Flying courage: Neighbors rally in support of Hays CISD educator

Surprise and confusion filled Buda resident Shelly O’Donnell’s mind when told in August 2017 that she had contracted multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer.

It was a jarring moment for O’Donnell, a longtime Hays High educator, whose diagnosis came as the result of blood work drawn during a routine check-up several weeks previous.

The shock was followed with the realization that her disease is not only rare, but is usually found in older, African-American men.

Amid the trials and tribulations that have come with a tough bout against cancer, the support O’Donnell has received from her neighbors in the Watson Hollow subdivision has been immeasurable, she said.

(photo by Moses Leos III)

It’s continuing to motivate her to combat a persistent disease.

O’Donnell’s bond with her neighbors was forged when she disclosed her cancer diagnosis during a weekly Wednesday dinner in August 2017.

Carol Tobias, who is part of O’Donnell’s Watson Hollow support group, said many neighbors “broke down” when they heard the news of O’Donnell’s illness. Tobias, who has had friends succumb to cancer, said learning of O’Donnell’s condition hit close to home.

“No one is supposed to get cancer. Why the sweetest one of the block? It’s unfair,” Tobias said.

But the group quickly morphed into a call for action. Tobias said many of O’Donnell’s neighbors jumped in, wanting to help O’Donnell and her family.

The help has ranged from simple texts of encouragement to providing food and treats for the O’Donnell family.

Support also came from Hays High, as O’Donnell’s students began raising awareness of her fight.

Students in O’Donnell’s American Sign Language (ASL) class created t-shirts that had signs for courage, brave and strong on the back.

“Even though I’m not able to go back this year,” they’ll keep the program running. A lot of districts don’t do that. Most would drop the program,” O’Donnell said.

For O’Donnell, all of their efforts were key cogs in what has become a fight for her life.

Fighting the beast

O’Donnell’s battle against myeloma began with her first round of chemotherapy on Sept. 11, 2017. The intensity of the treatment led O’Donnell to take a leave of absence from teaching ASL at Hays High.

Over the next few months, O’Donnell continued to experience the effects of cancer treatment. Eventually, doctors in April 2018 were able to find a suitable donor to conduct a month-long bone-marrow transplant.

The transplant, which left O’Donnell sick throughout the process, involved doctors taking out stem cells and sending them to San Antonio for storage. Following another round of strong chemotherapy, doctors then returned the stem cells back into the patient.

O’Donnell said the goal is battling the cancer that is within the plasma cells within a person’s bones. However, a side effect is the process “wipes out all of your baby shots,” O’Donnell said.

She then had to redo all of her childhood immunizations, to avoid contracting additional illnesses.

“I hope that a relapse will go beyond 12 months,” O’Donnell said. “That will be a good sign that it’s engrafting.”

Once the process was completed, O’Donell received the go-ahead to return home in early June. Upon her return, O’Donnell witnessed something she could have never envisioned.

Flags of courage

It started with an idea from O’Donnell to have her husband, Mike, fly a burgundy flag, a symbol of the fight against Myeloma, if her treatment was going well.

Soon, nearby neighbors caught wind of the idea and sought to follow suit.  Helping the cause was Tobias and Cindy Naples, who aspired to show O’Donnell the entire neighborhood’s support when she returned from her transplant.

Tobias said they both decided to purchase burgundy flags and flag poles for every home in the 18-unit subdivision. From there, every neighbor  was on board.

“You can only make so many casseroles,” Tobias said. “I wanted to provide flags for the entire neighborhood because I wanted to see this and show support when she got here.”

For O’Donnell, the show of support was a welcoming experience.

“We are a close group and we care about one another,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve never lived in neighborhood that’s this close and this tight knit.”

O’Donnell will now continue to battle a disease that will never go away. She lauds her husband and son for their ongoing support. She plans to continue raising awareness, with the possibility of participating in the 2019 Relay for Life.

Ironically, O’Donnell believes her diagnosis, in effect, “saved my life.” She realized it allowed her to reach out to others and focus on her family, friends and her health.

“I was working so hard as a teacher. I had to slow down,” O’Donnell said. “It’s not the way I wanted to do it, but it’s allowed me to put things in perspective.”

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