Vanessa Ayala: when it happens to one of us

by Amanda Landwehr / Arts & Culture Editor

Vanessa Ayala. Photo courtesy of GoFundMe.

Platelets, IVs and arsenic trioxide are typically not words used to describe a person’s junior year of college. But for Vanessa Ayala, a 20-year-old psychology major at Roosevelt University, these words have become achingly definitive of her daily life.

Throughout her years at Roosevelt, Ayala has become perhaps one of the most involved students on campus, serving as a peer mentor, SPEED programming member, McNair Scholar and more. 

On Sept. 9, the Roosevelt community was shocked by a now viral social media update which stated that Ayala had been diagnosed with leukemia. 

Ayala had been experiencing bruising and throbbing headaches for the greater part of a week, the pain so intense that she couldn’t walk without feeling discomfort. Initially, Ayala attributed her symptoms to nothing more than a migraine. 

The following Monday, Ayala’s mom took her to Advocate Christ Medical Center between classes. Ayala was reluctant to go due to her commitments at Roosevelt.

“First, the doctors checked my vitals. Everything was coming back normal, and even the doctors thought that was weird,” Ayala recalled. After running a CT scan, doctors returned with the results of her blood work.

“My mom and I were sitting in a room, and the doctor looked at us and said ‘We think you have leukemia.’ At the moment, everything just stopped,” said Ayala. “He was talking to us, but I couldn’t pay attention to what he was saying.”

Doctors examined Ayala’s platelet count, the component of blood responsible for clotting. An average platelet count ranges from 150,000 to 450,000 per microliter of blood—Ayala’s count was 9,000. 

“The doctors told me that if I would’ve waited a week to come into the hospital, I would’ve been dead,” Ayala said.

Doctors immediately placed Ayala into treatment, and told her that the process would take two weeks. But after adding more and more time, Ayala spent a total of 45 days in the hospital—nearly a month longer than doctor’s initial predictions.

“I was so sad because I kept getting my hopes up that I was going to get out and return to my normal life,” said Ayala. “I kept getting let down.”

After spending weeks confined to her hospital bed, Ayala could feel her typical positivity fading in to feelings of misery. 

“I was watching everybody go to class,” said Ayala. “I even watched my friends go to events that I planned. It was really hard.”

Ayala, unable to leave the hospital throughout her initial treatment, was forced to drop two out of six of her classes. When it came to accommodating for her situation, Ayala claimed that as an institution, Roosevelt was far from helpful.

“As a whole, the university hardly did anything,” said Ayala. “Certain faculty members who I’ve worked with in the past were really helpful, but there were certain professors who didn’t want to work with my situation.”

Vanessa Ayala, a junior at Roosevelt University. Photo from Ayala’s Instagram.

Although Ayala’s degree progress is still on-track, her feelings towards the university have turned somewhat sour. After experiencing a complete lack of communication from board members and upper-level administration at Roosevelt, Ayala was disheartened to think that an ideal student such as herself should receive little to no support from her school.

“People higher up in the administration didn’t even reply to my emails or ask if I was ok,” said Ayala. “I love Roosevelt, and I have so much love for the university. So, it sucks to know that at the end of the day I was just another student to them.”

On top of her troubles at Roosevelt, Ayala feared for the next step in her journey to recovery—chemotherapy. The side effects of chemo include hair loss, changes in skin tone, fatigue and even infertility. But, after discovering Ayala’s specific type of leukemia, doctors were able to prescribe a less aggressive non-chemo treatment, arsenic trioxide (ATO). 

“They’re basically pumping me full of poison,” said Vayala with a laugh. “My doctors told me, ‘Out of all of the cancers to get, this one is the best.’ I was like, ‘That doesn’t make me feel better!’”

Ayala was discharged from the hospital in late October, but she continues to receive five hours of ATO treatment almost every day. This makes healing a full-time task, both physically and mentally.

“I wish more people told me that what I was feeling was valid,” said Ayala. “I kept thinking, ‘This could be worse, at least I was still alive.’”

Samantha Hernandez is a senior psychology major at Roosevelt. Hernandez first met Ayala in 2017 when working as an orientation leader, and the two quickly became inseparable friends.

“Vanessa is incredibly selfless,” said Hernandez. “She will always go out of her way to help anyone she feels is in need.”

Adam Wouk is the director of Roosevelt’s Academic Success Center. Over the past two years, Ayala has worked under Wouk’s supervision as a peer mentor. According to Wouk, Ayala is “beyond empathetic,” and has helped to change the lives of multiple students.

“It’s not easy to go through something like this,” said Wouk. “But she’s a fighter, and mustering up enough energy to go through chemo is so representative of her strength.”

As of now, Ayala continues to stay committed to her academics as an online student. According to Hernandez, Ayala’s positive outlook is helping her to accomplish each of her goals.

“Watching Vanessa go on this road to recovery, I have seen her change in the best ways possible,” said Hernandez. “She is even stronger and more determined, which I did not think was even possible. She continues to be a ray of sunshine in my life.”

A now viral gofundme post was created by Hernandez in early September with hopes of raising raising funds for Ayala’s treatment. The fundraiser currently has over $4,000 in donations from family members, Roosevelt faculty and friends.

“The hardest days are behind her,” said Wouk. “I’m excited to see her come back to school, and I know she is too.”

Leukemia—it’s a word that should never have to leave the mouth of a person like Vanessa Ayala. But, nonetheless, it’s a word that is very much a part of her story—a story of patience, pain and being heard. 

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