Vol. 18 •Issue 9 • Page 15
A radiography student in the midst of fighting a rare cancer finds a community of caring among her fellow classmates
With a little less than a semester left in the medical imaging program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), Heidi Shelton thought nothing could prevent her from living out her dream of becoming a radiographer. The 22-year-old, originally from Keysville, Utah, was even hired as a medical imaging intern at her clinical site hospital.
Everything was going her way until this past February, when a lump on her back was diagnosed as Ewing’s Sarcoma, a malignant bone tumor that normally occurs in children. Heidi suddenly found herself in a fight for her life.
“I cried for about a week,” Heidi said in a recent interview with ADVANCE. “And then I realized that’s not helping anybody. I might as well do something about it.”
She resolved to try her hardest to graduate on time, cramming schoolwork in between aggressive chemotherapy sessions. Her classmates in the radiography program, meanwhile, have joined Heidi’s battle, launching HelpHeidi.com as part of an ambitious effort to raise $100,000 toward her escalating medical bills.
“HelpHeidi.com will help get the word out and give people more information on Heidi and her progress,” said Michael Tarby, president of UNLV’s Student Technologists Association in Radiological Sciences (STARS), which is also selling HelpHeidi.com wristbands for $5 through the website to help raise the money.
‘It’s just a cyst’
It all started with a tiny bump on Heidi’s back.
“I thought maybe it was a spider bite or something, not a big deal at all,” Heidi said, describing her reaction upon making the discovery last October. “But it just kept getting bigger.”
Growing concerned, she went to the health clinic at UNLV, where a dermatologist dismissed the bump as a cyst and said she could have it removed. Since UNLV health clinic doesn’t have the capabilities to do minor surgery, Heidi made an appointment with another dermatologist.
“I went to the second dermatologist and they gave me the same thing: ‘It’s just a cyst,'” said Heidi.
Because the second physician couldn’t schedule Heidi to have the cyst removed for another 3 months, she called the dermatologist in her hometown of Keysville, hoping he would be able to treat her over the Christmas break.
By the time of her third appointment, the cyst had turned purple and grown to the size of a quarter.
The third dermatologist also believed the bump was a cyst, but he thought it was infected and treated it with an antibiotic draining tube. The cyst shrunk to half its size and then ballooned to almost twice its original size in 1 week before the dermatologist finally agreed to remove it.
“On the outside, it was the size of a silver dollar,” Heidi said. “When he opened me up, it was like a baseball in my back and it was attached to everything.”
On Feb. 3, Heidi learned the bump was not just a cyst, but Ewing’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer that that comprises only 5 percent of all childhood bone tumors, according to the American Cancer Society. Heidi quickly realized the grave reality of cancer.
“To me, there was no reason why I would get sick,” she said. “I’m 22. I was healthy. I exercised. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I didn’t expect I would get cancer, but I did. I think it’s important for everyone to be aware that it’s out there and it doesn’t discriminate.”
Health insurance became the cruel irony on Heidi’s path to treatment.
“I was working under a different job and then the hospital hired me on as a medical imaging intern,” Heidi said. “I went to the hospital, where I got paid more, but they didn’t offer insurance benefits,” forcing her to buy her own health insurance.
But, to make matters worse, the insurance company initially refused to cover her treatment.
“Her treatment was delayed for 2 months because Ewing’s Sarcoma is typically a pediatric disease. [The insurance company] thought there might be a pre-existing condition or something,” said George Pales, PhD, RT(R)(MR)(T), one of Heidi’s professors in the radiography program at UNLV.
However, according to the American Cancer Society, 64 percent of Ewing’s Sarcoma cases occur between the ages of 10 and 20; Heidi’s age doesn’t fall that far out of the norm. Heidi’s diagnosis also gave the insurance company a false impression of time to waste, Heidi said.
“I’m stage I, which means it is localized to the site, which is really good. But because of that, everyone is kind of taking their time,” she said.
Heidi underwent the first of 17 aggressive chemotherapy sessions just a few weeks ago. She remains in the hospital during treatment and gets a week and a half interval between each session to work, study and live normally.
“During my good weeks, I’m trying to cram in school and as much of everything else I can before I get sick again,” she said. “I’m almost ready to graduate. I’m trying really hard to finish school on time.”
Heidi gushed about what made her want to become a radiographer.
“When I was a senior in high school, I had an internship at a hospital in their radiology department. I got to see all the different modalities and observe everybody. I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I just love how you can take an X-ray and, in a couple of moments, you can tell if an arm is broken or see cancer. I love how it is so diagnostic and the pathology of it all.”
Fellow members of STARS, meanwhile, continue to pull for their classmate and her aspirations of becoming a radiologic technologist. Heidi has been an active member of STARS since she began radiology school; she’s written the group’s newsletter and designed the STARS’ t-shirt.
“I first met Heidi at my clinical hospital,” Tarby said. “She was an energetic tech whom everyone liked. She had a great disposition and a smile that would light up the room. When I heard she had Ewing’s Sarcoma, I knew we had to help her.”
He said STARS is organizing other fundraisers and events that will be announced on the HelpHeidi.com website.
“I was blown away by all the different stuff STARS has done to help me. It’s been really great,” said Heidi, who continues to maintain a positive attitude and focus on the future.
“Hopefully, if things go my way, I can get my CT license,” she said.
Lauren Pigeon is an editorial assistant at ADVANCE. She can be reached at lpigeon @merion.com. If you would like to purchase a wristband or donate money or an item to be raffled off, please visit www.HelpHeidi.com.