By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
When she was a kid in the hospital, Cora Walrond’s favorite physicians, nurses and therapists were the ones who made her feel seen and heard. People she could connect with on a human level.
Is it any wonder, seven years later, that Cora is on a path to be one of those healthcare workers with a passion for people?
Cora, now 19, is a Division 1 swimmer at the University of Toledo, but the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native was in middle school when cancer threatened to derail her future in and out of the pool.
It was the hives and the fatigue that first worried her parents, Eric and Galyn, but they thought it was an allergic reaction at first, or maybe she was just stressed and tired from too much time in the pool.
As the months wore on though, doctors in Fort Wayne suspected something worse. Cora’s care was transferred to Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis in December 2014. That’s when the 12-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a relatively aggressive cancer that can quickly spread, but it is also one of the most easily treated types of cancer.
Cora went through five rounds of chemo, each lasting 21 days. She responded remarkedly well to the treatments, finishing March 6, 2015, with no evidence of cancer detected.
Cora’s oncologist is no longer with Riley, but she continues to see nurse practitioner Ann Haddix for yearly checkups at Riley’s cancer survivors’ clinic.
It was during her time at Riley for cancer treatment, followed later by surgery by Dr. Mark Ayers for supraventricular tachycardia (an abnormal heartbeat), that Cora took notice of those care team members who connected with her on a personal level.
“I think this happened to me for a reason,” she said. “My goal is to help kids after chemo to get them back to where they were physically.”
She is majoring in recreational therapy, with the goal of becoming an occupational therapist and working with the pediatric population.
Cora, a three-time All-American athlete, is driven to compete. She has been a swimmer since she was 6, eventually inspiring her four younger siblings to follow her into the pool.
It has always been her safe space. Even during treatment, she went to the pool. On the days she was able, she swam.
“Obviously, I had my bad days, and I couldn’t swim, but I still went to the pool and helped coach the little kids,” she said. “I would still get in and do what I could do. That was part of what got me through the treatment.”
While her doctors were amazed to see her level of activity at the pool continue despite low hemoglobin levels, she didn’t want to be home on the couch.
“The pool was one place where I was allowed to be because the chlorine killed most of the germs. It was one safe spot I could be.”
In 2016, Cora got to realize the dream of a lifetime. Make-A-Wish Foundation granted her wish to attend the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
There, she got to see swimming idols Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky compete.
“Absolutely amazing” is how she describes it. “Probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever do.”
She got to see Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, swim his last races before retiring, and watch gymnast Simone Biles lead the 2016 U.S. women’s team to a gold medal and earn three additional gold medals in individual events.
While she admires these famous athletes, she’s a sucker for the underdog in any event – like Lydia Jacoby, the high schooler from Alaska who won the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke last summer.
“She was someone no one saw coming, which is so cool,” said Cora, a graduate of Homestead High School in Fort Wayne. “It makes it more real for me.”
Competing in the Olympics may not be in her future, she said, “but I don’t put anything in the rearview mirror. If I can conquer what I did and get to where I am now, I don’t doubt myself.”
And neither have her parents ever doubted her.
“They were clearly very supportive throughout my cancer journey, but also through my athletic journey,” she said. “They never forced me to keep going. They let me do what made me happy and supported me every step of the way.”