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Morgan Ellison and Madison McDaniel were diagnosed with a rare germ cell tumor of the ovary earlier this year. The two strangers would soon form a unique bond during their treatment in Birmingham, Alabama.
Madison began having stomach pain Christmas Day, sending her to the emergency room for what she thought were kidney stones. A mass on her ovary the size of a grapefruit was discovered. In January, her physician in Boaz, Alabama, removed the mass and part of her left ovary to determine whether it was cancerous.
Physicians referred Madison to J. Michael Straughn Jr., M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Straughn diagnosed her with a rare but curable germ cell cancer, and then removed the remainder of her left ovary Jan. 25. The toughest part of her journey began Monday, Feb. 8, when Madison started a rigorous nine-week treatment of chemotherapy.
“From day one, Madison had a positive attitude and really held the family together,” said Alicia McDaniel, Madison’s mom. “She was very sick from the chemo from the beginning. I knew it was going to be a tough nine weeks.”
As Madison was receiving the life-altering news, Morgan was visiting family in Waco, Texas, in early January when she collapsed while packing her car to go home to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She previously had trouble with a pinched nerve and pain in her foot, so she did not think much of it. She visited an urgent care clinic to be checked out.
When she returned to Alabama, she had several doctor’s appointments to evaluate what was going on with her pinched nerve and determine the appropriate treatment. During an MRI, the doctor caught a glimpse of her ovary, which was enlarged. She was sent to her gynecologist for more tests, who immediately referred her to Rebecca Arend, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at UAB Hospital.
“It was all moving so fast that there was barely time to think,” said Debbie Rivera, Morgan’s mom. “I was scared to death. We went from diagnosis to surgery in seven days. I went in so blindly, not knowing how tough this was going to be for Morgan.”
Morgan learned she had the type of germ cell cancer found only in young women in their teens and early 20s. Arend removed Morgan’s right ovary Jan. 19, starting chemotherapy two weeks later.
“The paramount thing was the two of them having each other during treatment of a rare disease,” Arend stated. “Patients are often going through something like this alone, so having a friend the same age is unique.”
Both women were prescribed the same treatment plan: three cycles of chemotherapy, a rigorous nine weeks of consisting of three drugs that tend to be tough for most patients. The first week of each cycle is a five-hour treatment given daily for five days. The second and third week of each cycle is a one- to two-hour treatment one day a week.
“I was in my second week of treatment when Madison walked in for her very first round of chemo,” Morgan said. “When you receive the chemo, you give your name and date of birth. That’s when I realized Madison was just a year younger than me. It looked like she was getting the same type of treatment as me, which really caught my attention since my cancer was so rare.”
“I remember seeing Madison that day too,” Debbie said. “She started asking the nurse the same questions Morgan had during her first treatment. We had already been through that first week of treatment, which was extremely hard for Morgan. I remember thinking, ‘oh, honey, it’s going to get so much harder than that.’”
Once Madison discovered there was another young woman diagnosed with her same cancer, the two became friends and an important part of each other’s support system, getting through treatment together.
Each understood what the other was going through. Discussing symptoms with their nurses and families was one thing, but to have another person going through the same diagnosis made it OK to feel the pain and to be scared, while offering a sense of comfort too.
“Everything was so similar. It’s crazy,” Madison said. “During our chemotherapy, we talked a lot. It has been nice to have someone to talk to who is going through the same thing. We talked about our symptoms, pain and anything that felt funny.”
“Of the 22,000 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed each year, 5 percent will be a germ cell tumor,” Straughn said. “Morgan and Madison took on the journey of their treatment together. It decreased their anxiety, making the rareness of the tumor seem less scary.”
Texting back and forth became a daily occurrence. When one was sick, the other could sympathize with how she felt and give advice on what might make it better.
“I can always tell when Morgan and Madison received their treatment together,” Debbie said. “They are both quiet girls, but they would have a more positive outlook when they left treatment together.”
“They were constantly putting on a strong front for the families, but this came down when they were with each other. It was as if they were giving each other strength in a different way. To feel it, to say you feel it is one thing; but to have someone understand it is another.”
The families began to support each other as well. Debbie and Madison’s grandmother, Janice Kidd, would sit in the waiting room during chemotherapy comparing notes, asking questions and enjoying each other’s company. It made it easier to deal with the physical changes each family was experiencing in Madison and Morgan, as well as the looming cancer.
Toward the end of the first cycle of treatment, Morgan began losing her hair. Her mom found the perfect way to turn a sad moment into something to help her get through losing a piece of her physical attributes. She had always had long, full hair and had cut it off to her shoulders after finding out about her cancer.
Morgan’s hair began falling out, but her best friend from Texas was coming into town in just a few days. Morgan held out for her to get to Alabama. As they left the airport, the two girls headed straight to the drug store to get an electric razor. Debbie ordered pizza and had a cake waiting at home.
Morgan’s friends in Tuscaloosa hurried over for what was now set to be a celebration of how far she had come and the ultimate girls’ night. One at a time, the friends shaved Morgan’s head, making a joyous celebration of her battle with cancer.
The next week, Madison mentioned to Morgan that she was starting to lose her hair now. She was unsure what to do. Morgan gave her advice on having a special party with close friends to ease the embarrassment. They were texting ideas and photos leading up to Madison’s big party.
“I thought it was going to be really sad,” Madison said. “It was just me and my best friends. We watched movies, ate pizza and celebrated with cake. Just like Morgan, my friends took turns helping me shave my head. It was nice. I was glad to have my close friends there, instead of being by myself.”
During the first two cycles, Morgan and Madison would see each other during chemotherapy, but not always be on the same schedule. On the day Morgan began her second cycle, which was her long week consisting of five days of treatment for five hours at a time, she learned — when texting with her friend — that Madison was in the hospital.
“Morgan asked if she could see her to offer some encouragement,” Arend recalled.
Morgan put on a mask and headed straight for Madison’s room. The two talked through their symptoms, comforted each other and confided in one another.
On March 7, Morgan’s treatment was delayed one week due to neutropenia, an abnormally low white blood cell count, and the two young women ended up on the same chemotherapy schedule for the last three weeks of their treatment.
That is when their unbreakable bond formed.
For three weeks, they spent their time hanging out during chemotherapy, where they would catch up on what was going on in each other’s lives in between catnaps. When they were not together, they stayed in touch.
Monday, April 18, had finally arrived, the final day of chemotherapy.
Morgan and Madison sat in their chairs together as their families and friends gathered. Therapy is always a waiting game. Fluids are administered; it takes time to get everything ready.
“I’ve met a lot of strong women while in treatment, and it’s not their first time to go through chemo,” Morgan said. “I think Madison had a harder time with treatments. She is so strong. I really admire her for that.”
Madison’s final drugs were administered first. It was dead silent as the two families waited and watched. As the nurse finished, Madison burst into tears of happiness, her mom running over to hug her.
Morgan, seated right next to her, celebrated with her, waiting for her turn. As the nurse prepped her for her final treatment, tears of joy streamed from everyone’s faces.
Morgan’s treatment was completed, and her family joined in on the celebration.
“Morgan played a big role in supporting me through this,” Madison said. “She helped me stay positive, making it easier. Now it’s over. I always reminded myself that it could be worse.”
It is customary for cancer patients to ring “The Transformation Bell” once their chemotherapy is complete. Debbie and Alicia grabbed the bell and held it up for the two girls. The two families gathered around.
Madison and Morgan looked at each other with relief, as if a weight had been lifted. With tears in their eyes, they rang the bell signaling the end of their trying journey, surrounded by two families celebrating their triumph over a rare cancer together.
On April 29, TODAY show correspondent Jeff Rossen reported live from UAB’s Translational Research for Injury Prevention Lab about the dangers of using social media and texting while driving.
The TRIP Lab recently became home to the world’s first SUV simulator, made possible through donations from Honda Manufacturing of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Transportation.
With the new simulator, UAB researchers hope to facilitate solutions and best practices in motor-vehicle-related safety and crash prevention, addressing the major public health problem of highway and traffic-related injuries and death.
When Robert Blanton, Ph.D., taught the first Honors College course on human trafficking last spring, he began by introducing his students to the dark nature of the topic—from modern slave labor to sex trafficking.
“We started out by watching a fairly indicative video of how the process works,” he remembers. It followed the stories of international sex-trade victims—women lured away from home under false pretenses and sold into prostitution rings, where they were regularly beaten and brutally raped.
Blanton says many students were in tears before the video ended. And then he shocked them again: Human trafficking isn’t confined to impoverished, far-flung countries, he told them. It happens in Birmingham.
“These are real humans, and these are real things going on,” he said. “Now let’s pull back and figure out how to analyze it.”
Blanton, a professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Government, had touched on the subject of human trafficking in previous classes and was struck that several students chose to do their senior theses on the topic. Their interest was contagious. “This was always a topic I wanted to explore,” he says, “but it was the students themselves who taught me how important an issue it is.”
To develop the original course and a separate Honors College seminar titled Diamonds, Drugs, and Guns, a survey of the illicit global economy, Blanton went beyond heartstrings and headlines to help students understand human trafficking as a global problem perpetuated by numerous complex factors. “You have to get beyond the sheer emotion and examine this as an economic, social, and political phenomenon,” he says. “I tell my students that if they really want to effect change, then they have to know more than the horrible things that go on. They need to know why they happen.”
Tessa Case, a junior from Birmingham majoring in international studies, says that prior to the course, she had a common misperception about the subject created by popular culture. One example is the 2008 hit movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson, in which beautiful, privileged white women are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. It makes for a dramatic plot—but Case says it only perpetuates a myth.
“You see a movie like that and think crime syndicates drug and kidnap these women,” she says. “That actually got me interested in this subject. But the reality is completely different.” There are places in the world where parents knowingly sell their daughters out of desperation, she says. “There are certain dynamics like that where you have to put your cultural lenses on so that you can understand the root of the problem.”
Meanwhile, Case notes that while the sex trade often gets the lion’s share of attention in the media, it’s far from the only form of modern slavery. “While sex trafficking is pervasive, on a global level, there is a lot of forced labor and labor trafficking that makes up the majority of the human trafficking problem,” she says.
The most common form of slavery today is bonded labor, Blanton adds. “That’s where you bring in ‘employees’ to do a job and then essentially take away their free will,” Blanton explains. “You take their passports or papers, or make it physically impossible for them to leave. Then you tell them they owe you a debt, because you brought them there—they have to work to repay that debt. There are situations in India where the debt is passed down from generation to generation, and the kids are born into slavery.”
Though most of the students who enrolled in the new course had heard something about modern slavery, junior Sarah Leffel, an education major from Huntsville, Ala., had actually seen the tragic stories up close. The summer after her freshman year, she went to Thailand to work with an organization dedicated to rescuing women from the sex trade. She recalls many heartbreaking encounters with the women—many of whom become emotionally as well as financially dependent on the very people who exploit and abuse them.
But it took Blanton’s class, she explains, to gain a more holistic understanding of the problem. “At first, when people would speak analytically about it, I would say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You didn’t experience it,’” Leffel remembers. “But what I learned through the class was even bigger than studying about human trafficking or the sex trade. It was the value in approaching a problem mentally, stepping back from my emotions to be able to process other perspectives.”
One of the toughest truths about human trafficking for many Americans, including Blanton’s students, is how widespread it is in the United States. Birmingham is part of a sexual-trafficking network along the Interstate 20 corridor that also includes Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga. “That’s basically the loop,” Blanton explains, “and Birmingham is a pretty big cog in that wheel.”
Sarah Griffin, a junior from Birmingham majoring in political science and philosophy, remembers her reaction to that as nothing short of shock. “I never knew about this,” she says. “This is my home. How can these terrible things happen here?”
Blanton echoes Griffin’s reaction. “That was one of the things that always amazed me when I first started looking into it,” he says. “It’s close. It’s on Oxmoor Road in Homewood. A lot of people have no idea.” To drive home the point, Blanton invited Tajuan McCarty—founder and executive director of the WellHouse, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing sex-trade victims in Birmingham and throughout the Southeast—to share her experience, which includes being a survivor herself, with students.
The class also discussed numerous examples from other states, from slave-labor camps working in agriculture in South Carolina and Florida to nail salons in New York City that have forced women to work without pay. A modern-day slave can be anyone from an illegal immigrant who doesn’t speak the language to an American teenage runaway seduced by a smooth-talking stranger. The common factor, Blanton says, is vulnerability.
But how do traffickers manage to hold their victims captive, sometimes in plain sight? “It’s a really twisted psychology behind this,” Blanton explains. “Often it’s one part loyalty—a very strong form of the Stockholm syndrome [irrational feelings of empathy toward captors]—one part economic need, and then the other part is fear. They’re afraid of the outside, afraid of the unknown, and afraid that if they leave, they may end up being even worse off.”
To understand how complicated and seemingly intractable human trafficking is, the students did in-depth studies of the different forms it can take and the factors that make it possible. One group focused on the relationship between human trafficking and the “deep web”—huge swaths of the Internet that are hidden from standard search engines and thrive on anonymity. Another studied the practice of slavery by terror groups like ISIS and the Taliban in the Middle East. Still another project was dedicated to human trafficking in and around Birmingham.
In spite of the dark, often demoralizing subject matter, many students have come away from Blanton’s class—which he plans to offer again—resolved to raise awareness and help combat the problem. Case is doing an internship at Sojourns, a local fair-trade store. “A lot of fair trade is giving people a chance to make a living wage,” she explains, “and that takes away some of the vulnerability factors that help perpetuate exploitation.” She’s also helping to plan an event at the store to raise awareness of sex trafficking. Leffel wants to return overseas and teach English to women who are coming out of sex slavery. And Griffin, who aspires to go into politics and eventually run for public office, hopes she’ll be in a position to support laws that combat human trafficking and protect victims’ rights.
Blanton finds that deeply encouraging. “It’s been heartening to see how motivated they are,” he says. “It’s great to take students who want to make a difference and play some part in giving them the analytic tools they need to better understand the problem.” That knowledge could help them make a real impact—one that could bring hope to the captive, suffering “real humans” at the heart of the issue.