WHEELING - Best friends Ashlee Schwertfeger and Chelsea Bleifus, both in eighth grade at Wheeling Middle School, have many things in common, but one shared trait has strengthened a bond between the two girls that runs deeper than most friendships.
Schwertfeger, 13, and Bleifus, 15, have both overcome life-threatening illnesses at a very young age. Schwertfeger has epilepsy, which is under control, and Bleifus is a brain cancer survivor who has been cancer-free for 10 years. Both girls have overcome the odds. Schwertfeger began having seizures as an infant. Since she was so young, she doesn't remember much detail, but remembers being rushed to the hospital.
"It was scary," Schwertfeger said. "I had to get to the hospital, because it was really bad. I fainted a lot and I had to have an aid at school."
Photo by Sarah Harmon
Wheeling Middle School students Chelsea Bleifus, 15, and Ashlee Schwertfeger, 13, who is dressed in purple to mark National Epilepsy Awareness Month, both have overcome life-threatening illnesses, a common experience that has bonded the two as best friends. Bleifus is a brain cancer survivor and Schwertfeger is managing epilepsy.
"She remembers all the hospital stays and lots of ambulance rides," Christy Schwertfeger, Ashlee's mother, said. "There were lots of scary moments. She had seizures at school so there was that stigma from the other kids. People are afraid to talk about it, but it's important to talk about it. Almost everyone you ask knows someone who has or has had seizures."
Schwertfeger now has her epilepsy under control and has not suffered a major seizure event for about six years with the help of "the right doctor and the right combination of medicines." To keep the seizures at bay, Schwertfeger must take several different medications and stay as physically balanced as possible.
"She's doing well," Christy Schwertfeger said.
"We'll always have to manage her medication, they are pretty toxic and continue to have regular bloodwork done. She'll always live with this - epilepsy doesn't go away. We're talking about responsibility and how to take care of herself and keep herself balanced, because they are important things for her to do for the rest of her life."
Bleifus was first diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a pediatric brain cancer in which a tumor will grow in the cerebellum, the part of the brain which controls balance and complex motor functions, right before her fifth birthday.
Bleifus was treated at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where her family lived during the entirety of her hospital stay. When describing the hospital, Bleifus's mother Maryann said she was shocked by the amount of children battling cancer.
"It's not something you think about," Maryann Bleifus said. "After the shock wears off, it's a wonderful place. It's like a family, you bond with everyone and they help you keep upbeat. A lot of the kids are so sick they don't even know they're in a hospital there is so much going on. They bring carnivals, motorcycles, dogs, there's so much going on."
Bleifus finished chemotherapy in March 2003 and though Bleifus's cancer is gone, she still lives with the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Bleifus's spine is stunted from radiation and she has suffered hearing loss and owns a hearing aid. She is undergoing replacement hormone therapy since damage to her thyroid and ovaries have prevented the normal production of hormones.
This past August, after years of both girls having their illnesses under control, the two girls met after Schwertfeger and her family moved from Virginia to Wheeling. On Schwertfeger's first day in eighth grade at Wheeling Middle School, Bleifus was the student assigned to show her around the school and the two "bonded instantly." Together, they have bravely taken their challenging experiences and special talents and are using them to raise awareness in their community on their respective illnesses.
Schwertfeger is a baton twirler and has participated in twirling competitions and has performed at the school's football games. She also has twirled at epilepsy awareness events with a twirling group in Virginia coached by her mother. Schwertfeger also was a speaker at an epilepsy awareness walk last November in Virginia. Although Schwertfeger's epilepsy is under control, she has friends with epilepsy who still suffer seizures.
Bleifus has organized a Math-a-Thon at Wheeling Middle School every year since sixth grade to raise funds for St. Jude's Hospital. This year, Bleifus helped collectively raise $1200 and was the top seller with over $400 she raised herself. In addition, Bleifus goes around to all the math classrooms to give a presentation about her experience fighting brain cancer and how St. Jude Hospital helps young cancer patients. She has also participated in Relay for Life events for many years and is usually being honored in front of the procession.
"It's really amazing, because they help to convince the other kids to get involved. They have the personal touch, too. They can put their personal experience to the fundraisers and it makes the kids understand why they're raising money and that it's actually going to help other kids," Renee Marchese, teacher, said. "A lot of the time, the kids see the commercials on TV, but it's not personal. But when they see kids here that have been through that, they really see the people go through this."
Although they have overcome enormous odds, Schwertfeger and Bleifus have survived to live happy and full lives. Although the memory of their challenges lingers, they are really just two happy friends waiting for the fun to begin.
"We have two special girls," Christy Schwertfeger said. "They are both miracles."