June 17, 2016, was the first time I lost Ava. While walking through the camp, I turned around and saw her lagging behind. “Ugh,” she moaned, “I’m tired of walking.” I laughed and walked back to join her. At the time, Ava was a 10-year-old medullo-blastoma survivor. She was diagnosed at 28 months and went into remission when she was four. That summer, I had the privilege of being Ava’s camp counselor. I got to know Ava as the girl with endless love to give, so much so that she dubbed the oldest horse at the barn, Buzz, her best friend. Buzz was the old horse no one wanted, yet Ava handpicked him and even made up a theme song for their friendship.
A month later, I lost Ava a second time. Our camp director sent an email to let each of Ava’s counselors know that she was diagnosed with a secondary, terminal cancer. I sobbed. This wasn’t fair. I spent the next year following Ava’s journey closely through social media and her mom’s updates on her blog. I thought about Ava constantly as summer drew closer, hoping that she would make it to camp again so that I could see her.
In June of 2017, I visited camp. I walked to the horse barns where Ava and her cabin mates were. As I walked up, Ava and her mom, Joni, were waiting to pick out a horse to ride. By that time, Ava was on a strict keto diet, had lost a lot of her energy and was paralyzed on one side of her body. I stood by Joni’s side as Ava’s counselor and close friend, Payton, helped Ava up onto Buzz’s saddle. We watched as Ava rode Buzz around the pasture and sang the theme song of their friendship.
Sept. 11, 2017, was the last time I lost Ava. At that time, I was a first-year medical student studying in the library when a friend texted me the news that she had passed. I was devastated. A few days later I walked into Ava’s funeral, clutching Payton’s hand, expecting to cry. When I walked into the church, I laughed. In front of me, in true Ava fashion, was a bright pink casket. Over the next hour, I listened to stories of Ava and how she sparked joy in everyone she met, and over the next few years I saw how Ava’s family and her community came together to celebrate her life by continuing to raise awareness and funding for pediatric cancer research.
Now in my third year of medical school, I’m constantly asked what kind of doctor I will be. When I inform people that I want to be a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, I’m often met with sighs and words of caution that it will be a difficult field. But because of Ava, and her sparkles, and her love, I’m able to smile and say, “Yes, it is devastating losing a kiddo, but knowing them is so, so beautiful.”