When Iowa State University women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, a patient at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital offered up some advice. It was 5-year-old Elise, who had become an honorary member of the Cyclones — and had faced cancer herself a year earlier.
"Don’t worry about when you go to the doctor,” Elise told the Coach, later asking her mother, “Does he want to go to St. Jude? I’ll go with him.”
What brought Elise and her family together with Fennelly and his team — and has kept them together ever since — is a story of gratitude that also helped spread awareness and support for the lifesaving mission of St. Jude across the college-basketball crazed state of Iowa.
Fennelly remembers having conversations about cancer with the little girl who was wise beyond her years. “And I still have some notes that she wrote me, like, 'Coach, it's gonna be fine. If you need anything…'” he recalled. “She's telling me, 'Don't worry about it when you go to the doctor.'"
Back then, coach Fennelly announced he would begin five weeks of radiation treatment for an invasive cancerous lesion on his vocal cords. Elise was being treated for a complicated brain tumor on which many surgeons were unwilling to operate, because of the damage it could cause.
With treatment, Fennelly got better. And with the help of doctors at St. Jude, Elise did, too.
Now in high school, Elise has celebrated more than a decade as an honorary member of the Cyclones, attending games and Christmas parties even as players came and went. And when it comes to attending college herself, she’s thinking about Iowa State.