Faith, Not Fear: Former Rocket Ashlee Barrett Battles Leukemia with Support From Fiancée Ben Pike
TOLEDO, OH - The sky was gray and the flapping American flag in the northeast corner of the Glass Bowl gave proof through the afternoon of an impending October freeze. But as Ashlee Barrett sat on her cold metal seat in section 5, she couldn't help smiling and thinking, "What a wonderful day."
Wonderful? No question about it. After all, Ashlee was watching her fiancée, junior defensive end Ben Pike, play football in his very first start as a Rocket, on Homecoming, no less. Ben and his teammates would go on to defeat Central Michigan, 50-35, which was even better. But for Ashlee, it was great just to be there. Being back at her alma mater gave her a chance to reflect on her good fortune. She felt good knowing that the worst part of her life was in the rearview mirror now. She could even look forward to her wedding day next June, knowing that she would be healthy as she walked down the aisle.
"It was incredible," said Ashlee, a member of the UT women's basketball team from 2009-11. "I was just excited to be at the game. It brought back memories and made me think about where I've been and what I've gone through. It felt like a full-circle moment."
Full circle. Half a year. Or maybe a lifetime. How do you measure time when you are only 23 years old, happy, in love...and then a blitz called leukemia comes and knocks you to the turf?
Leukemia. Ashlee's world has revolved around the word ever since that day in April when she could no longer ignore the nagging pain in her back, an ache that quickly raged into a crisis. She went from going to the emergency room, to undergoing surgery, to being told she had cancer in a matter less than two days. Then came the months of debilitating chemotherapy. Yes, she has learned a lot about leukemia since then. And a lot about life.
She learned how quickly your plans can change. One minute you are a brand-new teacher preparing for your wedding, the next day you are in a hospital bed battling for your life. She also learned something she probably already knew in her heart, that she is blessed with loving family and friends, not to mention a fiancée who proved he understands the "thin" part of "through thick and thin."
It was just last April that Ashlee was enjoying the "thick." Her first job as a second-grade teacher in suburban St. Louis was stimulating and satisfying. She was engaged to Ben, whom she met at weekly Athletes in Action meetings in her junior season at UT. He proposed on the driveway of the White House a day before the Rockets defeated Air Force in the Military Bowl last December (thanks to the cooperation of a Secret Service officer with a soft spot for romance).
She and Ben had to be apart for two years while he finished school, true, but they talked on the phone every night and visited each other as often as their busy schedules allowed. Yes, life was good. But then life called a devastating audible.
It started as back pain and rapidly became unbearable. Ashlee left her classroom in the middle of the day and in less than 24 hours she had surgery to remove a cyst in her tailbone area. A day later, while Ashlee was recovering from surgery, the doctors and her parents came into her hospital room. She could tell it wasn't good news.
Said Ashlee, "The first question you have is, ‘Am I going to die?' It was very emotional but I got control of myself. There was a whole big group of family and relatives at the hospital, and Ben was there too, and I said I wanted to tell them myself."
"You hear cancer and it's very emotional," said Ben, who flew to the hospital the day Ashlee had surgery, just two days before the UT spring football game. "It's the kind of thing where it almost doesn't feel real. But I will never forget as I was standing there holding her hand, the first thing she said to me was, ‘I'm glad it's me and not you.' It's just something that I will never forget, her complete selflessness. She never asked, Why is this happening? She has shown unbelievable strength through everything and it has given me strength seeing her so brave."
Said Ashlee, "My motto throughout this whole thing has been: Faith, not fear. That's really gotten us through it. We lived in the hospital for 40 days. Either Ben or someone from my family was sleeping on the floor in my room every night.
"I have the best family. They've been by my side all the way, in the hospital every day. I'm just so fortunate to have them because I don't know how people do it by themselves. I looked around the hospital and I saw people by themselves. I was never by myself. That helped my spirit because everyone is so positive. If you don't have that you would constantly be fearful of the unknown.
"I know I couldn't have gotten through it without Ben. He's been a rock for me throughout this whole experience. He's seen me at my absolute worse. Obviously, shaving my head was a difficult experience. But he always made me feel special. I'm in my hospital bed getting chemo and he's doing something to make the day fun for me, somehow.
"I have so much respect for Ben. I know what a student-athlete has to go through. He's trying to graduate, thinking about his future. Most guys his age don't have a fiancée who is going through leukemia. He's really special."
Ashlee also praised the support she has received from the UT community. Her basketball coach, Tricia Cullop, visited her in St. Louis and called her often, as did many of her former teammates. The football team rallied around Ben and Ashlee, wearing an "A" on their helmets during the spring game last April.
"Everybody at UT has been so wonderful," said Ashlee. "Coach (Matt) Campbell drove Ben to the airport himself when Ben flew out here. Can you imagine that? How many coaches would do that?"
Well, there is at least one other coach who would, that's for sure. In fact, there isn't much that Coach Cullop wouldn't do for Ashlee. Cullop originally recruited and coached Ashlee at Evansville. When Cullop accepted the head coaching position at Toledo, Ashlee followed her to UT. Though injuries prevented Ashlee from seeing any playing time at UT, Cullop was impressed by how hard she worked to help the team in any way she could. Her admiration only grew as Ashlee went through her ordeal.
"I knew before all this that Ashlee was strong," said Cullop. "But at the golf fundraiser for Ashlee in St. Louis (in June), I learned how strong she really is. She got up and spoke to the group and the first thing she said is, ‘I'm so lucky to have all of you. There were so many people in the hospital who had nobody. That took my admiration to another level."
Ashlee has come a long way since then. She felt well enough to drive with her mother, Patti Barrett, from St. Louis to Toledo to watch the CMU game (she was also at Cincinnati contest). Not surprisingly, her appearance did not go unnoticed. Coach Cullop, her former teammates, Ben's family, as well as numerous friends and well-wishers showered her with attention throughout her stay. And the football team showed their support, too, surprising her with little pink "A's" on the backs of their helmets, just as they had done six months previously.
The surprises continued after the game. Someone called her down to the field and told her that Coach Campbell wanted to see her. He led her to the locker room where the team greeted her with claps and shouts of "Ashlee! Ashlee!" Coach Campbell then presented her with a gift, a team helmet just like the one the team had worn that night.
"Ashlee is an inspiration for our football team on how to handle adversity," said Campbell. "She is truly an amazing young lady. And I think the way Ben has handled himself through all this has been truly admirable. He is a great role model for the young men on our team."
"Coach Campbell taking the time to think about me after the game, I just thought that was so thoughtful and classy," recalled Ashlee. "He's been incredibly supportive of Ben and me. I can't thank him enough."
Not surprisingly, Ashlee remains completely optimistic about her future. She recently finished her last round of chemotherapy and just last week was informed that the leukemia had left her body completely. Even so, doctors will not say she is cured until she goes at least five years without a recurrence.
"It's been a daunting process," she said. "It's hard to put into words. No one thinks it's ever going to happen to them. It's been quite a journey, to say the least. I've learned a lot from this experience. But I'm so glad the treatment is over, and I'm hopeful the cancer won't come back. I can't wait to get back to normalcy."
A big milestone on her road back to normal awaits in a couple of weeks when Ashlee officially meets her second-grade class and resumes teaching's day-to-day challenges. On the horizon is an even bigger stop on her journey, another full-circle moment, as she likes to say. Every bride looks forward to the day she gets married, but it's safe to say that Ashlee's big day has extra-special significance.
"That," she said of her wedding day, "is the light at the end of the tunnel. That's the finish line for me."