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Six years ago, New Orleans native Shelby Ryan Leonhard believed she was living a normal day, until she got news that would change the course of her life.
Leonhard had been struggling with a sharp pain in her left shoulder for months. She saw physical therapists and had multiple X-rays, yet nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
But on Jan. 19, 2011, Leonhard went into cardiac arrest three times in her sleep, and she was immediately rushed to the hospital. There, doctor’s discovered that Leonhard had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her chest.
She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to Dr. Matthew J. Ehrhardt, a faculty member at the St. Jude Hospital Department of Oncology in Memphis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is “an enlargement of the lymph nodes caused by cancerous cells which replicate the normal cells and then force them out.”
In a telephone interview, Dr. Ehrhardt explained that the tumor may appear as a lump on the person’s body, which he compared to an iceberg that looks small above water, yet is much more substantial.
Leonhard was immediately rushed to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans.
“The greatest risk of survival for children with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is in the first period of time, the days or weeks, of the treatment,” Dr. Ehrhardt said, “because of tumor lysis syndrome, which is a massive release of toxins from the tumor that can cause low calcium levels in the blood.”
Leonhard was losing blood very fast, but replacement was a problem because she had a rare blood type: A negative. Leonard’s doctor told the family she needed blood fast or she would die.
“I could not believe the news when I first heard it, yet when I knew she was in trouble, I was going to do all I could to help her,” said Thomas Gallagher, one of Leonhard’s childhood friends. The doctor left it up to the community to help, and the community responded more than anybody expected.
Blood drives were initiated at several locations around the city.
“I was completely blown away,” said Katie Davis, Leonhard’s childhood best friend. “I had heard about this kind of stuff before with kids in the hospital needing blood and families and friends asking for blood, but I’ve still never seen anything like what happened with Shelby.”
Word spread quickly about Leonhard, and everybody wanted to help.
“It was truly inspiring that the whole community rallied around this one girl they’d never met before,” said Gallagher.
Due to the strict medical requirements one must pass before actually giving blood, many people could not give blood, yet that did not stop them.
Some people created fundraisers for her.
“I was too young to donate blood, but I remember that I donated all I had to this fundraiser that was made in her honor,” said Gallagher. NOLA.com reported that record numbers of people had donated blood for this young girl.
The community’s response came to the attention of the local news stations and newspapers that started reporting it.
“It was so incredible to see because it showed how truly supportive all of those around were,” said Katie Davis, Leonhard’s childhood friend. “It gave myself and her family so much hope to see an outpouring of support from the community.”
Leonhard’s own school, the Academy of the Sacred Heart, held a blood drive in which hundreds of people showed up to donate blood.
Unfortunately, Leonhard suffered another cardiac arrest during one of her chemotherapy sessions, and she was in critical condition.
“In very rare occasions, the toxins from the tumor can cause the heart to stop, and it leads to heart failure due to tumor lysis syndrome,” said Dr. Ehrhardt of St. Jude.
Leonhard’s case was so critical that the doctors put her on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine to keep her alive, which Dr. Ehrhardt described as a machine that, “diverts blood around the heart and the lungs so that it essentially does the work [of those organs] for you, it then oxygenates the blood to keep it from entering the organs.”
Leonhard continued losing a vast amount of blood, and the blood drives increased. Fortunately, the news spread fast, and the community again responded.
“I was so shocked and amazed by the response of the community,” Gallagher said. “It really gives someone hope when they see that many people coming together.”
The Blood Center, where the majority of people donate blood, extended its hours so it could take blood from all the donors.
“Seeing all of the support from the community was kind of telling that things were going to get better, and to keep moving forward,” Davis said.
NOLA.com and the local news station WDSU both confirmed that this was the largest blood donation in the area since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers.
On Valentine’s Day, 2011, news spread that Leonhard was doing much better, and she was even taken off the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine. However, the very next night Leonhard’s ordeal ended, and she died at the age of 14.
“The night she passed away, I clearly remember texting one of my friends saying something’s wrong,” Davis recalled. “I don’t know how, and I still don’t know why, but I just knew there was something not right.
“They pulled my grade into the parlor, and I can still vividly remember the sound of all of my classmates sobbing. There was no noise other than sobs. To say that day was somber is a complete understatement. I would say it was more of a devastation than anything.”
Gallagher remembers, “I didn’t get it. She was doing so well the night before. I still don’t get it. When she died, I think a little piece of everybody went with her.”
Dr. Ehrhardt characterizes cancer as a “hand basket disease” when it comes to the rate of survival, meaning nobody is ever certain how one may react to it.
Despite her death, Leonhard’s impact continued to spread. The blood drives continued, and people kept donating in Leonhard’s honor.
The Academy of the Sacred Heart holds an annual blood drive in her memory, and receives hundreds of donors each year. The blood drive produces hundreds of pints of blood used to treat hundreds of patients.
NOLA.com reported that some of the blood meant to go to Leonhard saved a two-year-old boy’s life after her death.
Leonhard left an imprint on the city of New Orleans, and she still serves as an inspiration.
“She inspired all of us in a different way,” said Gallagher. “For me, I wanted to live like she did so I would try different things that she would like, and I did various things that I knew she would do. I became sort of adventurous because of her.”
Davis remembers her as “quiet, unique, and an old soul.” She added, “Seeing someone like that have such a strong impact on all of us made everyone truly value those around them and forced us all to appreciate our loved ones.”
Leonhard was a unique girl, who considered herself a hippie spreading peace and happiness wherever it was needed. There was never a frown on her face, and she always knew how to cheer somebody up when they needed it. And though she is gone, Shelby Ryan Leonard is still giving others hope, as her legacy lives on.