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Student's struggles to get past illness pay off

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'Pinky swear' leads to high-school graduation, possible teaching career

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - Most parents expect their children to graduate from high school. Elizabeth "Libby" Galloway wasn't sure, for a time, if daughter Beyonka, would live long enough.

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"Every one of my family members died of cancer," Libby said May 26, "so I associated it with death."

Beyonka didn't just graduate with the Tell City High School Class of 2009. She did it in style, as a 21st century scholar.

In addition to making her "my first baby to graduate," as her mom proudly described her, the designation and scholarship that goes with it will allow her to continue her education at Ivy Tech Community College.

News readers were introduced to the Galloways in a November 2005 story reporting the struggles Beyonka was undergoing. Her acute lymphoblastic leukemia had gone into remission, but the chemotherapy used to fight the cancer spawned myelodysplastic syndrome. That illness requires an exceptionally clean environment, which wasn't possible in the home the family shared across Tell Street from the high school. A leaky roof contributed to a mold problem that could have exacerbated her condition.

She and her family moved to a home in the 1000 block of 22nd Street.

After that change and a bone-marrow transplant from an out-of-state donor in 2006, "it's much better; her health is better," Libby said.

The road to recovery has been marked by moments of seeming hopelessness for both mother and daughter.

Beyonka said one time, "I can't do it any more," Libby said. "I told her 'you pinky-swore,' " she continued, referring to a promise she described in the 2005 story. "I made her pinky-swear she wouldn't give up, and she hasn't," the mother said then.

She reminded her daughter of that "pinky promise" and how "this man went through all this to donate marrow," a process that requires, among other things, a series of painful shots, she explained.  

As for herself, Libby confessed, "for a split second, I thought I should let her go. How much can a parent put her child through?"

Beyonka couldn't go back to school for nearly a year after the transplant, she said, and "in the beginning, it was not very good. I still didn't have my hair, and people made fun of me."

It was another year before people really began talking to her, she added.

She did go to school, however, and even attended a dance.

"The first dance I went to coming back here was prom," Beyonka said.

Tell City kids were harder on Beyonka than those with whom she attended school previously in Hancock County, Ky., Libby said.

"Because I didn't take any crap in Hancock County," Beyonka said. "And I think they did more to take care of the problem."

Libby said the high school here could benefit from a videotape provided by Kosair Children's Hospital, where she and Beyonka spent a lot of time together. Played at an assembly in the Hancock County school, it explains aspects of cancer that many people are unsure about, she said. Some are afraid, for example, they might "catch" cancer by simply touching someone who has it. "I think education about the disease needs to be broader," Libby said.

The young woman's transition to a normal, healthy life has required some adjustment, like adapting to a daytime schedule.

"I was staying awake at night," Beyonka said. "It was quiet at the hospital at night. That's when I'd do stuff."

Her illness set her back, she said, "because in junior high, I missed a year the first time I got sick. They were going to pass me, but I didn't think that was right. I couldn't do the work. I still can't do some of it."

Even after she moved from home-schooling back into the classroom, "I had to get a lot of help to graduate," she said. "I struggled to graduate, and I graduated with a regular diploma, not a Core 40 diploma."

State legislators made completion of "Core 40" classes, those deemed necessary "to provide the academic foundation for success in college and the workforce," a requirement for most students, beginning with those entering high school in the fall of 2007, according to the state Education Department Web site.

"If they'd required that this year, I couldn't have graduated," Beyonka said. She earned a half credit more than the 47 required for a Tell City High School diploma, which is seven higher than the state requirement.

Her daughter was struggling with school and tried to hold a job, but couldn't physically handle it, Libby said.

"She was doing alternative school, as well," she added. "She has earned every ounce of that diploma. She worked her butt off."

Mike Bishop, director of the Perry County Learning Academy, "called me and said we have to put a fire under her or she won't graduate," Libby said.

She'd had several failures there, Beyonka added, but "he yelled at me because he cared. He wanted to see me get there."

Chris Hollinden also helped her get to graduation.

"She would not have graduated without him," Libby said. He worked with her for 15 or 20 minutes every morning, she added, and "she said he was the only one who made her understand math."

"Every year I had math, I had his help," Beyonka said.

Other educators "stepped up" to become allies against her struggles, she said, including Sarah Hall, Lisa Noble and Teresa Dunn.

At 19 years old, her maturity level is higher than her contemporaries' because she's had to contend with so many medical issues, her mom said. "She skipped the child stuff."

 "I wouldn't say I skipped it entirely," Beyonka corrected. "I play in the creek now, and in the weeds. But when (others her age) want to talk about stupid stuff, I won't do it. I was invited to a graduation party where they're going to have alcohol, and I turned them down."

"I still have limits," she said of her physical condition. Running is difficult because "my legs don't work," she said. "I don't have my muscles built back up. Physical activity wears me out. I can't get out and play like I want to."

She likes to toss a football around, play volleyball and catch crawfish in the creek, she said. "I'll always do those things because they're fun."

Checkups still interrupt her activities, but not as frequently as before. Her last one was in January, and her next one will be this month, when tests will help determine if chemotherapy has affected her eyesight, hearing or other functions.

A college education will lead to work teaching elementary-school students, Beyonka said. She had thought she would go into nursing, "but it's too hard mentally," she said. "I decided to go into teaching so I can help little kids. It's not giving back the way I wanted to do, but it's all I can do."

"That was a big thing with her," Libby said. "If she could become a doctor or nurse, she'd be able to say, 'I know what you're going through' and mean it."

Beyonka is good with children, though, as "kids just cling to her," her mom said.

"Maybe I will eventually become a nurse," Beyonka said.

In addition to Beyonka's medical problems, the 2005 News story reported a change in Libby's mind. She had felt previously it was solely her responsibility to take care of her daughter, but the bills, mold-contaminated home and other issues had driven her to a willingness to ask for assistance.

"I do appreciate all the help we received," she said. "A lot of people stepped up."