GARNER Ashley Elwell would have been excused by many for having other things dominating her mind when she visited UNC Hospital’s Pediatric Hematology-Oncology department. For example, treatments for her rare blood disorder.
But the Garner Magnet High School freshman instead noticed nonpatients in the waiting room – siblings of patients, in particular – and wanted to do something for them.
“I noticed how sad a lot of the siblings were,” said Elwell, who was diagnosed in May 2012 with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP).
So Elwell collected donations and put together more than 100 packages for young siblings (such as her twin brother) of cancer and blood disorder patients for a Girl Scout project. She and her family say it’s one sign of an illness that, while constantly robbing her of blood platelets, has left maturity and compassion in its place.
“She’s more outgoing right now. She wasn’t like that a couple years ago. She kept more to herself,” her father Bruce said. “I could see a lot of benefits that came from it. It’s kind of weird. It made her grow as a person.”
Elwell agreed about the effect of the illness, in which the immune system attacks one’s own blood platelets, which are responsible for slowing and halting bleeding.
“It made me mature a lot. I realized how much I really had,” Elwell said. “I’m a lot more comfortable around people. It’s also made me want to help people a lot more.”
Her effort to help some of the kids waiting for sick brothers and sisters at UNC involved approaching people for money, such as her father’s Masonic Lodge and her church, which provided most of the money.
“We were just impressed with her having this disorder, that instead of turning to self-pity she used this to help others,” said Rod Grindle, the senior warden at the lodge, which gave $450 to her effort.
After collecting money, she set to work designing three different packages for different age groups. The youngest received a small stuffed animal, coloring book and a Hot Wheels car. Third graders through fifth graders received a magic kit, card games and a Hot Wheels car. Older children got a drawing pad, colored pencils and a journal. She made 103 packages in all.
“During a visit I saw this one kid,” Elwell said. “He was the cutest thing. He pulled out the toys and he had the biggest smile on his face. ‘That is so cool, who gave this,’ he said. His mother said ‘this little angel.’ I got the best feeling then, at that point I knew I had done something good.”
Learning to live with it
Bruce Elwell took his daughter to the emergency room in in spring 2012 with abdominal pain, fearing appendicitis. The pains proved to be nothing serious, but during the visit the doctor discovered a platelet count of about 60,000 per micro-liter. The normal range is between 140,000 and 500,000.
During a followup her count had dropped, and eventually the East Garner Magnet Middle School student was admitted to WakeMed with a platelet count around 17,000 and a diagnosis of chronic ITP. The condition will not subside, as it does in some.
She can do most things a normal teenager can do, though low counts can sap her energy somewhat and she has to remain vigilant of anything that might result in external or internal bleeding. She requires medical procedures to restore her count, with frequency depending on how quickly levels drop.
“She’s very outgoing, very get up and go. She’s very well-adjusted child. You’d never guess that she’s sick,” her father Bruce said, before adding: “When she does have flare-ups, she gets real tired. She will also have spontaneous bruising.”
Elwell, who plays clarinet in the Trojans’ marching band, said she was frustrated when she had to give up softball when she was first diagnosed. But she said she can now go back to the sport among other activities, after “a lot of convincing with my doctors.”
“I have learned to live with it. It’s become an every day part of my life,” Elwell said.