Cancer patients are not the only survivors of this tragic illness

By Molly Weisner

The diagnosis 

Valerie Tú-Uyên Nguyen is a survivor of childhood cancer.

She was not diagnosed with osteosarcoma, but her 13-year-old sister was. Valerie never went through rounds of chemotherapy, but Cecilia did. Accepting IVs and injecting blood thinners – and marveling at the posy of bruises that bloomed – was never part of Valerie’s routine, but it was for Cecilia.

When her sister got diagnosed in March 2013, Valerie was in high school in Northern Virginia. However, instead of homecoming dances and football games, she had doctor visits and coaxed meals through nausea. It was sifting through treatment plans for what science considered a rare form of cancer, but Valerie and her family knew it too well.

Four years later, at 2 a.m. on a school night, Valerie heard a rapt knock on her bedroom door. It was Valerie’s mother saying curtly, “it’s time.” It was the sleep in her eyes that’d be washed out by tears, and Valerie’s “calloused feet [touching] the cold, midnight floor.”

Departing from Cecilia 

When Cecilia died that morning, Valerie would be on the list of the family who survived her.

What, then, did she survive? Maybe it was seeing her sister – who she said was bright and sassy – fade colorlessly into a girl who had too few sips of Ensure. Maybe it was losing an entire future of memories together or never getting blue Slurpees from 7-Eleven again.

“It was chaotic,” Nguyen said. While applying to colleges and preparing to graduate high school, supporting her sister was something few other teenagers had to juggle.

Nevertheless, as a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, Valerie said she is not concerned with the “what ifs.” The 20-year-old biology student uses her platform in Chapel Hill to advocate for cancer research and the loved ones of those diagnosed with cancer.

The lost story 

“Often the story of childhood cancer is one of smiling bald children in sappy television commercials or wrenchingly painful memorials for those who died,” Nguyen said. The story of caretakers and families who fight cancer alongside those diagnosed are often lost. In the medical field, too, the search for the cure is sometimes muddled by ambition. 

“A lot of times in research, people get caught up in really catty things, like who’s first author on the paper, or ‘Is this published in the most prestigious journal?'” Nguyen said. “But it really doesn’t matter. It matters who’s benefitting.”

Nguyen said she remembers sifting through treatment plans for her sister, getting a crash course bedside manner, and hospital etiquette by merely observing. Her intimate experience with healthcare motivates her to be empathetic and keep the patient-centered in every aspect, she said. 

Part of that mindfulness comes from the moments in hospitals that were emotional instead of clinical. In her college admissions essay, Nguyen wrote about being the designated barf-bucket holder. Her sister derided her doctors for letting her parents feed her turmeric pills while more potent stuff was coursing through her veins.

“I think about it a lot,” Nguyen said. “And it’s something I want to make sure no one else feels. It lights a fire within me that won’t be put out.”

According to the American Cancer Society, about 11,050 children in the U.S. under age 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020.

Those are odds Nguyen is willing to fight. Whether it is volunteering at pediatric oncology wards or researching at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Nguyen said she finds strength in working directly with people.

Much of her philosophy on healthcare also comes from lessons Cecilia taught her.

“When my sister was sick, she would always make sure I was included,” Nguyen said. “As a sibling, everyone thinks you’re normal and keep it together for your family. But you’re also a kid; it’s not like you’re supposed to have it together.”

Never forgotten 

Even today, in the quiet moments between reading her favorite Vietnamese poet or getting ready to attend Zoom class, Valerie thinks of Cecilia.

She thinks of her favorite color, blue, and how maybe she would have been a Tar Heel, too.

She thinks of their matching shaved heads after Cecilia cried because she could not style her weakening hair for school dances.

She thinks of the bird feather that drifted into her mother’s car window the day after Cecilia died and how it is preserved forever on her skin as a tattoo with her sister’s fingerprint.

And then it is back to work with equations and solutions, volunteer hours, and cold calls.

“It’s a lot of hard days and good days,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said knowing the sacrifices made by her family remind her to look toward the future instead of the past. She calls herself the daughter of Vietnamese boat people. Her parents arrived as refugees in the U.S. to escape the war. Instead of one that she loved, her mother settled for a job to provide for her family.

“Literally, being here in the U.S. right where I am now is a complete chance of luck,” Nguyen said.

Being outspoken about her life’s challenges to advocating for others is something Nguyen said she had to learn. Asking for help and leaning on others for support — which she said is not often encouraged in the Vietnamese culture — came down to having friends and family she could talk to. 

Finding support

Jeremiah Holloway met Nguyen during their first-year at UNC-CH. The two bonded simply from talking about the things college students manage on a day-to-day basis. 

“I admire how honest and open Valerie is,” Holloway said. “She lets you know her thoughts on things and how she honestly feels.”

Ruth Samuel, a senior at UNC-CH and friend of Nguyen’s, said being able to talk about the burdens students carry is crucial because they are not always visible. Samuel also lost a sibling to cancer, and though she and Nguyen find healing in their academics and passions, the grieving process never truly ends. 

“It’s not just a one-and-done,” Samuel said. “It’s a journey, and it’s a never-ending one.”

However, when Nguyen suddenly became the only sibling, she doubled down in her passions, plodding a way up and out of the grief that could bring her parents with her.  

That is why, Nguyen said, even in high school, she was working internships at the National Institutes of Health and lobbying politicians on Capitol Hill for increased cancer research funding.

“It’s tragic, but I’ve been given a unique experience [to] compassionately care for people in a way that not many people can because they just haven’t been in those shoes,” Nguyen said. “It’s a motivating force for me.”

The academic rigor and competitiveness at UNC-CH do not always acknowledge the purely social challenges that bring its students to campus. Nguyen says she is pursuing a healthy future as a woman in medicine, but it is not about the resume padding.

“I care deeply,” Nguyen said. “It’s not always clear from the universe that I should be doing what I’m doing, but I want to do it.”

Edited by Aashna Shah

Junior Firefighters Program prepares children for a fiery future

By Molly Weisner

The road into Warrenton was quiet Monday night.

State Road 1001 dallied through the hills and clusters of forest in Warren County. The sun already set behind the county line, where the impending darkness mixed with the remaining rays.

Only the occasional truck driver rode down the highway, his cockeyed baseball cap and long, white beard reflecting in the windshield. Downtown Warrenton comes into view at the end of a few more quiet miles, and Main Street cuts it clean down the middle.

The street, like the road and the county and the night, was quiet and lightless. However, at its end, right at 7:00, fluorescent lights flashed on. Light spilled from a handsome brick building onto a few pickups parked in front. A garage door cracked open. In the parking lot, heavy boots jumped down from truck beds, and voices greeted each other in the night.

“You ready to get started?” calls an older man in a navy polo to a teenage boy in a sweatshirt and khakis.

“Yes, sir,” he says, leading a group of 14 other teens inside the Warrenton Rural Volunteer Fire Department.

Warren County Junior Firefighters Program
Bradley Pritzing calls to order the monthly meeting of the Warren County Junior Firefighters Program. The 16-year-old is an aspiring firefighter and current president of the program.

The program is a popular and well-known activity for local 12- to 18-year-olds. Professional firefighters working in and around the county help juniors organize monthly meetings, training, competitions, fundraisers, and public events.

Members come from 18 municipal departments within the county’s Firemen’s Association, which includes five departments outside Warren County that provide fire protection and other first-responder services.

The youth also help install fire detectors in residents’ homes and host information sessions in public schools.

“They are visible in the community,” Warrenton Mayor Walter M. Gardner, Jr. said. In a town of fewer than 1,000 people, when there is an emergency or house fire, it is comforting to see a familiar face arrive on the scene, he said.

Sometimes, the juniors ride along to calls, running equipment between responders and trucks.

“They are what we call gophers,” John Franks said, the program’s lead adviser and a career fireman. “Go-for this, go-for that.”

Pitzing stands in the center of a conference room in the back of the station. The other teenagers — mostly boys — sit in a semi-circle of white plastic chairs, dressed in mud-stained jeans, swatches of camo, and baseball caps.

Pitzing stands, turns toward the American flag in the corner, and leads the group through the Pledge of Allegiance. Another boy then recites a group prayer.

Now, they can get to business.

The meeting

The youth-run through their agenda for the meeting: discussing a movie night at the station, preparing for the annual junior competition in April, and planning meetings around the upcoming hunting season, which members insisted not to miss. They discuss recent fires in the community and recap prior training.

“Several people learned that fire is hot,” one boy said, and the group fell into laughter.
Franks corrals the group back to budget talks and what kind of shirts would make the best competition uniforms.

Franks and another graduate of the program, D.K. Trotman, attend meetings to keep the discussion “from falling off the rails.” After they adjourn, the chatter rises again as the group heads back into the garage for an hour of training.

Skinny bodies and lanky limbs get buckled into nearly 45-pound fire suits, complete with jacket, boots, and helmet. They look comically out of proportion with the heavy gear, but they flit and jump among each other as if weighing nothing.

Most of the youth wear helmets of red, black, and green. Each color denotes rank in the simple service: black for professional, red for the captain, and white for chiefs. As a group, they are all learning, but they come from varied experience levels and backgrounds.

History and requirements  

Pitzing’s father, Mark, is the battalion chief for Vance County Fire Department. A few of the other youth also come from two, three, and even four generations of firefighters in the community.

Julian “Juice” Greene, a former junior and current firefighter, said that is common but not required.

“I think the history of volunteer fire service is just that,” said Gardner. “They follow the footsteps of family members that started out years ago.”
Bradley Pitzing then leads the group through ladder-climbing exercises. He quizzes them on terminology and accompanies new members up the ladder.

“Once I got in it, I loved it from then,” he said.

To be a certified North Carolina firefighter in North Carolina, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma. They must also complete a series of training and tests, but this program gives them a head start.
“Some of the most rewarding stuff was being able to take your classes and get your certification,” said Greg Henry, former program president, and current firefighter for Wilson Fire/Rescue Services. “Just to get that incentive from the program and know that somebody was behind you and somebody was pushing you to go that extra step, get that education, and learn more.”

Henry said mentors pushed him to pursue his degree in fire administration from Liberty University.

The mentors do not receive pay — even full-time firefighters will only make between $30,000 to $40,000 a year on average — but they understand how valuable the program is to community building.

A community rooted in service 

“When I joined this program,” Bradley Pitzing said,” I really opened up. It made me feel like I’m not alone here. I have friends.”

The youth learn how to use thermal imaging cameras and slide face-first down a ladder, but they also learn how to support each other, building critical social skills. When Bradley Pitzing’s grandfather died in June, his teammates sent him food, letters, and flowers.

“He was the biggest thing in my life. But that right there did me in,” Pizing said. “It made me love this program even more.”

The program makes the spacious, rural county feel small, bringing together participants and mentors from small towns in every corner. Each firefighter said they leave the house in the mornings and work with their second family at the Warrenton Rural Volunteer Fire Department.

“We want these kids to understand there’s more to the fire service than just driving our big, shiny red truck, grabbing a firehouse and spraying water,” Mark Pitzing said.

When Trotman’s home caught fire on Sept. 15, the department pulled together to raise money for Trotman and his family. Calls poured in from his “public safety” family.

“In the fire service, it’s always been about brotherhood,” Mark Pitzing said. “These are not only people you’re working with, they’re your friends. This is your family.”

Not every youth who goes through the program will become a firefighter, Franks said, but everyone leaves with the necessary skills and support to be a successful young professional.

Gardner said some youth would never see outside their town or county if not for the program’s travel opportunities through its competitions.

“We want these kids to understand there’s more to the fire service than just driving our big, shiny red truck, grabbing a firehouse and spraying water,” Mark Pitzing said.

The junior firefighters also meet and network with other junior programs in Florida, Texas, and West Virginia.

“When we come in, we come in not knowing a whole lot of people,” Bradley Pitzing said. “But we don’t build friendships; we build our own little family.”

Alongside Greene, Trotman, and Franks, other firefighters supervise the training and chat with the youth, asking how they are doing and what is new with their families. The program is in its twelfth year and has seen many alums return to the station as mentors.

For current and returning members, that is the greatest reward.

“Learning your purpose and the reason you’re doing what you’re doing,” Henry said. “Being able to get out and see the needs in the community, and how much the community actually appreciates what you do.”

Edited by Aashna Shah

First-generation students face new obstacles amidst global pandemic

By Anna Pogarcic

Savannah Pless, first-year

Savannah Pless probably spends about eight-hours on her laptop each day. She goes between watching her online classes and doing her homework, rarely leaving her desk.

Usually, a first-year at UNC-Chapel Hill like herself would be spending their first few weeks of classes getting lost on the main campus in a sea of brick buildings, or signing up to join too many clubs and instantly regretting it. Instead, she’s doing her first year of college at her home in China Grove, North Carolina, more than 100 miles away from Chapel Hill.

She’s not the only student who isn’t on campus this year due to the pandemic, but she does feel that she has extra hurdles. On top of being a first-year, she’s the first person in her family to go to college. Every day has brought new twists during the last few months, and she never knows what to expect.

About twenty percent of the class of 2024 are first-generation students like her, and no matter what year they are, this year is testing their strength. All of these students are trying to find their footing, but many of them feel like they’re scaling this mountain alone.

Pless always thought about going to college, even if she didn’t realize it at the time. She remembers being as young as 10 years old and helping her father feed calves on the family’s farm. From that moment she knew she wanted to work with animals for the rest of her life.

However, going through the application process was mostly trial and error.

“I really didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to about the application process or what I should be going through, or even what career I was pursuing or what I wanted to do,” she said.

College websites were a puzzle; even when she could find the application, she didn’t know how many essays she had to write, how to seem like the perfect candidate, or when to apply. By the time she had applied, was accepted, and committed to UNC-CH, it was late April. North Carolina was approaching 600 reported cases, and people were still saying it would all be over soon.
Before she knew it, Pless was doing orientation virtually. Move-in day for her consisted of changing the color of her bedroom from purple to teal. Not a bright or neon blue, but one that will help her focus.

Those teal walls surround her as she tries to balance her classes, assignments, and her professor’s preferences. But it’s not the difficulty of the classes that worries her most, it’s the thought that she’s missing out.

Aside from one person from her high school that also goes to UNC-CH, she hasn’t had an opportunity to make any friends, meet new people, or do any of the traditions that come with being a first-year, like convocation.

“I’m sure they’ll do them at a later time, so I’ll eventually get that experience, I hope,” she said.

Abbas Hasan, junior
For Abbas Hasan, a first-generation junior at UNC-CH, those experiences made the university feel like home. Without them, he doesn’t even feel like he’s in Chapel Hill, even though he’s living in his off-campus apartment.
When he toured the campus as a high school senior, he noticed the trees right away. In Dallas, where he grew up, he mostly knew pavement and gray buildings, but Chapel Hill was overflowing with greenery. He didn’t think it was possible to live somewhere like that.

It took him a semester and a half to feel that he was finally adjusted once he moved here. Aside from the fact that he was several states removed from his family, students tore Silent Sam down on his first night on campus. His parents were on the plane to Texas when it happened, and they didn’t stop texting him for days once they landed.

With social unrest, hurricanes, and a water crisis happening all while he was trying to figure out how to adjust to a new place, make friends and decide on a major, he felt like everything was coming at him all at once. He felt like it couldn’t get more complicated than that.

Then, when he finally had a solid friend group and declared an American studies major, the pandemic sent him back to Texas in March. He still feels lucky because at least he’s not a first-year while he’s doing virtual college.  “The way that I made friends and connected with this university would have been impossible to do,” he said.

But some students are trying. Melanie Krug is the president of the First Generation Student Association, which provides resources and community building opportunities to students each year. What usually would be game nights or speaker events with food are now happening on Zoom, which she said isn’t the same environment.

“They don’t really get to have that click moment with each other, either,” she said. “One of my favorite things at events (is) when people end up sitting down next to each other and talking and they’re like, ‘oh, where do you live?’ to ‘what floor are you on? Oh, no way, what’s your major?'”

First-years are always eager to make friends, she said, and her organization encourages people to get to know each other so they can at least wave if they cross paths on campus. Those little moments can’t happen now, and that can be isolating for anyone, let alone a student who has no support system going into UNC-CH.

“Carolina is about the space and the people and the buildings,” Hasan said. “It’s not this idea, it’s something you work for.”

Kamryn McDonald, resident advisor

Kamryn McDonald is a resident advisor in the first-generation residential learning program at Hinton James Residence Hall. She said many first-generation students are vulnerable now that they aren’t on campus and can’t get these experiences outside of their family setting. Many of them don’t have a supportive environment at home, or they may struggle to build confidence.

“I worry that if you don’t have some foundational relationships with people that are really important to you and that you trust, or that you don’t have a faculty member that voices support for you, I can see why you wouldn’t want to stay or why college wouldn’t feel right to you,” she said.

She remembers staying up late with her suitemates during her first year at UNC-CH, playing card games, and talking. Every Sunday, they would get brunch at Chase Dining Hall, and she would order vegan banana french toast because it’s sweeter than regular french toast. That community helped her get used to the university, and that’s what Pless and Hasan miss the most.


Edited by Aashna Shah