HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Natalee Emerson and her family never thought about having to make the walk to the St. Jude Clinic at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children. They’ve been on that journey for more than two years now.
Natalee’s mom, Pam, remembers, “We were going that morning to get her driver’s license and she had volleyball practice. And we had a full day planned.”
That all changed five days after Natalee turned 16. She’d been under the weather and went to the emergency room.
“I remember the look on the doctor's face when he came in the room that morning,” Natalee’s dad Mike said, “I knew something wasn’t right.”
Natalee remembers that moment too.
"He came in and shut the door and said 'I don’t have good news.'"
Natalee had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“It is news that no parent ever wants to get,” Pam said, fighting back tears. “I’m not going to cry.”
Natalee had blood cancer.
"In the blink of an eye, we were blindsided," Pam said. Mike added, "You know, your life changes forever."
Mike got into an ambulance with Natalee. “As a dad, you can fix anything for your children,” he remembers, “And at that moment, you realize you have no control.” Mom went home to pack for a two-month stay at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Natalee's focus turned from volleyball practice and driving lessons to beating cancer.
“Yeah, I had to,” she said, “because I really didn’t have another choice.” It didn’t really hit her until she got back home.
“That’s when my 120 weeks started and after I realized how much longer I had to go with then it was okay, this is a big deal,” she said.
Natalee went into remission the second week at St. Jude, followed by 120 weeks of chemo to keep the cancer from returning. It’s been tough.
“She would be sitting at the bar doing homework and she’d be getting sick and she’d go right back to work and then I’d say 'come lay down, take a break,'” her dad said, “And she was like, 'I’m fine. I’m going to be alright.'”
Even with weekly visits to Huntsville’s St. Jude Clinic, Natalee has kept up with her school work.
“I’m just thrilled to see this day because there were points in time that I thought we may not see her graduate from high school, but here we are,” Pam said, “I have so much to be thankful for.”
Natalee’s graduating with Ardmore’s class of 2020.
“She’s always got a smile and that gives us strength, to see her handle it that way as well,” Mike said. Their faith as a family is strong.
Natalee’s faith has gotten her through some tough times.
“God, 100 percent. He has carried me through it all,” she said wiping tears away. “If I had not had my faith, I don’t know how. I don’t know how people can make it through without having faith that God will bring them through it.”
Her brother Nathan suggested a Bible verse to put on bracelets the Emersons had made for family and friends.
“'How about Jeremiah 29:11?'” Natalee remembers him saying.
That verse says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Natalee smiled when she said, “And that has been my verse that has gotten me through this because I know God will take care of me no matter what.”
Two years and eight months later, she's still here, still fighting, looking toward the future.
“I am wanting to go into nursing and I’m thinking either pediatrics or maybe even oncology,” she said. Natalee plans to go to Samford University in Birmingham this fall. She’s excited.
“My dream job would be to work at the St. Jude in Memphis or even the affiliate clinic here,” she said. Her brother Nathan graduates in May from UAH. He’s getting his nursing degree.
But first, she’s making plans to do a few things after she finishes her last chemo treatment.
“I’m gonna want to go places because my immune system has been low for almost three years, so I’m ready to go and travel and do all that fun stuff,” Natalee said with a big smile.
Natalee and her family will be at the Huntsville Havoc hockey game Saturday night. She's going to drop the puck for Nickelodeon night! The players will wear Spongebob themed jerseys for the game that starts at 7 p.m. Those jerseys will be auctioned off after the game. The money will go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. You'll also be able to sign up to join team Havoc for the 2020 St. Jude walk in September!