Smiling Through the Pain
St. Jude patient and "larger than life" soccer star Anna overcame cancer and a fluke injury and amputation with perseverance and humor
July 02, 2020 • 6 min
Anna thought the worst was over, and by all rights it should have been. But just a week after she completed chemotherapy, at the very moment she was beginning to embrace life after cancer, a freakish chain of events unspooled into a surreal drama. It began during a celebration and ended with an amputation.
The setting was a warm summer night, with Anna sitting next to friends at a restaurant. That's when a man walked by and accidentally stepped on her left big toe. For a young woman with a compromised immune system, a simple stubbed toe quickly deteriorated into a blackened wound, followed by blisters, fevers, skin infections, bone infections and painful operations before surgeons finally had to remove much of her toe.
But of all the strange aspects of that episode, perhaps the most surprising is that Anna can laugh about it now, especially when she thinks of the stranger who unwittingly set things in motion. “I just think it’s funny that he’s out there living his life and has no idea I had a toe amputated. I see some humor in it.”
If nothing else, the story illustrates how Anna, a 22-year-old college student and star soccer player, fought through all of cancer’s ups and downs, all of its random cruelty, to emerge, well, laughing. It’s little wonder she draws inspiration from a verse written by Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur:
the world gives you so much pain and here you are making gold out of it.
Anna’s pain came from acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer, and the gold she’s spun from it defies simple measurement.
She’s tapped a newfound strength and determination to return next fall to the soccer pitch an even better player than before. And as Anna’s story has circulated from Christian Brothers University, where she is a senior, to elsewhere across the Memphis area, she’s helped rally the city’s soccer community – especially its professional team – around the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she underwent treatment.
“Unless it affects you, I don’t think people know the magnitude of this place,” she said.
A 'special' summer
Anna actually knew about “this place” – St. Jude – before her cancer treatment. During the summer of 2018, she interned as an events coordinator at Target House, a long-term lodging facility for St. Jude patients and their families. Fluent in Spanish (her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina), she worked extensively with Hispanic patients as she organized summer camps and other activities.
It was a “special summer,” she said, followed by an eventful fall. As Anna began her junior year at CBU, she took on part-time work helping with the launch of the Memphis 901 FC soccer team, while also playing center forward for CBU’s team.
While at five feet tall she often was the shortest player on either team, Anna could be the most dominant. Over the course of two home games one weekend, she scored four goals and, as a result, earned honors as Gulf South Conference Offensive Player of the Week.
“She had a great year for us, not only the stats that she had, but her all-around play,” said Kieron Heblich, CBU women’s soccer coach. He praises Anna’s technical skill and savvy as a player. “She’s got a very good soccer brain. She knows what she’s doing.”
But even before the 2018 season had begun, Anna was experiencing unexplained physical problems. During workouts, her legs would throb with pain, then go numb. She responded by splashing water on them until she could get up and run some more. She also had occasional neck paralysis, vision problems, night sweats and sinusitis. In the dorm, friends often had to help her to bed, and on road trips, she would sleep the entire way on the bus.
“I was sick for probably a year with symptoms,” she recalled.
'I would've bled out on the field'
In December 2018, Anna went in for a postseason checkup because an earlier doctor's exam had found her platelet count to be low. The findings were ominous. "The leukemia was already widespread throughout my body so I had to be at St. Jude the next day.”
Anna also learned from tests that, in some respects, she had been lucky during the playing season. “Had I gotten an injury, I would’ve bled out on the field because I didn’t have platelets to clot my blood,” she said.
After he learned of the diagnosis, Heblich marveled that Anna could play at such a high level while fighting the obvious effects of cancer. He went back and reviewed the video of one of Anna’s four goals during that one weekend home stand. Over and over, he watched her use deft footwork to beat her defender and then line a perfectly aimed kick into the corner of the net from a difficult angle. “As good a goal as I’ve seen,” he called it.
“She’s larger than life, she really is,” Heblich added.
As her family and friends rallied behind Anna, the players, coaches and officials of Memphis 901 FC, a team in the United Soccer League, offered their support. The team streamed into St. Jude to visit her, take a tour and donate platelets for her. Players from as far away as New Zealand and Trinidad learned about the institution and its mission. “It was very moving for all of us,” Coach Tim Mulqueen said.
In Anna's honor, the team added the St. Jude logo to its jersey, and now 10 percent of the proceeds of each jersey sold to the public goes to the institution.
Treatment lasted about seven months, and despite bouts with sepsis and other complications, there were lighter moments. Friends would come spend the night, watch movies with her or take her to St. Jude's Imagine Room and enjoy the wall-sized interactive video screen there. To Anna, St. Jude seemed more like her dorm than a hospital.
With her final round of chemo ending on June 30, Anna was hoping to be ready by August to begin training for her final season of soccer at CBU.
'A complete accident'
The gathering at the restaurant exactly one week later would dash those plans. Looking back, Anna describes the toe injury as the result of a perfect alignment of highly improbable factors: the position of her feet in her open-toed shoes, the angle at which the man’s foot struck the toe, and so on.
“You couldn’t recreate that if you tried,” she said. “It wasn’t like I was at fault. It wasn’t like even he was at fault. It was a complete accident.”
Doctors at St. Jude told her the sources of the fungal infection she suffered included spores from soil on the man’s shoes and spores from the air. During the numerous procedures to cut away dead skin, Anna tried mind games as a means of coping.
"I removed myself from situation, acting as if it was it was someone else’s toe."
Anna didn’t feel sorry for herself, however, especially when doctors told her that another St. Jude patient on her floor had developed a major fungal infection in her knee as a result of a fall.
“They were like, ‘You’re trying to save your toe; she’s trying to save her leg.’ That just put everything into perspective for me. I was never sad once about my toe.”
Despite doctors' best efforts, all of the monitoring and surgeries on the toe, the infection spread to the bone in less than two weeks, posing a life-threatening risk.
In the weeks after the amputation, Anna had to wear a boot and use a wheelchair. Her legs had lost nearly all their muscle. With St. Jude's help, she learned how to walk again after seven weeks of being immobilized, and then she underwent months of anti-fungal treatment.
Still, Anna plans to return in peak form to the soccer team in the fall for her final year. “That’s not even in question,” she said. “If anything, I think I’ll be better than before.”
No looking back
She has big plans to make up for the year lost to cancer. And when friends mention how unfair it was that she had to go through such an ordeal, Anna tells them everyone endures life’s downsides – whether it’s an unhappy childhood, divorce, grief or financial hardship.
“I had a relatively fine childhood. It was time for me to go through something.”
Anna returned to class at CBU last fall and went back to work with the Memphis 901 FC soccer team. She serves as the visiting-team liaison, helping opposing players and coaches with logistics and familiarizing them with Memphis and AutoZone Park, where the games are played. But she also plays a role in St. Jude’s expanded presence with the team by identifying patients and family members who get to watch the games for free in a suite at the stadium.
As for her future, Anna plans to work with a non-profit or humanitarian group. She might pursue a career at St. Jude or ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for the institution. At St. Jude, she said, “everyone is always in a good mood, everyone leaves knowing they’ve changed someone’s life in some way.”
She should know, because of what happened to her at St. Jude. "I was granted a new life."
For a brief but intense period, life gave Anna so much pain. Yet there she is, still making gold from it.