For nearly two decades, and only 40 miles apart, two girls lived in parallel worlds.
One, just old enough to start making memories, returned from chemotherapy and played nurse to heal her ailing dolls. The other, who’d received a new heart well before her learner’s permit, comforted other children who were terrified of the transplants they needed to stay alive.
Both had to endure brushes with death. Both were Make-A-Wish recipients. Both survived and now want to help others. Both yearn to be nurses because of those scares, the scars and the people who helped pull them through.
Those parallel lives spent in suburban Atlanta finally intersected last year at the University of North Georgia, where heart transplant recipient LeeAnn Noble and leukemia survivor Bridget Sandy found each other on a golf course nestled in the mountains. They’ve overcome potentially debilitating ailments to become scholarship athletes and close friends, as different in disposition – Noble’s gregariousness matches her long blond hair and Sandy’s shorter, dark curls befit her reserved personality – as they are alike in their common experiences and aspirations for the future.
“I hope that I can impact as many lives and possibly save as many lives as I can,” Noble says.
“I’ve always wanted to help people and to give back for everything that my nurses helped me with,” Sandy says. “It really clicked at an early age; it stuck with me.”
Sandy’s path to golf, nursing and North Georgia started at age 3. One day at nearby Amicalola Falls State Park, her parents noticed something was amiss. A fever developed. It wouldn’t abate despite the efforts of Tylenol and confused doctors. After more than a week, it spiked to a near-fatal 105.5 degrees and only relented after a life-saving blood transfusion. Later, fearing the worst, specialists probed into the 3-year-old’s spine in six places to collect bone marrow. Though she was young, “I do remember that pretty vividly,” Sandy says.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, doctors told her parents. Chemotherapy was the answer. Two-and-a-half years and many lost strands of hair later, she celebrated the day her chemo port was removed from her shoulder, leaving behind a scar that she remains proud of today. While she was declared cancer-free, the effects of her childhood ordeal linger. Sandy is still tested to ensure that the cancer doesn’t return and to check the long-lasting side effects of the treatment on her heart and other organs.
Noble was older when she started wheezing in the winter snow in upstate New York, but her situation was just as serious. She was a 12-year-old cross country runner, but a day sledding had grown surprisingly taxing. It was the offseason; she must be out of shape, she thought.
A string of trips to the doctor and a stay in the hospital revealed her heart was four times its normal size. Her cross country regimen had kept the symptoms at bay until that snowy day in New York.
“When I first got to the hospital, it was awful,” Noble says. “I’d never been through anything like that before. I was beyond scared. I didn’t really understand what was happening.”
Soon, though, she would. Her young heart was failing and she needed a new one. Undaunted, she faced a six-hour surgery and two days in a medically induced coma, hearing the concerned whispers of her parents somewhere between her dreams and reality. She, too, bears a scar – the enduring symbol of her ordeal.
Recovery from a heart transplant is as arduous as it seems; she could no longer compete as a runner and still takes medication to ensure her new heart and her body are never at odds. So, at her father’s behest, she picked up a golf club for the first time in her life and fell in love with the game that tested her newly fortified mind instead of her newly fragile body.
Noble rose to varsity in high school quickly and drew the attention of North Georgia head coach Leigh Anne Hunter as a senior.
Sandy didn’t turn to golf immediately after her illness. She thrived as a basketball player. But after a fractured knee and a father’s encouragement, she found herself on the driving range. Sandy picked up the sport later than Noble, taking her first lesson and making varsity during her junior year. She walked on at North Georgia last year and earned a scholarship this season.
Scars aside, lingering effects of their illnesses aren’t apparent, save for the mental toughness, which serves them well as they try to improve rapidly at the frustrating game they began later than most of their peers. “My jaw just dropped (when I found out about LeeAnn),” Hunter says. “It amazes me to look at them and think about what they’ve gone through. They both are pretty resilient and I’m sure that’s why.”
It’s fitting that both girls were Make-A-Wish recipients and found their way to North Georgia. The school has ranked first or second among Division II institutions in Make-A-Wish donations for three consecutive years, giving roughly $34,000 in that span as part of the division-wide alliance with the charity organization. And Noble and Sandy have played important roles in those efforts as members of the school’s SAAC, which organizes North Georgia’s Make-A-Wish events. They’ve manned a booth at fundraisers in Dahlonega, using their stories to help drive donations.
Their experiences were different, but equally meaningful.
Sandy came to love Disney movies as a child when she was isolated from other kids for long stretches in order to protect her weakened immune system. She said her Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World made all those movies, which kept her company when she was ill, come to life. Noble and her family spent time in New York City, where they sat front-and-center at a Broadway play.
The pair have paid those experiences forward. Make-A-Wish children who visit campus get to spend time with role models who understand what they’re going through. Noble has counseled other children who are in need of transplants, but are wary of the daunting procedure. One girl’s parents told Noble that her words persuaded her daughter to have the life-saving operation.
“That was an eye-opener for me,” Noble says. “That was the moment I realized that was the direction I wanted to take.”
One day soon, these two survivors turned student-athletes will carve their own paths as nurses. For now, though, they’ll carry their unspoken bond with them amid the silence of walking 18, side by side.
Haven’t heard of the University of North Georgia? You’re not alone. The university is new … sort of. It was born this year when North Georgia College & State University merged with nearby Gainesville State College. NGCSU was founded as North Georgia Agricultural College in 1873 by William Pierce Price after he received federal funding to create a land grant institution. The school’s military roots run deep – alongside Norwich, Texas A&M, The Citadel, VMI and Virginia Tech, it’s one of only six senior military colleges in the nation. The school counts 36 generals and admirals among its alumni.
Unlike The Citadel or VMI, for instance, North Georgia students are not required to take part in military training. On fall mornings, you’ll find students in T-shirts and flip-flops intermingling with columns of ROTC students running in formation and chanting in unison.
The school spans four campuses in the region. NGCSU’s old home in Dahlonega – which is about a 90-minute drive north from Atlanta and was the site of the first significant U.S. gold rush – is home to all 12 of the university’s athletics programs, including men’s and women’s rifle. The school built new baseball and softball facilities in 2010 and is part of the 14-member Peach Belt Conference, which is composed of schools hailing from across the Southeast.
Like many Division II institutions, North Georgia is committed to supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation and holds two large annual fundraisers. The university has raised more than $10,000 for Make-A-Wish in each of the past three years and regularly brings young Make-A-Wish recipients to athletics events to interact with student-athletes and take part in pregame ceremonies.
“The most important thing for our student-athletes was to understand the meaning of giving back,” Athletics Director Lindsay Reeves said. “When they connect with a Wish child, they really understand how lucky they are.”