Brooke Hall lies beneath a green cotton comforter, reclined in her living room chair as she watches television.
It is early Monday morning, yet she isn’t on her way to class. Instead, she is on her way to Louisville’s Norton Hospital to visit Dr. Daniel Matzinger, her gynecologic oncologist.
Her “aunt-mom,” Geniece Germanis, stops in the middle of the living room and looks at her niece.
“You getting your nerves worked up?” Germanis ask with concern.
Hall, a Franklin senior, takes small sips of water and winces as she fights nausea and severe pains in her stomach.
Her mother, Kim Hall, packs Brooke’s medicine in a bag and busily moves about the house. She reminds Brooke that they would be leaving for her appointment in a few minutes. Yet Brooke sighs, unmoving and says, “Ya’ll will have to give me a few minutes.”
Brooke slowly puts on her socks and shoes, her pale-rosy face ridden with agony, and stares at an episode of “The Pretender” on the TV. The bald man on the screen has a breathing tube up his nose and looks sickly. He slowly transforms into a younger, well version of himself and asks the other character, “Do you believe in miracles?” Changing back into his original self he says, “It starts with love.”
Brooke Hall, 23, has been hoping for a miracle also; a miracle that would win a battle she has been fighting since the spring of 2002 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
While on a missionary trip in Arkansas, Brooke began having stomach pains. She thought they were cramps.
It was much more serious.
Soon, Brooke was having a 14-inch incision cut into her abdomen to remove a 12-pound tumor.
Hall thought that her battle was over, but after a phone call from her doctor, she discovered she had a rare form of cancer called Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor.
SLCT is an extremely rare form of cancer typically found in the male testicles, Metzinger said. The exact cause is unknown. The carcinoma cells are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation.
“Frankly, the fact that she is still alive is amazing,” Metzinger said.
Through this 18-month battle, Brooke has been pursuing possible cures. A research clinic in Houston may be her answer.
Yet Brooke’s miracle has been enduring the illness.
“God expects us to fight the fine fight,” Germanis said. “She is not thinking about the end, God is changing her life in so many ways and she’ll be used for God’s glory somewhere down the line.”
Running her own race
Brooke has not let chemotherapy, radiation or four surgeries stop her from pursuing her educational goals. She scheduled treatments around classes.
“She never let this cancer run her life,” her mother, Kim, said. “She’s lived life with it. She never quit or took anything laying down, she stayed in school and inspired many people and didn’t let having cancer affect her anymore than she had to.”
Brooke recalls the week before the fall 2002 semester. She had completed her chemotherapy treatments and was washing her hair in Schneider Hall, where she was a resident assistant. Her hair started shedding. In disbelief, she repeatedly ran her fingers through her dark locks.
With every stroke she whisked out chunks of her dark, curly strands. Panicked, she began to cry as her pale hands soon were covered with black hair.
“It was a lonely moment for Brooke,” said Jessica Toomey, a Franklin senior and one of Brooke’s best friends. “She called me and she cried and just needed someone to be there and tell her she was still beautiful.”
Brooke eventually shaved her head. At first she wore hats and bandanas to cover her head.
But she never wore a wig, not even in public.
One day, while in a women’s studies class, Brooke’s sweaty head began to severely itch, so she ripped her hat off and exposed her baldness.
She was sensitive about being bald at first, but she realized that it washer reality.
Her mother would become upset when strangers would address Brooke as “sir.” Yet she said that Brooke never let it get to her.
“If I wore a wig, I wouldn’t be being real with myself,” Brooke said. “I would be saying that everything was normal, and everything wasn’t normal. I had cancer and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror with a wig on and pretend like I didn’t.”
Six months after chemotherapy the cancer reappeared.
After a second and a third surgery, Brooke underwent full abdominal and pelvic radiation treatment. She said it was the worst six weeks of her life. The results from the radiation would damage her body beyond repair.
‘I hate this place’
Brooke lays on the exam table waiting for a wheel chair to transport her to her hospital room. She covers her face in aggravation.
“I hate this place. Every freaking time I come here I get bad news,” she says to her nurse, Cara Priddy. “I wasn’t expecting to go in the hospital.”
Though she had come for a check up, her doctor decided to admit her for testing. On the way to the appointment her nausea had turned into bouts of vomiting. She found herself hovering over trash cans, retching in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.
She was dehydrated. She had a fever of 102 degrees and would have to have a port put in her chest to have fluid pumped into her body.
She has been slowly healing since her fourth surgery in February, which removed part of her bowels.
She still has a cancerous tumor connected to a piece of her bowel. Metzinger said her sickness seemed like signs of a partial or complete blockage of the bowel that results in the failure of intestinal contents to pass through, called obstruction. Upset and tired, Brooke’s doctor’s appointment turned into an unpredictable stay in the hospital.
Weeks after her third surgery, Brooke was determined to fulfill her duty as an RA and participate in fall 2003’s MASTER Plan.
“She was always there for us,” Campbellsville freshman Jessica Hutcherson said.
Being able to be an RA for 3 1/2 semesters, taking care of other people and watching them grow helped Brooke forget about some of her problems.
“Helping others makes my problems feel small,” Brooke said with tears in her eyes. “The sacrifices I had to make were worth the joy I received from it. They’re my kids, I love them.”
Since she had to resign from her position at Northeast, many have rallied in her support, raising money for her through fundraisers, and participating in the Relay for Life as a team called “Brooke’s Big Red Brigade.”
Northeast Hall Director Sie Powell said watching Brooke walk a lap in the relay was exciting, emotional and courageous.
“She is one of the strongest people I know on Earth.” Powell said. “It was empowering. She always succeeds cause she puts it in her heart.”
Davy Rupsch, a Henderson senior, remembers the minutes before Brooke’s fourth surgery. It was a tense situation. Dozens of patients lay behind curtains being prepared for surgery. As he approached Brooke’s curtained bed, he heard a brief eruption of laughter come from Brooke. Though the conditions were saturated with anxiety, Brooke’s laughter comforted Rupsch.
In the last minutes, her friends encircled her and prayed over her.
On her worst days, when her pain was unbearable or her hope wavered briefly, her faith, friendship and determination gave her family and friends the resoluteness to stick by her.
“I will walk with her, beside her, holding her up, whatever it takes,” Germanis said. “Her friends feel the same way.”
Through hard days they have been there to give her a sense of normalcy, make her laugh or provide a shoulder to cry on. Traveling to the hospital during treatments and playing games, ordering pizza, and giving Brooke a reason to laugh and smile in the hardest situations has helped her cope through sickness and pain.
“They make me feel mentally well so I can physically bear,” Brooke said.
Deep down, Brooke said she feels like her doctor may be giving up on her. But despite her feelings of distress, she knows that her battle is not yet over.
Her endeavor is to get well and walk across the green of Smith Stadium on May 8 adorned in a black cap and gown, and shake President Gary Ransdell’s hand and accept her degree, with a major in general studies.
There has not been doubt from anyone who knows her that she will accomplish this. Though she has had to drop classes, and work extra hard to catch up after healing time, she will walk on May 8, go to summer school and maybe take a few courses in the fall. Reaching this milestone in her life, despite all the hardships, gives Brooke reason to believe that dreams can be accomplished.
“I have no doubt that she will get her diploma and even go to graduate school,” said Bethany Smith, Brooke’s academic adviser.
Brooke predicts a heap of emotion will run through her as she accepts the diploma; immeasurable joy, gladness, yet sadness because her friends will be leaving her.
She plans on hugging two of her best friends that have stood by her side, Toomey and Shadowens, who will be among the graduates.
“I did it, I made it through everything. I completed something in my life.” Her face is filled with excitement as she anticipates the day. Tears surge her eyes and a smile spreads across her face.
Reach Tavia Green at [email protected]