Tag Archives: Bellevue West High School

After Cancer and High School

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A small sigh of hopelessness escaped Ema Johanning’s lips as she looked up at the daunting steps of Bellevue West High School. Pain radiated down her left leg. It felt like someone had driven a screwdriver in the socket where it met her pelvic bone, twisting and twisting with each step.

Don’t worry about it, Ema’s doctors said. It’s just growing pains, an overemotional teenager trying to get attention, or just all in her head.

Ema could not escape the savage nightmarish monster that haunted her. Exhausted, dehydrated, and malnourished, Ema soon lost nearly 30 pounds. She threw up almost daily—all because of her agonizing leg.

Nikki Johanning, her mother and a former CNA, knew something was not right. Pills, fluids, and six visits to the ER did nothing to diminish the pain.

“Can you please admit my daughter. I can’t physically take care of her anymore,” Johanning tearfully begged doctors at yet another ER visit at Children’s Hospital. Ema could no longer walk and used a wheelchair just to get from the couch to the bathroom. In addition, Johanning had Ema’s three siblings to take care of at home, an exhausted husband who would sometimes have to stay up at night with Ema only to work the next day, and no family in the area to help out.

Ema-Johanning-1“I never took ‘no’ for an answer,” Johanning recalls. “If we sat back and waited, I don’t know if Ema would be here.”

Ema was admitted for pain control and underwent further tests.

Ema woke up groggy from medication. She heard her mother sobbing as she held Ema’s hand. It was one of the few times Ema had ever seen her cry.

“What’s wrong? Mom, tell me.”

Cancer. Ewing’s scarocoma. Malignant.

Ema felt like she had the wind knocked out of her. She barely heard her mother. The blinds were drawn tight. Even the smallest sliver of sunshine hurt, but there in the darkness of the room, Ema felt a hazy sense of relief rush through her.

“At least it’s not in my head,” she said as she hugged her mom. “We are going to beat this, and I’m going to be fine.”

Ewing’s sarcoma is a type of rare bone cancer that affects children or young adults like Ema and can be difficult to diagnose. It typically begins in the legs and hips, but can develop in other areas.

“It was my 16th birthday present,” Ema says now with a small, sad smile. Ema cancelled her sweet 16 birthday bash scheduled for later that week.

According to St. Jude’s Research Hospital, there is only a 56 percent survival rate for those aged 15 to 19. So while most of her friends were worried about homework, boys, or parties, Ema would have an IV attached to her arm full of chemotherapy.

It was an aggressive plan to attack the cancer hard and fast: three days of the “red devil” through a circular port in the hospital, and then two weeks at home depending on blood counts. If her counts rebounded, she would have another five days of treatment. This lasted a year from February until the end of May.

Ema would need a partial hip replacement and undergo physical therapy as well in June.

Johanning placed throw up buckets around the house. Her vomit was so hazardous that even a single splash burned her mother’s foot. Even Ema’s tough military father became squeamish.

But it really hit home when Ema lost her hair.

“The magic went away,” her mother says.

As Ema watched her locks of dark hair fall, so did her innocence. The reality seemed to weigh heavily on her teenage shoulders. She could no longer blend in with the crowd and lost her identity. All her future aspirations seemed to waver in the harsh light of her newly shaved head.

“The hardest part for me and her dad is you teach them to be the best people they can be, then watch that poison drip down into your child,” Johanning says. Her mother could not throw on a Band-Aid or kiss away the pain.

“I’d be lost without mom. She was my rock…my best friend,” Ema says.

In the oncology wing at Children’s Hospital, Ema gained strength from Nurse Anisa Hoie.

Ema-Johanning-2

“Don’t you feel like you belong here with a bunch of baldies all in one room?” Hoie asked her. Ema started laughing, the first time in her long cancerous journey.

She saw little kids playing games and suddenly realized she shouldn’t be feeling sorry for herself.

“Who am I to say my life isn’t worth fighting for,” Ema vents.

That teenage invulnerability though, that feeling of being untouchable by death, was gone.

“Cancer is like taking the most likable part of yourself and having to say good-bye to it because it’s killing you,” Ema says.

She attended her junior prom with just a smattering of brown hair with a flower tucked behind her ear, smiling in one picture with her two friends.

“I rocked that dress,” Ema says laughing. It was, of course, purple. Ema believes this is her “soul color,” universal for cancer survivors.

Now in remission, she finally feels free. The 20-year-old Ema shows off a tattoo on her shoulder: a heart with an owl and the cancer ribbon inside and “Forever Strong” etched on the outside. Her mother, grandmother, and other family members tatted up with “Believe” in support.

Her black hair has grown back—thicker and curlier than before. A puckered long scar travels up her left thigh. Ema was self-conscious of it at first, but now takes pride in the reminder. She is alive.

“A friend said to me, ‘The only one happier to see it than you and your mom is me,’” Ema says in a voice thick with tears.

Ema missed most of her sophomore and junior years of high school, yet she continued doing her coursework from home, despite short term memory issues and other side effects that still plague her. Ema graduated in May 2015. When she walked down the aisle Ema unzipped her graduate gown to proudly display the tank top underneath emblazoned proudly with “Suck it Cancer.”

“Everyone thought I flashed,” Ema says giggling at the memory. “My friends said, ‘you didn’t do what I think you did, did you?’”

College for Ema meant not only worrying about classes, but how to negotiate the small pharmacy (22 medications) she took with her to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall. 

“We didn’t know if she would live or die, and now she is going to college—it’s amazing,” Johanning says.

Ema is hoping to sky-dive with her father at the five-year mark. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate is 70 percent for a tumor that has not spread, but only 15 to 30 percent if it has metastasized.

In the meantime, it is the little things in life Ema appreciates the most.

“I look at me still being here as a second chance at life,” Ema says. FamilyGuide

Powering Across the Finish Line

January 6, 2014 by

It was man versus machine. An epic competition of tug-o-war. A true test of physical and mental strength. An all-out battle to the finish line where everyone who competed was a winner.

On May 18, Performance Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of Bellevue hosted a truck pull for charity. Six local teams pulled heavyweight Ram trucks, competing to raise money for their favorite charities. The dealership gave away more than $4,000 in cash prizes at its first annual Performance Community Truck Pull. The grand prize of $1,500 went to the wrestling team from Bellevue East High School. The team raised money to support the costly medical treatments for their fellow East graduating senior, Jake Pannell, who was diagnosed with lymphoma last year.

Tyrone Williams, president and general manager of Performance, says the concept for the truck pull was devised by his managers and Carroll Communications. “We are having discussions about this being an annual event. I was looking for an event to introduce the dealership to the Bellevue community as well support the community,” he says. In a family-friendly atmosphere that boasted food, fun, and face painting, the dealership encouraged the community to not only support their favorite competing team but also to simply take a look around the new facility.

The team from Bellevue East High School pulls a 2500 Ram truck at the Performance Bellevue dealership to raise money for graduating senior Jake Pannell, who was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma last year. East Principal Brad Stueve runs alongside the team cheering them on.

The team from Bellevue East High School pulls a 2500 Ram truck at the Performance Bellevue dealership to raise money for graduating senior Jake Pannell, who was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma last year. East Principal Brad Stueve runs alongside the team cheering them on.

Performance ensured that none of the six competing teams walked away empty handed. Teams included Bellevue University, Bellevue East High School, Bellevue West High School, Bellevue Community Foundation, Offutt Police, and Bellevue Fire and Police. “The turnout was excellent, and the store donated over $4,200 to the charities. Carroll Communications, the Bellevue Chamber, and Mayor Rita Sanders were very instrumental in helping us pull the event off,” Williams says.

Matt Briggs, head coach of men’s soccer at Bellevue University, says he was grateful that his team competed in such a charitable cause. “We raised money for the Wounded Warrior Family Support group and raised $750,” he shares.

The Bellevue Community Foundation also competed, winning $250 to support the city of Bellevue. Mayor Sanders says she was thrilled with the funds raised and equally excited that they would be going toward the newly created Bellevue Community Foundation. “It came about through the City of Bellevue strategic plan,” she says. “I was tasked to start a community foundation so we can help the community raise money individually or privately. The Community Foundation can help aid with some of the support systems through the city.”