motivation to “get through every, what I call, ‘tough situation’ in my life.”

Littlefield said, “Summer’s attitude toward life was not shut down by something which is a life-

threatening illness. It made her stronger and a true inspiration.”

[Editor’s note: Shannon O’Malley is a staff writer for The Gatepost.]

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