Just a few weeks after she turned 13, Jessica Weller learned that she had Ewing sarcoma in her abdomen that had metastasized around her heart and lungs. While statistically the prognosis for Ewing sarcoma in children is good, Jessica’s cancer had reached stage 3 by the time she was diagnosed. The doctors she originally saw in Mobile, Alabama, did not know what to do with her case. Upon hearing the news about his daughter, Jessica’s father, Lynn, flew home from Afghanistan, where he was working as a contractor. A fellow passenger on the plane told Lynn about MD Anderson Cancer Center. Soon thereafter Jessica was signed up for treatment there. She had six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy treatments, then surgery that removed not only the tumors but also one of her ribs and two-thirds of her diaphragm. All the while, Jessica’s mother, Connie, was driving her daughter seven hours each way from Mobile to Houston and back. The treatment was extremely difficult, but the tumors disappeared. Jessica was then chosen for a year-long treatment study for an immunotherapy drug that would help train her T-cells to attack cancer cells. This meant even more travel: leaving Mobile for Houston on Sunday, having the immunotherapy treatment on Monday, and flying back the same day so that she could continue a normal child’s life as much as possible. The prospect of flying or driving 500 miles every week was daunting, to say the least. It was right about this time that a social worker at MD Anderson told Jessica’s family about Angel Flight South Central. For many of the trips they took to Houston for the study, Jessica and her mother would be picked up at their regional airport by an AFSC pilot, flown to Houston, and then Ground Angels would drive them to Ronald McDonald House. The Ground Angels and Angel Flight South Central then returned Jessica home again.
[Above: Jessica in 2009 with her father (brown cap), and AFSC pilots Rich Wagner (green shirt) and Scott Young (red cap).] Jessica flew frequently enough that she began to see some pilots repeatedly. Scott Young particularly stands out in her memory. “I loved flying with Scott,” she says. “He’s a really great guy. He may not realize it, but he was really there for my family whenever we needed help. He is a hero for families that need health treatment and can’t make it to where they need to go.” Though Jessica’s immunotherapy treatment did help strengthen her immune system, a scan at the end of the study revealed a relapse. She underwent eight more rounds of chemo, then surgery to resect the tumor as well as another rib. Two months of radiation followed.
Through all of this, Jessica kept up with her education, thanks in part to a school program at MD Anderson. She managed to finish high school on schedule while taking honors classes. Just this past May, Jessica graduated from the University of South Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She now works at Mobile Infirmary on the Telemetry Unit. (This means she monitors patients’ vitals using instruments – for example, EKGs to monitor heart rate.) Jessica says that she was a bit intimidated to try nursing school at first because of how hard it was. She began college as a communications major, but quickly realized that wasn’t what she wanted to do and switched to nursing during her sophomore year. “I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she says matter-of-factly. Jessica has been cancer-free since 2011. She still returns to MD Anderson once per year for screening. “Thanks to all the pilots that donate their time and money and leaving their family to help others,” Jessica says. “I can’t thank them enough.”