It was Christmas Eve. Todd and Amie Ernst were supposed to be anticipating one of the most wonderful days of the year. Instead, it was one of their worst. They had to tell their 13-year-old daughter she had cancer.
In the time since, the Greenfield couple said the weight of their burden has been lightened by support they’ve received from their community. Like last Saturday night when the Greenfield schools recognized Gracie Ernst on the court during a McClain Tigers basketball game, where cheerleaders, players, fans and others were wearing pink in her honor and the cheerleaders escorted her and her family onto the court.
“She was thrilled,” Amie said. “And they’ve done other things. The basketball team prayed for her at center court one time. Saturday was huge. It was just encouraging for her to grasp and see how many people are trying to support her.
“It was like a great big hug. Like we’re not alone in this.”
Other than a sleepy ride to Atlanta, Ga. and back, Todd and Amie had no idea their 13-year-old daughter was gravely ill. In mid November they took her to the doctor with what they thought was a sinus cold. She got better, but a week later, the loudest cheerleader on the seventh-grade squad was having trouble belting out her cheers. So back to the doctor they went.
The Monday before Christmas their family doctor and personal friend, Michelle Dodds, called Todd and Amie and told them a mass had been found on Gracie’s thyroid and that they needed to get her to Children’s Hospital in Columbus as soon as possible.
On Christmas Eve, they told Gracie what they knew, and the day after Christmas they took her to Children’s Hospital.
“We tried to make Christmas as nice as possible, but for Todd and I it was pretty tough,” Amie said.
Todd, a pastor at the Grace Baptist Church in Greenfield, said the time since has passed quickly. But that’s largely because they’ve barely had a chance to stop and catch their breath.
In that little bit of time Gracie has had three surgeries. It’s rare that she makes it to school, and she’s on medication. Soon, though, she’ll have to go off the medicine because radiation treatments begin March 10. That will mark the beginning of three months of isolation for Gracie.
Because the drugs coursing through her body will be so strong, Gracie will have to spend three months pretty much alone upstairs in her home. Her parents will be able to see her 10 minutes at a time, but will not be allowed closer than 10 feet to her.
“I just can’t really think about it right now,” said Amie, a human resources manager at Cincinnati Test Systems. “That’s going to be the worst part. She’ll be nauseous and stuff and we can’t hold her.”
At Saturday’s ballgame, the McClain cheerleaders chanted “Go Gracie, beat cancer,” after pulling her out of a Valentine’s dance to escort her onto the court. They also gave her cards, books and other things to help her pass time while she’s isolated.
“The Greenfield school system has been so supportive, the community has just been a blessing for us,” Amie said. “I can’t express – the teachers, the community of Greenfield, so many others, some from church, and some we don’t even know – are always giving us a supporting word and it’s really helped us.”
“It’s just been fantastic,” Todd said.
It was on the trip to Atlanta, to pick up a girl from the Ukraine that they are considering adopting, that Todd and Amie began to sense something might be bothering Gracie. Usually full of energy, she slept pretty much all the way there and back. But she’s a busy young girl, too, so they thought maybe she was just wore out.
Then came the cold, followed by the slightly enlarged thyroid that Dodds, the Ernsts’ family doctor in Greenfield, noticed.
“The doctors at Children’s said it was remarkable a doctor could notice the difference,” Amie said. “They said they didn’t think any Children’s (Hospital) doctors could have found it.”
It wasn’t long before the Ernsts were told their daughter had thyroid cancer.
“Fear,” Todd said in describing his reaction. “This is our little girl and what are we going to do? We have to fix this.”
Amie said she felt helpless. “It just rattled me,” she said. “On Christmas Eve she’s asking me what a biopsy was instead instead of talking about Christmas.”
At one point, Dodds came to the Ernsts’ home to explain to Gracie the rough road she was about to embark on. Amie said that when Dodds was done, she asked Gracie if she understood everything.
“She said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I’m in good hands,’” Amie said.
The Ernsts have set up a website – www.mylifeline.org/gracieernst – where they try to update Gracie’s progress so they don’t have to make so many phone calls. There’s also a place on the site to donate money to help with medical expenses. Claws for a Cause is also helping.
For the time being, things have calmed down a bit for Gracie and her family. But the radiation treatments, and three months isolation, are fast approaching.
“Gracie’s attitude has been great from the beginning,” Amie said. “Just keep praying for her.”
Jeff Gilliland may be reached at 937-393-3456 ext. 209 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.