‘She is treatable, she is curable’
Vaughn family dealing with cancer diagnosis
By Greg Seubert
It’s been quite a senior year for Taylor Vaughn.
Two days after graduating from Waupaca High School, she is back at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa this week undergoing her fourth of seven scheduled chemotherapy treatments for Burkitt’s lymphoma.
Burkitt’s lymphoma is an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that affects only a few people – usually adults – each year. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a form of cancer that develops from lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infections.
Vaughn spent more than a month at the suburban Milwaukee hospital after doctors in Waupaca diagnosed her with the disease March 31.
She didn’t return to school in April or May, but had enough credits to graduate. She was one of 150 students that graduated May 29.
Taylor first became sick in late February or early March, according to her mother, Shelley Vaughn.
“She had some flu-like symptoms, we thought,” she said. “She started complaining of more symptoms that weren’t really flu-like, so we made an appointment with the doctor in Waupaca and he did some tests.”
It wasn’t long and Taylor was back at ThedaCare Medical Center-Waupaca.
“We went back to the ER and they put her on antibiotics,” Shelley said. “We came home and she was still really sick. We went back to the doctor the next week and they did more tests. Every time we would leave the doctor, new symptoms were coming up. She texted me from school and said her vision was so blurred. I picked her up from school and said, ‘We’re going back.’”
They were also back at the hospital the next day, March 31.
“We said, ‘We’re bringing her back in and we’re not leaving until you figure out what’s wrong with her,’” Shelley said. “Little did we know it was going to be lymphoma. We thought pancreatitis or something like that.
“They said, ‘We have all your results and everything, go back up to your doctor,’” she added. “My husband (Rich) had called me and said, ‘Should I come?’ I said, ‘I think you should come.’ I was feeling not right, like something was going to go pretty serious. He met us up there when the results came. The doctor and an intern came in and had a very serious look on their face and said, ‘lymphoma.’ I thought for sure my hearing had gone bad. I turned and looked at Rich and he had that same look on his face. I knew it was real. I thought ulcers, hepatitis. They had tested her for so many things and all the results were negative. Never did I think it was going to be lymphoma.”
The Vaughns left the hospital and headed to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, where Taylor and Shelley remained for more than a month.
“They said, ‘Go home, pack some bags, there’s a doctor and a room waiting for you,’” Shelley recalled. “Our son Justin was at baseball practice. We have two dogs, we had a lot of things to get figured out in a short amount of time.
“We had no idea what we were doing, we were all still in shock,” she said. “We packed everything up and Taylor wanted to tell her grandmother in person. We had to go to the high school and get Justin. Justin gets in the car and I told him something he never thought he would hear and we headed to Milwaukee.”
Taylor started the first of her seven scheduled chemotherapy treatments April 1.
“We met her oncologist and liked him from the moment we met him because he said great things to us,” Shelley said. “He said, ‘She is treatable, she is curable and I’m going to cure her.’ It was a shock that a doctor could say that, yet a relief. The team there is amazing.”
Taylor’s fourth treatment began May 31 and the seventh is scheduled for early August.
“They told us from the beginning 10 to 12 months of treatment,” Shelley said. “They told us straight up there will be setbacks. She will have infections and other things will come up. We had two serious setbacks where she was back in Waupaca’s ER. Children’s called and told them exactly what they wanted them to do. They sent their specially trained crew in their ambulance to come up and get her both times. They got her back to Milwaukee and fixed her up.”
“I slept a lot and didn’t really have energy to do anything,” Taylor said. “I got really sick throughout the treatments and lost my appetite. I could barely walk without getting dizzy or almost falling over. It was kind of like a wake-up call.”
Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy and Taylor eventually asked to have hers cut off.
“It had been falling out in clumps,” she said. “We went back to Milwaukee and I had them shave the rest of it off. I knew it was going to be gone and it was becoming an issue. At first, I was a little nervous about not having hair and I didn’t really know if I would want to go out in public without it, but I’ve gotten used to it. We did get a wig because I wanted it for the choir concert and graduation for pictures. I figured it would look better.”
Rich and Justin eventually returned to Waupaca, but Shelley remained at her daughter’s side.
“It makes it a lot easier having her there,” Taylor said. “I look to her for help with everything. Without her being there, I don’t think I’d be able to make it through this as easy as I have.”
“There was not a doubt in my mind that I was staying with her,” Shelley said. “Rich and I have a great relationship and we have a 15-year-old son. He needed to come home and be with Justin and keep that part of our lives normal. They come every opportunity they can. I stay with her in the hospital room, When Rich and Justin come, they get the Ronald McDonald House.”
Besides her family, Taylor also had hospital visits from friends.
“When we first went down to Milwaukee, I had a lot of them coming down to visit,” she said. “A lot of them would text me just to make sure I was doing all right, but when I went back and was really sick, I kind of told them to not come just because I didn’t want our visit to be cut short because I got too sick.
“It had been awhile since I had seen my friends, so coming home at first was a little overwhelming,” she added. “I kind of started slow. I went to practice for the choir concert and I’m kind of working my way into bigger groups so I can get used to people coming up to me.”
One of Taylor’s first visits after returning to her town of Dayton home was a youth group meeting at Trinity Lutheran Church in Waupaca. Rev. Andy Behrendt and Rev. Bryan Robertson shaved their heads at the meeting to show their support for Taylor, but had no idea she would show up.
“They didn’t know I was coming, so they were all pretty happy that I was able to make it there,” she said.
“I knew I was going to be missing out on a lot of things my senior year, like not being able to go to my brother’s baseball games. It just kind of made me appreciate what I was able to do before. It helps a lot with my mental health, I guess. It really helps me feel like I have some normalcy in my life, Especially now, I’m able to get out and do the things I’ve been looking forward to all year.”
Taylor and her parents have attended some of Justin’s junior varsity baseball games at Waupaca High School.
“With him being a freshman and his first year of high school baseball, I was really upset that I was missing out on being able to see him play,” Taylor said. “I felt bad because my mom wasn’t able to see him play, It definitely was nice to be able to be there.
“Physically, it’s been harder than I thought it was going to be, but sometimes, it’s been easier,” she said. “I did not think I was going to have as much energy as I do and I didn’t think I’d be able to do as much as I’ve been able to do.”
Taylor didn’t attend school since leaving for the hospital March 31, but had enough credits to graduate.
“I don’t think the worst is over,” Shelley said. “Every day, you worry and you wonder. I have all the confidence in the world that she will be cured. Germs are the main thing she has to watch out for. If somebody is sick and she is exposed to it, she will get it more than likely. We’re very cautious with germs in the home. We have to definitely watch for that.”
“It was hard for me (at home) the first couple of times because I wasn’t feeling good,” Taylor said. “I was really nervous the first couple of times. We were only home for short periods of time because I got sick again. I wanted to come home because I felt great and really wanted to be able to make it to the last couple of things for my senior year that I’d been looking forward to.”
Taylor’s diagnosis hasn’t changed her plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“As long as the (chemotherapy) phases go well and I’m done in August, that’s my plan: to go right away in September,” she said. “I still want to go into athletic training. If everything goes as planned and August is the last round (of chemotherapy), hopefully, I’ll be able to be ready to go to school by September.”
Taylor plans to live in university housing, but still doesn’t feel comfortable driving.
“I’m able to drive as long as I’m not on any of the narcotics, but I’m not comfortable driving yet,” she said. “I’m not stable walking yet. Eventually, I’ll probably start to drive a little.”
She will also have a graduation party in August.
“We’ve put it off until after all of my treatments are done,” she said. “Then, I will know for sure that I will have the energy to be there.”
The Vaughns have received plenty of support from the community.
Culver’s in Waupaca held a fund-raiser for the family in May and students at Waupaca Middle School, where Shelley works in the food service department, raised more than $3,000 with a Penny War.
“It’s joyfully overwhelming,” Shelley said. “We’ve always helped others, so when it becomes you, it’s hard to accept help. It’s so appreciated because it’s needed. It’s so hard for us to show the community how much we appreciate it. It’s a lot of thank-you cards to write. At first, my phone was just going crazy.”
The family eventually set up a Web page – www.caringbridge.org/visit/taylorvaughn – to provide updates on Taylor’s condition.
“My cousin and I talked about starting the CaringBridge page and that was really helpful,” Shelley said. “People were getting wrong information. She would put in all the updates so people were getting all the same information at the same time. That took a lot of burden off. We hadn’t had a chance to process it and I know people were concerned and wanted to know, but when we didn’t really know, it was hard to let others know.
“We would do daily updates,” she said. “My cousin’s in charge of it and she’s also a nurse. I would talk to the doctors every day, take notes and I would give them to her. She’d put it out there and explain it so people understood. It’s one of those social media things that we really appreciate.”
Several friends and relatives have left messages for the family on the site.
“I’m just in disbelief of how much support that we’ve gotten,” Taylor said. “I’m extremely grateful for every single person and every business and everything that’s helped us.
“I don’t really know how to thank them enough,” she added. “If someone else was in my situation, I would definitely do everything that I can to help them.”