Leah Biskup - An Extraordinary Journey
If you ask Leah Biskup, she'll tell you she's an ordinary teenager -- studying for mid-term exams at St. Louis University, hanging out with friends and carrying out the daily social rituals of a 19-year-old from University City.
She's spent an extraordinary amount of time and strength to be this ordinary. And the folks who know and love her most will tell you she's anything but ordinary.
"She is truly amazing," says Leah's mom, Sara Biskup. "Maybe it's just part of being a resilient teenager, or part of her personality, but she's never allowed herself to think things weren't going to turn out just fine."
Even when she learned, during her sophomore year of high school, that the numbness she'd been feeling on the right side of her body -- that had caused her to collapse during a softball game -- was the result of a brain tumor.
The tumor -- called an ependymoma -- was located in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain associated with sensory information, memory and learning.
Leah spent several weeks at St. Louis Children's Hospital, where surgeons successfully removed the tumor. Leah was later placed on radiation therapy.
Leah spent several years recovering from the cognitive impact.
"It was harder for me to understand things after surgery," explains Leah. "I had to learn how to read and write all over again. Word retrieval was a big problem, too, coming up with the right words to say."
In short, Leah had to learn how to learn again.
Despite the agonizing cognitive and physical rehabilitation following the surgery, Leah was determined to keep up with her classmates at Nerinx High School. After an intense and determined summer of studying and catching up, she started her junior year with the rest of her class.
"A lot of people said I should just drop everything and start my sophomore year over," says Leah, "but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to stay with my friends."
"Leah worked insanely hard," says Dr. Joshua Rubin, pediatric oncologist, St. Louis Children's Hospital. "Most kids never have to call upon the true depths of their character but in my line of work you see it all the time. These kids get challenged and they just rise to the occasion. It's incredible to watch and to be near."
"Leah is a bright, energetic, strong-willed person that, through the face of this, has always kept a smile on her face and a very positive attitude," says Dr. Jeffrey Leonard, pediatric neurosurgeon, St. Louis Children's Hospital.
"So much of it had to do with her attitude," says Sara Biskup. "She'd say, 'I don't know why you're making such a big deal of this. I said I was going to be OK and I'm OK.'"
But as is too often the case with this form of tumor, things weren't OK -- yet.
At the end of her senior year, the numbness came back. "It kept happening," says Leah. "Then my speech was slurred and I had facial drooping so we went in and had an MRI and found the tumor was back."
It was in the same location as the first one, but it had spread into the spinal fluid. This time, Leah would not only require surgery, but aggressive chemotherapy. The treatment successfully removed the tumor, but left her with more devastating consequences. She experienced weakness and difficulty moving the right side of her body, and troubles with speech, memory and comprehension.
But Leah was determined not to let all the time spent in the hospital, along with the time spent rehabilitating, change her path in life. She had plans to start college. Even as she received chemotherapy, she enrolled in two classes.
"That didn't go over so well," says Leah. "I realized I was in over my head with everything else going on."
She may have struggled with the coursework, but never with maintaining her strong sense of humor. "I joked with her that I finally had more hair than she did," says Dr. Leonard, "but she responded, 'yea, but mine's gonna grow back!'
"Four or five days after surgery, she was already staying out late with friends."
By second semester, she was ready for a full class load.
"Everything was much harder for her," says Sara. "She couldn't write. Somebody had to take notes for her. For a test that the average person would need four hours to study, Leah would study 25 hours."
Leah got straight A's.
”It was a miracle," says Sara, "I believe somebody was looking over us. If you knew how hard she had to study, how difficult all that memorizing was, that she got through all of it was just so amazing."
In fact, her experience at St. Louis Children's Hospital's neuro-oncology clinic changed Leah's path after all. She's decided to study nursing.
"I think she feels like, as awful as this has been, some good things have come out of it, some good relationships," says Sara.
"The way I've dealt with this is, I just knew I was gonna be fine. I had a mindset to do what I had to do and it was never gonna be that big of a deal," says Leah. "I wasn't gonna let it get me down."
In recent weeks, Leah has been learning to write with her left hand as well as how to drive. She's building back her strength -- always in pursuit of living a normal life. This summer, she spent a week camping in Colorado and plans to return to college in the fall.
"I think what you see in Leah," says Dr. Rubin, "is an irrepressible human spirit."