By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
LIBERTY —Last summer, Ella McNeil was playing volleyball, softball, hanging out with friends and looking forward to being in the sixth grade at St. Andrew the Apostle School, where her younger brothers also go. Then her mom, Amy, noticed her walk was a bit crooked and her volleyball coach noticed her serves couldn’t make it over the net. These and other little things, like lack of appetite, concerned Amy enough to call Ella’s doctor. The exam was inconclusive, and she was sent home. Then in October, the little things became big things and Amy and her husband, Luke, rushed Ella to Children’s Mercy Hospital on a Friday evening. The preliminary diagnosis? A 5-pound germ cell tumor growing in her abdomen. Germ cells are the cells which mature as eggs and sperm.
Surgery was scheduled for Monday morning and she was admitted to the hospital and monitored through the weekend. During the surgery, which removed the affected fallopian tubes and one ovary, surgeons found something unexpected: almost 2 liters of fluid in her lungs, which was immediately drained. Luke and Amy were told that if Ella had not been in the hospital, she might have suffocated in her sleep due to the fluid.
Ella underwent chemotherapy treatments for the next four months; the port where the infusion was administered was removed in February. Although she was forced to miss 50 days of school while going through chemo and recovering, she insisted on studying and doing homework. She was rewarded by making the A Honor Roll at semester’s end.
Ella is a fan of both the Kansas City Royals and the Chiefs, and because of volleyball, softball and her membership in a local 4H Club, has friends at Catholic schools all over the northland — St. Andrew’s, St. James-Liberty, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Gabriel Archangel. The St. James faculty, students and school families wanted to do something to show Ella their support and raise some funds to help with the Strong’s medical expenses. They enlisted the other schools in their pod, St. Gabriel’s, St. Charles and, of course, St. Andrew’s, and figured out how to raise some funds. A parent at St. James works for the shop the school purchases school t-shirts, and she offered to help. The end result was all four schools offered gray t-shirts imprinted with Ella’s name in blue and red, a gold crown and a red and gold arrow. Students could purchase the t-shirts for $25, and later take part in a jeans day.
One of Ella’s best friends, Maddie Kandlbinder, is a fifth grader at St. James. The two became friends through 4H. Maddie had the idea of putting together a book filled with short stories of Ella’s kindness, friendliness, and other qualities that impressed her friends and acquaintances. “We wrote the stories to make Ella happy, honor her and cheer her up,” she said.
Maddie and her classmates wrote and illustrated the stories and assembled the manuscript. Through studenttreasures.com, the fifth graders had their book, 19 Spectacular Stories, published. At an all-school assembly on March 24 to which Ella and her parents were invited, Maddie presented her friend with the book as the St. James student body applauded.
Smiling, Ella sat with Maddie as eight teachers were summoned to the gym’s front. As a school project during Lent in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the school held a food drive for Harvesters. The teachers whose classes had contributed the most canned goods were to be rewarded with cream pies to the face. The top contributor, Principal Jennifer Scanlon-Smith, who, while wiping whipped cream from her face, credited the whole school for collecting 843 cans of food for the food bank. And for thinking of others, she added, for showing compassion to Ella and her family, and for the hungry in the Kansas City area.
Luke McNeil, Ella’s dad, said that his daughter “is doing great! We signed her up for softball; she can’t wait.” Ella was scheduled for a lab appointment March 25, and her parents and Ella were hoping for rave reviews. Blood samples contain serum tumor markers, indicating the presence of a germ cell tumor. If the surgery and chemotherapy were successful, the serum tumor markers will have returned to normal, and Ella can resume a normal sixth-grader’s life with periodic checks and tests. And, much as she loves her Chiefs stocking cap, having her blond hair grow long again will be great.