By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Time flies they say.
Stacy Claflin knows that is not always true.
Sometimes, time can trudge along.
“Two and a half years is a hell of a long time,” she said.
Stacy and her husband Rod, Streetsboro residents, spent 845 days filled with grief, stress, hope and love as their 9-year-old daughter Makayla began the fight for her life after she was diagnosed with leukemia.
They watched the blood-cell cancer weaken their once energetic and active daughter.
It stole part of her childhood, produced many sleepless nights and introduced an avalanche of frightened anxiety.
The story of Makayla’s devastating diagnosis, courageous battle and survivorship began in the summer of 2016 when a series of symptoms began to surface that changed the family’s life forever.
Makayla’s official diagnosis day, but everything began in the early summer months of 2016 when she began to experience symptoms largely underlined by fatigue.
From the time she was 3 years old, Makayla had played soccer and was active, busy and involved.
Suddenly, she was so tired that she was in bed by 8 o’clock.
Then she began to have pains in her back, which initially were thought to be the cause of an increased number of soccer games played.
Then her leg began to hurt, which was originally thought to be growing pains.
Then the orbit of her eye began to swell, which was first diagnosed as a sinus infection.
Then she began to run a high fever.
“As a parent, you know when something is wrong, and I knew it,” Stacy said.
A series of tests confirmed that Stacy was right.
Something was wrong and the whirlwind had begun once the words were delivered by the doctor.
“I remember asking the doctor, how do you tell your child that they have cancer?” Stacy said. “As a mom, you do everything in your power to protect your children, then you are sitting at a desk signing stacks of consent papers to sign off that everything from that point forward could potentially be life threatening.”
Rod and Stacy told Makayla of her diagnosis the following day — Aug. 18, 2016.
“She took the news about as well as you could expect from someone 9 years old,” Stacy said.
Makayla knew she was sick, but admits that she did not understand the severity.
“I was so sick that I don’t really remember much about those couple of days,” she recalled. “I don’t really remember the car ride to the hospital. I remember not being able to read the road signs very well because they were so blurry. After a little while, I realized that this was something pretty serious. I was staying at the hospital night after night. I was missing school. I wasn’t playing sports anymore. I started to realize that this was something different.”
After diagnosis, Makayla’s near non-existent immune system forced her to spend the next 35 days in the hospital.
Her fight had begun.
Just like that, there was no school, no friends, no soccer.
Radiation treatments ravished Makayla’s body.
She lost her hair four different times.
She repeatedly had to work through colitis, clostridioides difficile (C. diff) and a multitude of infections.
But there were also some angels along the way.
Teachers volunteered time to tutor Makayla while she was in the hospital.
Mrs. Ondash, Mrs. Rimmel, Mr. Skeels, among others, all became an extended part of the Claflin family.
“They were all so special,” Makayla said. “We definitely formed strong bonds and looking back, I can’t believe how much they did. They were there for me when I needed it.”
So was Makayla’s soccer team.
One day while she was at the hospital, the team organized a window visit complete with signs and well wishes, while other days, in Makayla’s solitude, she turned to music as her outlet. In fact, one day she accidentally pulled out her port because of her dancing.
And, of course, mom.
“She was always there. Always there for me,” Makayla said.
Once doctors identified remission for Makayla, she was cleared to go home. A small victory, but certainly not removed from the struggle.
Every time she had a fever over 100.4 degrees, she had to be taken to the hospital for evaluation.
“We were constantly monitoring her health. It was overwhelming. It took over our lives, but it is what we had to do,” Stacy said.
And the hurt found new ways to penetrate.
During Makayla’s treatments, the Claflins had become very close with two families, who also had very young girls bravely fighting against leukemia. Makayla had become close friends with the girls, who both, sadly, lost their battle.
“We were completely devastated,” Stacy said. “You don’t recover from that, and we never did. We never will.”
Makayla said she thinks of her friends often.
“To this day, it still hurts. It still stings,” she said. “Every birthday that passes, it stings more. I think about them a lot, and I battle against the survivor’s guilt that I feel. They should still be here.”
Everything about the fight was blurring days together.
Finish lines seemed so distant that they appeared unattainable.
Each day was another eternity.
And then eternity happened to exist in the middle of December.
The day Makayla, then a sixth-grader, got to ring the bell as a celebration for her final day of chemotherapy treatment.
Streetsboro Mayor Glenn Broska declared the day Makayla Claflin Day throughout the city.
The school held a huge pep rally complete with celebratory speeches, inflatable slides, balloons and more.
Makayla had won.
It was a moment of happiness, without question, but also a reminder that her journey was still not over.
“I thought that when I finished my treatment, that my life would go back to normal,” Makayla said. “That is not how it was and it is not how it has been. My body may have won, but it has not recovered yet. I am still constantly tired. I am more prone to injury. I get sick easy. My health is still being monitored. There is still a lot of damage that the chemo treatments have left on me.”
But she is alive.
Her eyes beam with enthusiasm when she talks about her achievements, with each one holding a big status in her heart because of what it has taken her to get there.
She made a successful return to soccer, ran cross country and celebrated survivorship in 2022.
Unexpectedly, another milestone night awaited her this soccer season.
The night Makayla, now a sophomore, started her first high school soccer game.
It came as a surprise.
Nobody had told her ahead of the game and she found out by hearing her name being called by the public-address announcer.
“No. 7, Makayla Claflin” poured out of the speakers as she jumped forward and sprinted out of the team tunnel.
It was her moment.
“That was a big milestone for me,” said Makayla, who also said some of her best friends, Madelyn Genovese, Lydia Schofield and Grace Thompson, were just as excited for her.. “Six years later, it has been a long journey, but it feels good to be in the place I am in now. Any chance I get to play sports is a happy moment for me. I have been given the opportunity to live life to the fullest, which is not something I was able to do six years ago. All of that was taken away, and I will never taken anything for granted.”
Makayla’s mother, her best friend, simply loves seeing her daughter return to the life she once had.
“It makes me happy to see her happy. It brings me nothing but joy to see her succeed and be able to do what she loves. For her to get back to the things she missed out on. To see her now makes me the happiest and it makes me proud to know that she still wants to do so much.”
The journey has inspired Makayla’s desire to pursue a medical career.
Before that, though, she is inspiring her coaches and teammates.
“One of the things I love about Man is that there are no excuses,” Streetsboro girls soccer coach Ryan Willard said. “She wants to be on the field so badly. She plays through pain to be out there sometimes, but she never complains. How can you not admire that, whether you are a coach or her teammate?”
Admiration is never going to be short with Makayla.
Only part of her story has been told to this point.
There is still so much still waiting for her to tell.
The time will fly, they say.
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