GREENWICH — The positive outlook and radiant smile have remained constants, packaged now with a maturity uncommon in high school seniors.
Then again, not many teenagers — or anyone, for that matter — have had to endure the battle waged by Nicole Graham against an insidious disease that left her parents in the unfathomable position of having to confront their daughter’s mortality.
It is unfair to compare Graham’s battle with leukemia to any of her athletic endeavors at Greenwich High School, save for an important common trait: the indomitable spirit she brought to the fight.
Twenty months after her condition was first diagnosed, Graham is preparing for the final days of a storied three-sport career that doctors once thought improbable to be completed on the field.
“Cancer is this miserable experience, but you can come out on top,” Graham said. “You watch all these movies, and a lot of the stories in Hollywood don’t focus on that. They always have the sad ending. I am kind of happy my story can be out there and it’s a positive. People can come out with a positive attitude.”
Graham’s story is horrific, but it has left her a fiery ball of inspiration as well as a role model and a willing spokesperson for the power of fortitude.
Her ordeal started in September of 2012, when prior symptoms of shortness of breath and bad back pain worsened. Graham labored during field hockey tryouts, puzzled how she had mysteriously gone from being well conditioned to out of shape. One Sunday, tiny purple dots appeared over different parts of her body.
“I was like ‘this isn’t normal,’ ” Graham recalled.
Graham went to see her pediatrician the next morning, returned to school, then got called back to the doctors, where she was given the news that she had leukemia.
“My first question was ‘Cancer?’ ” Graham said. “I was stunned. I did everything right. I eat well. Like, how? The doctor said if only we knew. I cried for like five minutes in the office and told my mom let’s go to the hospital and get this done.”
Graham packed a bag and went to Yale-New Haven for a stay that would last 10 days.
“Your initial reaction is shock,” said Graham’s father, Bruce. “You go into the clinical. The emotional comes later. What do I need to do immediately? What’s leukemia and how do we deal with this. Who do we need to see, what’s going to be involved? You can’t describe how horrible it is. You want to switch positions with her.”
At Yale, Graham was diagnosed with type B ALL leukemia and returned home after two rounds of intensive chemotherapy and multiple blood transfusions. The night before her third round of chemo Graham was feeling chills and felt extremely weak. At one point she collapsed on the floor.
Graham was taken by ambulance to Greenwich Hospital and then was transported up to Yale in a specially outfitted pediatric ambulance. She was admitted into the pediatric ICU unit with septic shock and put into a medically induced coma for two weeks, with breathing and kidney support. During that time she suffered strokes on both sides of her brain and when she awakened Graham was paralyzed, unable to talk and had difficulty seeing.
“The feeling of helplessness was something I was not prepared for,” Bruce said. “To watch and be told what was being done to your daughter without being able to help her.”
Graham was not only ailing, but now also felt like a prisoner in her own body.
“It was scary as hell,” Graham said. “It was scary for my parents, it was scary for me. It definitely gave me a whole new outlook on life.”
Graham was transferred to Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y., in October of 2012 to begin rehabilitation. Doctors advised Graham against playing contact sports again. In their view it was moot: it would take a minimum of two years before she would again be able to compete.
Foreshadowing came when Graham was released from Blythedale in less than three months, much sooner than expected. The next day she went to Greenwich’s track practice to visit her teammates.
“They were in their postseason and I was there to cheer them on,” Graham said. “I missed field hockey season, I missed track season and lacrosse was coming up. I wanted to be there every day I could be.”
The support from the entire town, and especially the staff and student body at Greenwich, that had comforted her through the hospital stays grew even more fervent. The school wore orange armbands, bracelets, practice pinnies, most emblazoned with the acronym NOFA: No One Fight’s Alone. They soon spread all over the community.
“For pretty much the entire school year, though red is the school color, there were not many days someone wasn’t wearing orange,” said Evan Dubin, the Cardinals’ girls track coach and a guidance counselor. And it was all in support of her. What she went through you don’t wish on anybody, but to have it happen to someone as fantastic as Nicole. That’s the last person. The first time you meet her, the smile on her face is so infectious and contagious that it is impossible not to like her.”
Graham was able to catch up with her studies to graduate on time, but her return to school was initially a struggle.
“It was a whirlwind,” she said. “I missed one year and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a wakeup call for me. I went from doing nothing to having a 12-hour day. I’d go from school to field hockey practice. At first I didn’t know if my body could handle that. I was so mentally exhausted. I had to take a step back. I did as much as I could but it was definitely within limits. My endurance has picked up as the year has gone by.”
Graham made it through field hockey season but had to contend with her body not moving as fast as her mind, an issue that especially affected her as a sprinter during track season. Victories were measured differently than in the past.
“It was definitely more difficult,” she said. “I qualified for FCIACs and states as a sophomore and just assumed I would again. But the 55 meters is all about your start. If you don’t have a good start you lose the race. So I dropped the 55 and focused on the 300. I was beating girls. I didn’t care if I was 10 seconds below the qualifying time. I was still beating girls that were giving it their all. I couldn’t walk last year.”
Graham is again an integral starter now for the Greenwich lacrosse team — and a co-captain for the third time this year — which is both an FCIAC and state contender.
“It was good having Nicole around last year because she has such a good sense for the game that it was like having another coach out there,” said Caitlin Keane, the Cardinals’ coach. “Even though she couldn’t play she was making a contribution. Having her back on the field is wonderful. And with what she’s went through it’s insane.”
Graham has discovered that even if her legs and mind are still not completely in sync, her joy of competing supersedes all else.
“It feels amazing and I never realized how much athletics meant to me,” she said.
Graham will be attending Dartmouth in the fall, and said, “I definitely want to do club lacrosse or something because it’s a very big part of my life. To sit for a year was so hard for me.”
Graham is in remission. She still undergoes daily oral chemotherapy and goes monthly to Yale for maintenance chemotherapy. She gets blood drawn every two weeks.
“I think Nicole is here for a reason,” Bruce said. “By all accounts even the doctors said she shouldn’t be here. It’s either God or for a reason and a lot of good things to come. There are a lot of blessings and I’m excited to see what Nicole does in the future.”
Graham’s story will soon reach a wider audience: her brother, Clay, wrote to ESPN. The network will be airing a segment this summer on Graham as part of its E:60 series. Appropriately, it is called No One Fights Alone.
More important than sports is Graham’s outlook on life, one she plans to spend trumpeting as the embodiment of the power of purpose and optimism.
“Obviously there are points when I say ‘Why me,’ but then I look at myself and say I’m so blessed,” Graham said. “I’m back to where I was. The children’s hospital opened my eyes. There were kids there for three years and they may never get back to where they were, and for me to be back at 98 percent a year later is incredible to me, and I look at it as a blessing. My story, I’m completely open with my story to everyone. I want people to see how much a positive outlook, how much a town supporting you can mean.”