Shrull: Walking miracle

Mikayla O'Brien bucks the odds, battles back from rare cancer

Mikayla O’Brien is happy, smiling, enjoying a Saturday afternoon with friends and teammates at the recent Tiger Invite track and field meet.

Life is good.

Kimberly O’Brien confesses she’s a “helicopter mom,” proudly hovering around her two daughters.

A few weeks ago, Kimberly was hovering around oldest daughter Mikayla at her signing day to play volleyball at NCAA Division III Aurora University in Illinois.

Bordering on giddy, Kimberly smiled, fought back tears of joy and radiated enough pride to impress a flock of peacocks.

This day was many years and much torment in the making.

Mom calls Mikayla a “walking miracle.” A walking, jumping, spiking, blocking, smiling, joy-filled, life-loving miracle.

Life is good for the O’Brien family because Mikayla is still here.

More than four years ago, hope plummeted for the grounded Grand Junction mother and youngest daughter Cheyenna.

Mikayla was in a coma, hovering closer to death than life.

“It was a really sad time. Really tough time,” Cheyenna says.

Constantly at her sister’s bedside with her mom, they prepared themselves for the worst.

The worst worst imaginable.

“She had her last rites given on a couple of different occasions,” Kimberly said bluntly.

Pain, torment, anguish — a complete nightmare as family and friends waited, braced for the worst, and embraced hope with all they had.

About five years ago, Mikayla was diagnosed with a rare cancer from tumors that developed in her abdomen.

For three months, Mikayla languished in that coma. When she finally emerged, she had to relearn how to walk and eat.

Mikayla seems to be a little embarrassed by all of the attention and thinks her mom is just being overdramatic. Mikayla smiles and shrugs off the hoopla. Focused on living life and on the future, she is as nonchalant as a morning breeze when it comes to talking about what’s she’s achieved. Near death to happy high school senior, to soon-to-be college volleyball player, Mikayla O’Brien has had a pretty good four years of high school.

On April 30, Mikayla was presented the Michael Bamford Award, given to a Grand Junction High School senior who has overcome significant health issues.

Of course, Kimberly and Cheyenna were there.

Both confess they never thought these happy days watching Mikayla play volleyball, run track, make the National Honor Society or win an award would ever happen.

“No, I didn’t,” says Cheyenna, smiling at the Tiger Invite track meet. “I’m so happy for her, she’s been through so much.”

Mikayla is grateful for all of the support her younger sister has provided over the years.

“She’s always been there for me. I know she went through a lot. She missed a lot of school so she could be there for me,” Mikayla says.

Once Mikayla came out of the coma and the lengthy rehabilitation began, dreams of playing volleyball appeared to be senseless.

But she loved volleyball.

“When I was in the coma, my mom said I would sit up in spurts and pretend to be hitting a volleyball,” she says with a laugh.

Mom thinks sports helped her daughter.

“If she hadn’t been such a gifted athlete, she might not have recovered fully,” Kimberly said at the high school letter-signing event.

Then she paused, thinking about those tormenting days and nights when her daughter was near death. The tears are close, but she promised Mikayla she wouldn’t cry.

Then the smile returns. A joyous day more than four years in the making.

“It was a big part of my recovery,” Mikayla said about playing volleyball. “I had to learn how to walk and how to eat again, but in the back of my head I wanted to get back to playing volleyball.”

Dreams of getting back on the court motivated her, pushed her and kept pushing her. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like a rare cancer, being in a coma for three months, having to teach herself how to walk and eat again, get in her way. She was determined to play volleyball again.

And she did, leading the Southwestern League in blocks her senior year.

Once Mikayla’s health and strength started rebounding, she focused on the future.

She remembers a letter she wrote as a freshman to her “senior self” just a few months after emerging from her coma. Mom remembers that letter, too.

“It said, ‘I had a life-threatening disease and I want to be a nurse and help other kids, and my second goal is to get a scholarship and be a volleyball player,’ ” Kimberly says.

Mikayla said the adversity made her a stronger person.

“It shows that hard work pays off. You have to have determination, and you have to go after whatever you want,” she said.

This fall, Mikayla will be at Aurora University playing volleyball and moving toward a nursing degree.

At the Tiger Invite, Mikayla finished her high jump competition and went over to the track to yell encouragement to Cheyenna as she took the baton in the 400-meter relay.

Somewhere in the stands, a proud mom was most likely hovering, watching her daughters, smiling, enjoying the day.

More than four years ago, there were lots of tears as Kimberly and Cheyenna prepared for the worst. Today, there are lots of smiles and maybe a few tears of joy.

Mikayla doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. But for mom and sister, who kept a bedside vigil for days, weeks and months, they know it’s a big deal.

Mikayla O’Brien is a walking miracle, and that’s why so many people are smiling.

Life is good.


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