Inspirational Paige Eakright looking for a little normal in 2018

Paige Eakright (Photo courtesy of Huntington University)
Paige Eakright

The holidays are almost over, and everyone is sitting in traffic, getting last-second shopping completed or maybe trying to do chores around the house that have been put off too long, trying to squeeze things in around a few dozen other appointments. We’d all just like a little bit of normal to return before we forget what it feels like.

But no one wants it more than Paige Eakright. In fact, the Huntington University sophomore can’t remember what it feels like or if she’d even recognize it anymore.

Normal. That could be interesting, she thinks.

What’s the most inspiring thing you heard of in 2017? It might be Eakright, a 19-year old Homestead graduate and member of the Foresters volleyball team who has dealt with some fairly traumatic things over the last year-and-a-half. She’s still dealing with them, in fact.

On Aug. 26, 2016, her first day of college, Eakright was diagnosed as having an extremely rare form of cancer which usually affects children during their first five years. Instead of going through freshman orientation, she and her parents were describing her diagnosis during a team meeting. Despite undergoing a couple surgeries and getting chemotherapy treatments, she played through the season, earning freshman all-league honors, before undergoing a year of treatments that she hated. Even today she can’t visit the hospital without throwing up first because she associates the place with chemotherapy, sickness and vomit.

Yeah, normal could be pretty good.

“I think the new normal is just going to be better than the old normal was in every aspect of my life,” she said. “It changed my perspective on everything I do and everyone I’m around and volleyball and school. It’s just going to be better than it was before and I’m thankful for that. I’m not thankful that it happened but I’m thankful for the outcome that I have and the people I met and everything that happened with it.”

Eakright had to miss last season, sitting on the bench as a volunteer assistant coach and trying to help in any way she could with encouragement or tips. The important part was being around her teammates who had been so supportive. Huntington coach Kyle Shondell said Eakright was the team member who had the most impact on the season even though she never played.

Still, she had no idea it would hurt so much because she wanted to play so badly.

“She called crying during the first match and saying it was so hard,” said her father Craig, a pastor at Grace Gathering in New Haven.

Paige desperately wanted to be out on the court helping her teammates who were helping her survive. She was still wearing a chemotherapy port in her chest, and neuropathy meant she couldn’t bend her feet properly or jump, but really that was the least of what she went through.

Because the first three chemotherapy treatments were so strong, they almost killed her and a fourth was canceled. After each treatment, she couldn’t eat for days. That was just the first three. After the surgery, there were 26 more treatments to go. In all, she had 46 days of chemotherapy, and more than half of those days included multiple doses of two or three different types. She tried to fight through it all on her own.

“Most people didn’t know because she kind of hid it,” her mother Jill said. “From the very beginning, she never wanted anybody to feel sorry for her. Most of the time people didn’t realize how hard it really was on her, especially after the surgery was done and she had 26 weeks more chemo to go.”

There was always a balance of how much to keep private and what to share with others. What’s the best way to handle it, with privacy so there’s the focus to fight or publicly so there’s plenty of help?

“From the very beginning, we’ve been like, the more people who know, the more who can pray,” Craig Eakright said.

Except at first, Paige wasn’t so sure if she wanted anyone to know. That wasn’t selfishness, but actually empathy.

“I’m definitely one of those people who hate when people are upset, and I didn’t want them to be sad for me,” she said. “I wanted to make friends at school because I’m normal, not because I’m abnormal. They reacted just the way I wanted them to. I asked all my best friends to treat me the same, and they treated me like I was a normal person but they comforted me when I needed comforting. The way everyone reacted was exactly what I needed.”

Whenever she came home from a treatment, neighbors would decorate the Eakright front door. Anonymous letters and food were dropped off, and trips to her surgeon in Detroit were paid for. Everyone stepped up.

“There’s a lot of blessings through what she’s gone through and you’re like, `I hope we did it right,’ ” her mother said. “So many people we need to thank, and `Thank you’ is just such a small two-word saying that never seems to be enough. It just doesn’t give enough, but there are so many we are grateful for.”

And then there was the family’s faith. They continually repeated Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” They may not have known the reason for this challenge, but they know one will be revealed eventually.

“From the very beginning, we knew this doesn’t feel like it, but it’s for our good and for His glory,” Craig said. “Those are the two things we held onto even during the painful part of it. It had to be something big He has plans for.”

Maybe it was simply to inspire others with the way Paige handled the situation. Sure, as anyone would, she cried and had a mental breakdown about once a week, but even then she learned from the experiences.

“I wouldn’t cry around people, so I would have meltdowns by myself,” she said. “Usually, I kept it to myself until I realized that my friends were doing to be there for me and it didn’t matter.”

But without realizing it, she became an inspiration to the rest of her Empowered Volleyball Club members. She kept showing up to help out, train and just be around.

“As we began to come around Paige and her family, she never seemed rattled by the enormous fight in front of her,” said Empowered Volleyball Club co-owner Ashley Robbins. “What a powerful example to put entire faith in our creator Jesus Christ… How on earth could anyone complain about how hard (training) was when Paige was doing the same workout with her chemo port visible?”

Maybe the most reinforcing sign during those first months after surgery was it seemed every time she turned on the radio, Chris Tomlin was singing “Good Good Father.” There were a ton of those kind of emotional moments that reminded her how God was with her and it was going to be OK.

And maybe soon. She started workouts last week and hopes to play some this spring in preparation for next fall’s schedule. It’s going to take time, and she has to be patient with her body. Now she needs even more encouragement from her teammates who have supported her so much.

“The main thing is to figure out how to jump again, because that’s going to be the hardest thing for me,” Paige said. “My team is really good about supporting me when I’m playing. It may never be 100 percent how it was, but I think in the volleyball aspect of it I can only get better, and I’ll be better than I was before, and in faith I’ll be better than I was before.”

She has survived, outlasted cancer, but her body is only 50 percent back, well behind her outlook and optimism.

“If anybody has the ability to play volleyball without the feeling in your feet, it’s Paige Eakright because she’s done far more impressive things than that,” Huntington coach Kyle Shondell said. “She may have had doubts through the entire process, but we never did. We knew she was going to beat this because she’s a fighter and that’s who she is. She was too stubborn for cancer.

Eakright is studying to be a teacher, and wonders if maybe God’s point of all this is to help some student in the future deal with something similar. Maybe it was just to inspire others, which she’s already pretty good at.

“When I spoke at the school, the pastor asked me what I wanted to take away from all this,” she said. “The only thing I had was just for college students not to take anything for granted because I definitely did before all this. Literally, everything, eating, walking, sleeping, family, I took all of that for granted at least a little bit, and I don’t at all anymore. I can’t imagine not having any of those things.”

“I told the athletes if you are playing your sport and complaining about it, stop. I literally can’t play the one thing I love more than anything. Nothing in this life is worth taking for granted.”

Yeah, a little normal might be what she needs the most.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)