LARGO — That summer two years ago for sisters Jacqueline and Abigail Evansen, then 8 and 5, was supposed to be like the ones that came before.
Trips to Sea World and Disney. Family vacations to visit grandparents. Long days at the beach.
But a twist of fate that nearly took their mother away changed, for a time, the tone of their childhood.
Tamara Wagoner, their mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer. If she didn't attempt the treatment — months of chemotherapy — and endure the sickness, hair loss and compromised immune system that came with it, the disease would kill her, doctors said.
For any little girl, such news is catastrophic.
But rather than wilt, Jacqueline and Abigail sacrificed, and according to their mother, bloomed and helped her survive.
"There is no doubt in my mind that my daughters saved my life," Wagoner said.
For a person undergoing chemotherapy, even the smallest infection can have severe consequences. So Abigail, with Clorox disinfectant wipes, religiously wiped down door knobs and light switches. And Jacqueline took on the mantle of "big sister."
A year after she had beaten the cancer, Wagoner, a teacher at Largo High School, recalled in a letter all that Jacqueline did to help her recover.
"She watched her younger sister when I was too weak to even get out of bed and shower," she wrote. "She brought me a clean waste receptacle when I needed one. When I returned from chemo treatments, she always had a large glass of water for me because the treatments made me so thirsty and my kidneys needed to be flushed often in order to not get kidney stones. She did this all without complaint. She did this because she loves me."
That letter, along with one describing what Abigail did, was sent to the Pinellas County School Board, which last week honored Jacqueline, 9, Abigail, 6, and two other students as "Young Heroes."
Each of the students received a $500 savings bond.
The Evansen girls' principal, Lisa Bultmann of Bauder Elementary in Seminole, said she was overjoyed to see that her students were growing into good people in addition to good students.
"We need smart children, but also children with really great character," Bultmann said.
The family is no stranger to heroics in times of need. Last year, Wagoner's husband, Brian Wagoner, won the school district's Unsung Hero Award for managing the family when Tamara couldn't, urging his wife to continue tough treatments when she wanted to quit.
He said he is proud of his stepdaughters for all they did at such a young age.
"They took their day-to-day cleaning ritual very seriously," Wagoner said. "They deserve this."
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.