Robinson's volleyball team bonds with a special fan

Published November 5 2015
Updated November 5 2015

TAMPA — Ellie Shaw, 5, and her 3-year-old sibling Jayda splashed in the family pool on a blistering hot July day. Ellie did the teasing; Jayda played the mischievous role.

Sisters to the bone.

Ellie was a snapshot of the giggly kid we all used to be.

A whirlwind of smiles and curls, she lights up every room, despite being barely tall enough to reach a kitchen counter.

Then came Aug. 24.

"(Ellie) wasn't feeling well at all," her mother, Melinda Shaw, said. "The ER doctors told us something was very wrong. Very wrong."

A few days later, Hepatosplenic gamma delta T-cell lymphoma was the official diagnosis. A mouthful for a pre-med student, let alone a little girl with only a few days short of kindergarten.

Only 45 documented cases of Ellie's cancer exist. Only three of those afflicted were under 21, with Ellie being the youngest by far. Doctors never spoke to the family about survival chances but after Googling the rare disease, Melinda's stomach dropped.

10 percent.

"Terror and panic set in," she said.

Raging fevers complicated the first round of chemo. Ellie's body was also rejecting the blood transfusions and her spleen was rapidly expanding. She was rushed in for emergency surgery to have it removed, a risky procedure.

"There was no other option at that point," Melinda said. "The doctors said there was a huge chance she could bleed out on the (operating) table, but it was a risk we had to take."

The four-hour surgery felt like four days for Melinda. When the doctors extracted Ellie's spleen, it was 10 times the size of a normal child's.

She pulled through the surgery. Another bullet dodged.

• • •

Christen Garcia has organized an event dedicated to cancer awareness each of the four seasons she's been the Robinson volleyball coach. Every player honors a person affected by the disease. Rebecca Hill heard about Ellie through biology teacher Tiffany Oliver, a family friend of the Shaws.

Hill and sister Laura, also on the team, already had their own cancer story. Their mother is a 20-year breast cancer survivor. Laura got mom; Rebecca chose Ellie.

"My mom got cancer before I was born so if she didn't make it, I wouldn't be here," said Rebecca Hill, the Knights' senior captain and setter. "So it made hearing Ellie's story even more personal."

Ellie was in between rounds of chemo but able to attend the Oct. 17 Dig Pink tournament. She cheered when the Knights scored and got excited every time Hill touched the ball.

"I told her that day I was playing for her," Hill said. "(Ellie's) impacted my life just as much, if not more, than I have hers."

For one night, the little girl with the longest of odds was a normal 5-year-old having the time of her life. But something else happened that October day.

The Knights fell in love with Ellie.

"She stole our hearts instantly," Garcia said. "I'm getting chills just talking about it."

There was a pep rally at Robinson last week and Ellie was the guest of honor. The team designed special booths, held a bake sale, auctioned off donated items and created T-shirts to raise money for the Shaws. They presented a Frozen-themed gift basket to Ellie, who ate cotton candy, got her face painted and listened to the Knights' band.

"Ellie talks about Rebecca and the team every single day," Melinda said. "She woke up yesterday and said she dreamed about Rebecca and (Laura)."

Before the Knights' (23-9) sweep of Naples Lely on Tuesday, which sends them on to the state semifinals Saturday against visiting Orlando Bishop Moore (25-4), the team wrote inspirational words on the chalkboard, including "Do it for Ellie."

The chemo has been successful since Ellie's splenectomy and she is in clinical remission. The first hurdle cleared, the next is a bone marrow transplant. The Shaws travel to All Children's Hospital later this month.

"The doctors have said all along that if we could just get (Ellie) to transplant, that they would feel better," Melinda said. "They believe her chances are very good from that point and even better with a sibling donor."

Ellie only had to look on the top of her bunk bed for a perfect match. It's Jayda.

"Jayda keeps saying she wants to give sissy her bone marrow to make her feel better," their mother said. "She's very protective of Ellie. (Jayda) knows it's to save (Ellie's) life."

Sisters to the bone.