Big day for a little girl: Back to school for Ashtyn Carrier
The first day of school is exciting for most kids, but when you are nine-year-old Ashtyn Carrier, starting school isn't just exciting; it's what her parents call a victory.
"It felt like ... we won," said Ashtyn's father, Matt Carrier.
The Roosevelt Elementary third grader walked into her classroom Monday for the first time in nearly a year and a half after battling a rare immune disorder.
"I was kind of scared walking in," said Ashtyn, "but that only lasted about 10 minutes."
After that, the giggly little girl had other giggly little girls following her around, chatting up a storm.
"I was pretty excited to meet my teacher," said Ashtyn.
The day was truly a bright spot after the darker days Ashtyn and her family have gone though.
Her disease, called Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) proves deadly for many who it attacks.
It had Ashtyn fighting for her life and her family fighting alongside her at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital since the April of her first grade year.
A bone marrow transplant provided the miracle she needed as the little girl worked her way through second grade in the hospital.
Back home in Detroit Lakes since late last spring, Ashtyn spent the summer getting stronger and receiving good medical news, including the green light to go back to school.
But just as Labor Day weekend was wrapping up, HLH took another quick, little sucker punch.
Ashtyn developed a fever and flu-like symptoms.
"It was panic," said Matt Carrier, "it was the same old fear feelings we had before when she got sick."
Through the disappointment of missing the much-anticipated first day of school, the Carriers once again waited for one test result after another at a Fargo hospital, where Ashtyn was admitted.
"The numbers that we needed to be good -- the ones connected to her HLH -- were all out of whack," said Ashtyn's mother, Kelly Carrier, "so we thought we were maybe going to have to go back to Cincinnati."
The fear of relapse died down, however, as Ashtyn recovered.
Doctors determined it was a virus of some sort, which can be dangerous for her because her immune system is still weak.
According to her parents, Ashtyn is still vulnerable to a relapse for a couple of years.
"Because her own cells could start attacking her donor cells," said Kelly Carrier, "and for the rest of her life she can always get graph versus host disease, which mostly affects the skin and stomach and unfortunately, can also be deadly."
Fear of this condition has Ashtyn staying out of the direct sun, which can trigger the disease.
But Monday, the fear of germs Ashtyn's parents now live with was overshadowed by the sheer joy of a first day back at school.
Ashtyn's little brother Ethan, a first grader at Roosevelt, said there was a lot of excitement getting ready that morning.
"My mom and dad were screaming their heads off before we left for school because they were so happy," he said with a little smile.
Happiness doesn't always come out as a smile, though.
"When my mom and dad dropped me off, they started crying," said Ashtyn, who says she didn't cry at all.
"Well, I thought I was doing OK until we said goodbye," said Kelly Carrier, "and then we both started wailing," she laughed.
"It was just such a relief that we made it this far; it was a huge milestone," said Matt Carrier, "It was just exciting to see her get back to her life with her friends and be normal."
And those friends were excited to see her.
"I'm happy she's back," said third-grade friend Evan Westrum, "I didn't see her for a long time. I wrote her a letter when she was sick, but it will be fun to have her at school and church again."
Ashtyn says so far none of her classmates have asked her questions about her illness, but figured they might eventually.
"I do want to talk to her about being sick and find out if it was painful for her," said another third-grade friend, Parker Quam, "but mostly I just want to hang out with her and talk about school stuff."
Ashtyn's teacher, Amy Tervola-Hultverg, says fellow students will get a chance to learn all about Ashtyn's condition on Wednesday.
"We're working with some nurses from Sanford Health who will be coming into the classroom and briefing us on any precautionary measures we should be taking and just answering questions we have," said Tervola-Hultverg, adding that for the most part, they are just treating Ashtyn like a normal kid.
"She's never going to get sick again, though -- ever," said Ashtyn's littlest brother, Mason, a kindergartener at Roosevelt, "I didn't get to play with her very much when she was sick, and now I get to."
And although reminders of Ashtyn's illness still pop up throughout the day as she takes medicine, washes her hands often and wears hats and long sleeves in the sun, it no longer defines her little life.
She's got that back.
"Hey, Ashtyn," said her friend, Parker, as she walked out the door with the bell ringing, "They say if you get your dream you should go out and get another one."
Ashtyn just smiled and went back to her coloring, just like normal, happy nine-year-olds do.