Anna and Kristen Martin
Dec. 21, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Kristen Martin and the rest of the UT Athletics family received a very special Christmas present a few weeks early this year when Anna Martin, Kristen's 10-year-old-daughter, came home.
Anna was diagnosed in May with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer inside the bone marrow that interferes with the production of normal blood cells. But she returned to her Hardin Valley residence last week after a 7-month-long battle against the disease that inspired many of the student-athletes and staff her mother works with on a daily basis.
"We got home from Nashville about a week ago," Kristen said. "We were in Vanderbilt Children's Hospital for close to 50 days and then we were in an apartment near the hospital for about six weeks. But now she's doing well enough to be able to follow up here at East Tennessee Children's Hospital."
Anna's ordeal included rounds of chemotherapy, a bone-marrow transplant and a blindness scare that lasted five days. Through it all, Kristen said her daughter never flinched.
"She was amazing," Kristen said. "She was very, very positive. She never complained. She sort of had this motto, `Don't stop believing.' And all the while, she was a big sister to the other patients at Vandy because most of them were pretty small and a lot younger.
"She just had the best attitude ever, which, in my opinion, really helped her get through so well."
"That's a reflection of the impact Kristen's had on our team and I'm sure on other teams," said Matt Kredich, UT women's swimming head coach. "We don't really look at it as her job; we look at it as something she's giving us over and over again. If there was anything we could do to give back, we really wanted to jump on that opportunity."
Kredich said his assistant coach, Jennifer Woodruff, spearheaded the team's efforts to stay in touch with the Martins and to do things for them.
"It's been a heck of a journey and really rewarding to see," Kredich said. "The way Anna has turned from receiving all the support to giving it, she has made such a huge impact on the people who came in contact with her in the hospital and beyond.
"She's a really special girl and they are a really special family."
One instance was an emotional prayer service for Anna by Team United, UT's student-athletes Bible study group. At the end, there was a video of all the athletes doing a "Going Bananas for Anna" dance, which was a huge hit.
"We had a lot of support from UT," Kristen said. "The coaches would call or text me probably every day, and they were out at several events. We just had an enormous amount of support from the athletics department."
Another highlight was an Oct. 16 visit at Vanderbilt Hospital by the Lady Vols soccer team, in town to play the Commodores.
"Watching what Anna was forced to go through really helped us better understand that you have to take advantage of every single day," senior Lara Langworthy said. "She truly inspired us all. Visiting with her in Nashville and seeing this young girl possess such incredible strength and will power really helped motivate our team on and off the field."
Anna was finishing her fourth-grade year at Hardin Valley Elementary School when she was diagnosed May 6 with AML, a rare form of childhood leukemia. Because AML is a more aggressive form of leukemia, it has to be treated more aggressively.
Anna started chemotherapy immediately at East Tennessee Children's Hospital and responded well despite several rounds of chemo. But Anna's diagnosis also included a mutation called FLT3, which occurs in approximately 10 to 15 percent of AML patients and placed Anna in a high-risk group.
It also changed her treatment plan and called for a bone-marrow transplant.
"That was an absolute blessing," Kristen said. "There are a lot of people still waiting for matches, so she went into her bone-marrow transplant in the best situation you can have with the best prognosis."
The Martins left for Vanderbilt and Anna received her transplant Sept. 27. Kristen called the procedure successful but very intense and very difficult.
"It was a rough road, for sure," she said. "Obviously, for kids, going through that kind of thing is really difficult."
The Martins faced another huge scare toward the end of October when Anna went blind because of the side-effects of medicine she took to make sure her body did not reject the transplanted bone-marrow cells. A CT scan revealed spots on her brain, which made things even scarier.
It was revealed through an MRI that Anna had posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. PRES involves swelling of the brain and results in headaches, confusion, seizures and blindness. The symptoms can resolve themselves over time, but doctors felt changing her medication might speed the recovery.
Five long days later, Anna's eyesight returned and the most severe symptoms started to abate. Since then, Anna slowly has regained strength along with her cognitive ability.
"It is extremely rare," Kristen said of her daughter's setback. "There were nurses who had been there 30 years and never seen it. We were just really lucky because they caught it fairly quickly.
"That was our only major detour and we were just really blessed that it was reversible."
"We'll go back to Vandy on Jan. 3 for a lot of tests to evaluate the full transplant process and see how it's working," Kristen said. "Then we'll go back to Vandy once a month, although we still will follow-up here twice a week.
"Transplants are a big deal and they have to really watch her."
In the meantime, it's the UT family that keeps watching Anna for inspiration. The student-athletes, coaches and staff are overjoyed she is home and currently cancer-free. They know they have received a true Christmas gift from her incredible efforts and continue to believe Anna can win her fight.
"She just had a great attitude, a positive attitude," Kristen said. "It was a horrible situation that she could have been really upset about, but she took it on just like a champion. When you have a healthy attitude mentally, that just really helps."