Audra Dick started Saturday like any other day, with vitamins and steroids and oral chemotherapy.
She brushed her light brown, shoulder-length hair — thinned by the drug regimen — and imagined it in loose waves. Or an up-do.
Like many high schoolers, the 17-year-old was getting ready for her homecoming dance. There would be a red carpet, a photo booth, pink punch and white rose corsages. Limos would be parked outside, while a DJ spun Top 40 remixes inside.
A fantasy below a disco ball.
Audra's "Evening Under the Stars'' was not at school, but at All Children's Hospital, where dozens of current and former patients gathered Saturday for an event planned so they wouldn't miss out on an important milestone.
For Audra, it was her first dance since her junior prom in Lakeland. That was in May, two weeks before she was diagnosed with a form of the autoimmune disorder lupus that attacked her kidneys and sent her to All Children's for two months this summer. The disease and the treatment left her sore, tired, nauseated and so bloated she had to wear maternity clothes.
"I haven't really dressed up since then," said Audra, a senior at Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School who was a competitive runner. "I'm not very confident about my body anymore."
Still, she wasn't going to miss the party. "I've been excited all week," she said. "But nervous to wear a dress."
She picked a floor-length, shimmering blue gown from among the dresses that were donated for the evening. A stylist — whose services also were donated — twisted and teased her hair into a sleek up-do.
Audra's date Saturday was Daniel Hornsby, the same boy who had taken her to the junior prom — and stayed by her side at the hospital last summer.
"You look amazing," he told her.
• • •
Before the dance, My'Kala Evans-Ford, 17, walked through a cloud of hair spray into the hospital, where a dozen stylists pampered the girls. She had been there many times, but it never was like this — full of sparkling apple cider, chocolate cake pops and Bruno Mars blasting through the speakers.
Last year, before Osceola High School's October dance, the St. Petersburg teenager picked out a cheetah-print dress with rhinestone-studded straps. She was ready to feel wild. Girly. Normal. But she just felt dizzy and feverish. Her mom took her temperature: 104 degrees.
By 13, My'Kala had been diagnosed with lupus, fibromyalgia and arthritis. Her immune system was so weak, she had to be home-schooled through her freshman and sophomore years. "By junior year, I wanted to go to that dance. Be with my peers," she said. "I was yelling at doctors in the hospital like, 'Let me go! I have my dress! I have to go now!' "
On Saturday afternoon, My'Kala was at the hospital again, but just to get her nails done. A family friend had already curled her long, dark locks into a partial up-do. She eyed a bottle of silver nail polish. "I've been feeling good all week," she said. "Just a little backache. I'm ready for this."
• • •
The best friends stood by the dance floor, chatting and laughing, sipping water after stepping to Cupid Shuffle. They met last year in chorus class at Tarpon Springs Middle School, jokingly singing the Pussycat Doll's Don't Cha. They soon realized they had more in common than a love of cheesy pop songs.
Natalie Catalano, 14, and Rain Ahrens, 13, are regulars at All Children's. Natalie who has cerebral palsy, goes for occupational therapy. Rain has battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The girls arrived together Saturday as each other's dates, looking like Disney princesses in pale pink and blue. Natalie playfully snatched Rain's silver tiara off her head.
"Our parents told us to go in and get boyfriends," Natalie said, giggling. "But we were like, 'Nah. We're good. We're here to have fun.' "