On that fateful Sunday in 2012, when Keaton had his first seizure in the lobby of church, Ashlee and her husband, Josh, were picking up their two daughters from the Kid’s ministry at a different campus of the very same church. They were blissfully unaware that a teenage boy across town was about to begin a journey through brain cancer.
Ashlee, a stay-at-home mom, devotes her time and energy to her family. She walks her girls to the bus stop, chaperones field trips, serves as a Room Mom at the public elementary school her girls attend, supervises homework, and gets dinner on the table for her busy family. Josh works hard to support the family and stays involved in the lives of his girls by volunteering to coach their youth league sports teams. Norman Rockwell anyone?
But on July 15th, as family and friends engulfed Keaton’s hospital bed in the Northeast Georgia Medical Center to say their earthly goodbyes, Ashlee began to experience odd symptoms while on a Florida vacation with her family. She was unusually tired, she couldn’t seem to grip things properly with one of her hands, and she had a strange numbness on one side of her face. As all devoted mothers do, she shook off the discomfort and willed herself to enjoy the vacation for her girls’ sake. But as the week progressed, so did her symptoms. The family reluctantly cut their vacation short and came home to seek medical attention.
As we marshalled our strength to get through Keaton’s Memorial Service on July 18th, Ashlee was being admitted to the same Northeast Georgia Medical Center we had limped away from just days before.
Endless tests ensued. A mass was detected on Ashlee’s brain. A biopsy was performed, and devastating news came. Brain cancer. Word got out quickly among their circle of friends and neighbors. People rallied around them, and as one neighbor listened to the story of Ashlee’s diagnosis… she said, “wait a minute, the name of that brain tumor sounds familiar.” She made a phone call to Keaton’s dad and suddenly realized she was the common denominator between two families with the same cancer diagnosis. Surreal. She made phone introductions and Miles Coker began to share what he learned about treatment options.
Josh and Ashlee sought the finest treatment available. In August, as their two daughters boarded a bus for the first day of school, they took a road trip to one of the most renowned cancer hospitals in America. More tests. More devastating results. The staff was very direct and matter-of-fact. They told Ashlee she had 14 months to live, IF she followed their treatment protocol very carefully, which would require her to be away from her girls for an extended period.
Ashlee looked at Josh, her high school sweetheart and husband of fifteen years and said, “let’s go home. I promised the girls I would be there tomorrow to get them off the bus.” They drove ALL NIGHT LONG so that Ashlee could keep her promise. She greeted her girls at the bus stop that afternoon and vowed to continue fighting and to continue looking for a medical team with a positive outlook to match her own. Ashlee is a fighter, and she’s raising her girls with that same strong spirit.
The communication with the Coker family continued as Josh and Ashlee made their final selection of a medical team. Like Keaton, they chose a multi-team approach. Ashlee has a team at Duke University Hospital and a team at Northside in Atlanta. They work in tandem to give Ashlee the treatment she needs and the hope she craves. Despite the fact that Ashlee’s tumor is inoperable, they stayed positive. Ashlee took their optimism and ran with it. She believes her life has great purpose, and she still has lots of living to do.
Ashlee is very proud of her family heritage and the fact that she is a direct descendent of the famous general, Robert E. Lee. She named her daughters to continue that heritage… Annalee and Brynlee. Among his many famous quotes, Robert E. Lee said, “in all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength.”
It was an honor to award Ashlee and her family the inaugural Thumbs Up Mission trip. They went on a Disney Cruise and made memories that can never be taken away. They were given a hero’s welcome home by the Thumbs Up family at the Gainesville airport. And as we welcomed them home, we reminded them of what Keaton and Robert E Lee both knew… “He is worth it!”