Imagine a row of dominos. You hit one that hits another and another and so on, creating a chain reaction solely because someone gave that first domino a push. The domino effect, as it’s called, is defined as the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of events. Much like creating a melody on a piano, one must start by playing the first key.
It was May of 1999, during her last week of first grade, when a large bump formed under Kayla’s right eye. What her parents thought might be a sinus infection quickly turned into a nightmare they had no choice but to stay awake for. After visiting her pediatrician for the bump, she immediately received a CT scan. The next day, the film developed, and Dr. Rising called saying it was a suspicious mass–a call no parent wants to receive. The results in Springfield, MO translated into a swift check-in at St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. Kayla’s parents found care for her two brothers, one younger and one older, and took off in their car, film in hand. They arrived at midnight. By the time morning light came, the worry had intensified.
The day Kayla and her parents arrived, a team of doctors ushered Kayla into a room to begin tests. Kayla remembers being swarmed with nurses and doctors, a terrifying reality for a 7-year-old girl. “It took two weeks for an accurate diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s large cell lymphoma. We credit the pathologist for that because everyone thought it was a solid tumor, but the pathologist insisted on additional testing. That was life-saving because it ended up being an accurate diagnosis,” said Kayla.
Kayla’s journey of treatment began–a journey that would include six months of treatment, a bone marrow transplant and surgeries all spanning from May of 1999 to November of 1999. Prior to one successful surgery removing 88% of the cancer, it was extremely probable that she could lose her right eye. Kayla reflects on the months she describes as frightening. “I have memories of fighting nurses and even once trying to claw a surgeon's eye out.” In attempt to gain control over a situation where it had been so limited, Kayla once even asked if she could be the one to push the syringe of anesthesia into her port. Convinced it wouldn’t work, 7-year-old Kayla pushed it in, her eyelids surrendering in seconds.
Out of the six months of treatment, only one short weekend was spent back home in Springfield, MO–the rest spent in a place called the Target House. The Target House is a long-term lodging facility just three miles away from the hospital, meant for patients with a stay exceeding 90 days. The Target House offers a library, a playground, a workout room, arts and crafts room and the most significant in this story, a music room.
The people you spend time with in six months’ time inevitably become significant. Kayla reflects on her friendship with Bill, a teenage boy she grew close with before he passed away. “There were a lot of patients I knew that passed away. It makes you grow up pretty quickly as a kid.” She recalls everyone that made an impact on her stay: lunch ladies, the receptionists, the Chaplain, custodians, gift shop workers and of course, the nurses and doctors. “I was scared of them at first, but I grew really attached to them.”
Then there were the music professors that came and volunteered to teach.
In the music room at the Target House stands a piano donated by country singer, Amy Grant. One of the music professors would come visit and she would teach piano to the patients, giving them lessons and sparking Kayla’s interest in music. “It was a way to let my heart out when I was told I couldn’t do a lot of things.”
Following the long months of treatment, months that are impossible to ever describe fully to an outsider, Kayla returned home in November of 1999. Almost immediately after her return home, Make-A-Wish Missouri entered Kayla’s life. Her family and wish granters gathered around her asking the question that would change the path of her life forever: “What’s your one-true wish?”
Kayla’s family stood back, sure she would wish to travel somewhere as the words left her mouth: “I wish to have a piano.” Everyone was shocked.
“I think I completely surprised my family. I had a music interest from the piano professor and from the Chaplain teaching guitar. It was just a little bit, but it was enough to stick with me.”
Then the day came, that the now 26-year-old will never forget. “I remember the day they delivered the piano to my parents’ house. I remember them rolling it up the sidewalk and bringing it up the porch and putting it in its place where it stood for a long time–many, many years.”
Along with the piano came a year of lessons provided by Make-A-Wish Missouri. Lisa Johnson, who was around 19-years-old at the time, would visit Kayla’s home and teach her lessons during Kayla’s one year of maintenance chemo. After the year was up, Kayla continued taking lessons with Lisa until she eventually moved away. Later down the road, Lisa returned to Springfield and got married. They ended up reconnecting and Lisa helped coach Kayla when she began teaching piano lessons of her own at 18-years-old, only one year younger than Lisa was when she entered Kayla’s life. Eventually college came, and it was time for Kayla to choose her degree and she was confident in her decision: piano performance.
“It surprised a lot of people because when I was younger, people would ask me, ‘Well, don’t you want to be a doctor or a nurse and find the cure for cancer?’ I am so thankful for doctors and nurses and even nutritionists and dietitians too who help on that side of things, but for me, what stuck with me was music.”
Over the years, Kayla has taught others piano lessons on the same piano Make-A-Wish gave her all those years ago. The only difference is that the piano now sits in her newlywed home.
“When you’re granting a wish, you don’t realize how much of an impact that makes on an individual. You don’t realize how much you’re telling them that despite what’s going on, despite the situation you’re in, despite whatever fears or anxiety or concerns you’re dealing with, this is what you have. It’s a symbol of what you do have. It’s a symbol of the support and the love and the joy that you do have in being surrounded by people that value you and see you as important. It doesn’t matter how many days left you have on this Earth. By granting a wish, you’re stopping to say, ‘You matter right now, and we want you to see how much value you have, and we want to show you that through this practical demonstration: a wish.’ It’s a language of love. It’s a language of value and of hope.”
Kayla received her bachelor’s degree in piano performance and on May 18, 2018, 18 years in remission, will graduate from Missouri State University with her master’s degree in piano pedagogy, or, the study of the teaching of piano. In a few years, Kayla plans to pursue a doctorate degree and become a piano professor. Her dream is to one day start her own program, allowing her and other pianists to visit hospitals and teach children music, paying it forward and being the person someone once was for her.
“I can’t say thank you enough for what you have done. That smile has kept going–I’m still enjoying the wish. It hasn't ended. My wish wasn’t just a moment, it lasted a lifetime and now it is impacting others because of that. It’s like a domino effect. It’s not ending; it’s multiplying.”