Daughter and mom celebrate graduation together at St. Jude

The milestones of life still happen, even for families at St. Jude. In fact, celebrations are often that much sweeter. 

diamond pattern

  •  5 min

Graduation at St. Jude with Mallory and her daughter Nora

Support St. Jude

Mallory and her daughter Nora Kay didn’t need the crowds or the pomp and circumstance. No, the important thing was they had each other. 

Mallory was graduating with her master’s degree in educational leadership at the same time Nora Kay was graduating pre-K at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital® where she was being treated for cancer. They couldn’t attend graduation ceremonies, but that didn't stop Mallory from ordering two sets of caps and gowns. Hers was black, and Nora Kay’s was St. Jude-red. 

Standing outside on the campus of St. Jude together, just as they had been together at St. Jude through all the months of Nora Kay’s treatment, they posed for graduation photos. 

Nora Kay was referred to St. Jude in October 2023 after a months-long quest to find the origin of a mystery illness resulted in the diagnosis of a rare lymphoma. 

Graduation at St. Jude with Mallory and her daughter Nora

In the early days of treatment, when someone tried to talk to Nora Kay, “she would practically growl at them and hide under her blanket,” said Mallory. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh gosh, this is changing her personality. Are we ever going to get our fun, spunky kid back?’” 

In the pre-K classroom at St. Jude, Nora Kay came out of her shell. 

“It was her outlet,” said Mallory. “School was the first place that she really started talking to people and making connections. It’s where she made her first friends.” 

A medical mystery 

It all started with a rash so subtle that many parents might have missed it. 

Mallory readied her three kids for the beach during their last day of Easter vacation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, in 2023. She smoothed sunscreen on their faces. The children splashed in the water. Later, on the trip back home to Louisiana, Mallory and her husband, Bryn, saw it: the little red dots under Nora Kay’s eye. 

“Did I do a terrible job at sunscreen?” Mallory wondered, and she would have forgotten the dots except for what happened next.  

Later during the car trip home, Mallory’s oldest and her youngest didn’t feel well. They both had fevers. Only Nora Kay seemed her usual self. They went straight from the beach to the doctor’s office, leaving sand scattered on the exam table. 

St. Jude patient Misheel taught herself to make balloon animals, and gives them away

All three kids tested positive for strep. With antibiotics, two got better. Not Nora Kay. 

Over the next several months, Nora Kay’s rash waxed and waned, and doctors noticed she had an enlarged spleen.  These were signs she may have low platelet counts.

The medical mystery and a mounting dread would define the next six months of their lives. 

“Every two weeks, we did bloodwork and her platelets went from 120 to 90 to 60 to 40. They just kept dropping,” said Mallory. “And the rash, it would lighten up a little bit, but it would never completely go away. And then it kind of spread down her neck.” 

Mallory, the sixth-grade science teacher, felt scared. 

By September, Nora Kay’s spleen had become dangerously enlarged, so she underwent surgery to have it removed. 

“Two weeks later, pathology came back and her spleen was just filled with lymphoma,” said Mallory. 

Nora Kay was diagnosed with hepatosplenic T cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. While this cancer is rare even for adults, it happens much less often in children and there is not a standard treatment strategy. When Nora Kay’s family came to St. Jude, fewer than three weeks after surgery, they found that the lymphoma was also in her liver, bone marrow and lymph nodes. 

At St. Jude, Nora Kay began chemotherapy, but she would also need a bone marrow transplant to have the best chance of getting rid of her cancer long-term. 

The search was on for a donor. 

Hometown heroes 

Nora Kay’s caring Louisiana hometown had been praying, first for answers and now a cure. They held several bone marrow drives. Many let Mallory and Bryn know they’d been giving to St. Jude for years. 

Graduation at St. Jude with Mallory and her daughter Nora

Sadie Robertson, who became famous on the TV show Duck Dynasty, but was really a hometown girl at heart, told her 5 million Instagram followers about Nora Kay. She asked them to get tested to become a bone marrow donor. While Nora Kay did not have a match found through the unrelated donor registry, the outpouring from her community was tremendous and may help future patients.

Mallory said, “I’ve had so many people reach out and say, ‘Hey, I was matched with somebody through Nora Kay’s drive.’” 

Fortunately, Nora Kay had another option. The St. Jude Bone Marrow Transplantation Program is one of the largest pediatric programs in the world and has performed more than 2,900 transplants. It has been one of the pioneers leading efforts to perform mismatched and haploidentical transplants. This strategy allows patients like Nora Kay, who do not have a fully matched donor, to still receive the bone marrow transplant they need using a half-matched donor, such as a parent. St. Jude has the highly specialized resources and staff to meet patients’ physical, psychological, social and developmental needs.

In January 2024, Nora Kay underwent a haploidentical bone marrow transplant with Bryn as her half-match donor.

Mallory stayed with Nora Kay at St. Jude while Bryn went back to Louisiana with the other two kids. 

Nora Kay’s body has accepted the new cells.

The school routine 

As Nora Kay’s treatment continued at St. Jude, Mallory and Nora Kay clung to normal. School helped with that.  

Mallory buckled down with online classes while Nora Kay attended pre-K. 

St. Jude Imagine Academy by Chili’s “was basically like walking into our old school,” said Mallory. 

Graduation at St. Jude with Mallory and her daughter Nora

When Nora Kay was learning a song in pre-K about the seven continents, Mallory was writing a paper about ethics. 

When Nora Kay was learning about the weather and how plants grow, Mallory was writing about how to build better school systems. 

“There’s a pink couch outside of St. Jude school, and I would drop her off, get some coffee and start to write,” said Mallory, “and I would do that for the one-and-a-half hours she was in class twice a week. Or, if she didn’t have school that day, I would wait until she went to bed and write.” 

Nurses and child life specialists often stepped in to play with Nora Kay when Mallory needed a moment to recharge or finish an assignment. 

Perspective shift 

Mallory learned so many things at St. Jude besides her master’s coursework. Call it St. Jude 101. 

“Put your phone away and enjoy singing the continents song 120 times if that’s what Nora Kay wants to do,” said Mallory. “Just a shift in your perspective of what’s important.”  

In fact, Mallory figures she’ll probably spend the rest of her life unspooling wisdom from what happened. It was nothing if not a life lesson. 

So yes, they would don caps and gowns and smile for graduation photos. Try and stop them. 

Throughout treatment, when Bryn and Nora Kay’s siblings would pull away in their car to go home after visiting St. Jude for the weekend, Mallory would look at Nora Kay and say, “Well, it’s just me and you, kid,” and Nora Kay would repeat it back to her mom. 

It meant that no matter what, they had each other. 

On their graduation day, Mallory crouched down next to Nora Kay. The little girl held her mom’s hands, smiled at her and said something as memorable as any valedictorian speech. 

“Mom,” said Nora Kay, “It’s just me and you, kid.” 

Donate Now

diamond pattern