By August Pelliccio
Almost three years ago, Kayla Krenicki was given an 11 percent chance of surviving a case of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She had attended her orientation to Southern and selected a roommate by the time she was first hospitalized. Her high school graduation had transpired a few weeks before. In the seven months it took for her to reach remission, Krenicki’s skin peeled off, she lost her hair and her blood type changed.
Seven rounds of chemotherapy at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center were unsuccessful at taming the disease.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t do the normal route that they do for leukemia,” Krenicki says, now a sophomore, and psychology major. “My doctors decided the next best step for my survival would be a bone marrow transplant.”
A trial drug that was only used
once before was the last hope doctors at CCMC had.
“I wasn’t sure at all, but I was getting somewhat desperate, and we had to get her into remission,” says Dr. Kerry Moss, Krenicki’s oncologist, in a telephone interview. “I prayed it would work.”
There were points where Moss did not know whether they would be able to turn it around. Her resilience, attitude and courage, however, makes her a miracle, says Moss.
The new treatment, a drug called Blinatumomab, was only part of the final answer. Moss says care for Krenicki went two ways: “51 percent love, and 49 percent medicine.”
Finally, they eradicated enough cancer cells for Krenicki to be transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital for her transplant.
“On Jan. 19, 2017, I was considered cancer free,” Krenicki says. “I was in remission.”
Moss credits that day as one of the nicest in her medical career.
“She was incredibly strong,” Moss says. “One of the bravest individuals who I’ve ever met in my life.”
Krenicki spent six months in Boston after her transplant, waiting for the bone marrow to graft completely. In that time, Krenicki suffered from a painful ailment; a side effect of the transplant. Krenicki’s graft versus host disease symptoms were chronic and centralized to her skin cells.
“Graft versus host disease is when your body recognizes that the cells put in there aren’t yours,” Krenicki says, “so it tries to attack them.”
The rash was severe enough that much of Krenicki’s skin began peeling off. She would have been lost, at that point, without her biggest support system:
“I saw some of the other kids on the floor around me, whose parents had to work, and weren’t as lucky as me to have one parent that was able to stay.”
With so much raw skin, it was painful even to coat herself in Aquaphor. Having her mother, Marie Vallee, to help her with such little things made Krenicki feel blessed.
“My mom stayed in the hospital with my every single night I was there,” says Krenicki.
Vallee says it was difficult to coordinate a way to be with her daughter every day, but she was fortunate to make accommodations with the school board she teaches for.
“I started off trying to work and take care of her, but the whole time I was working, I just wanted to be with her,” Vallee says, in a telephone interview. “I had about half a year of sick days, and I used those.”
After those ran out, she appeared in front of her school board, who granted her a circumstantial leave. Being there to support her daughter was critical.
“As a parent, you see your child going through such a hard time, and you want to just take it all away and you can’t,” says Vallee.
Krenicki’s support system expands out to her boyfriend of six years, who has stayed by her side through every turn from diagnosis to recovery.
“It feels really good,” Krenicki says. “A different kind of good.”
Krenicki changed vastly in condition, demeanor and lifestyle through her journey, and nothing has yet fazed her boyfriend.
“When you’re going through something so terrible, for someone to never change and love you the same throughout,” says Krenicki, “was really powerful.”
Though she had a healthy support system, Krenicki felt at many times like she was “going in blind.” It broke her heart thinking that other children had that same feeling after a cancer diagnosis or treatment, so Krenicki created Kayla Strong, her personal vlog. Her grandparents were kind enough to gift a camera to her in the hospital, and so the YouTube journey began.
“I remember struggling, I was looking on YouTube frantically,” says Krenicki. “I wanted answers and I couldn’t find anything.”
Even though Krenicki described her condition as vulnerable, she recorded and published “the good, the bad and the ugly” pieces of cancer treatment online.
She recorded as much as she could, aiming for at least once a day.
“I tried to show the positivity through the dark side, and post for other kids like me to click on and see,” Krenicki says.
CCMC allowed her to take the video camera into operating rooms, near radiation machines and in intensive care units. Her intent was to show everyone what a day in the life of a cancer patient looks like.
The most important focus of the vlog series and the message she carries with her to all advocacy programs she participates in is, “be positive.” This mantra has stuck with her especially well since the bone marrow transplant.
Born with type-O blood, after her transplant she took on the blood type of her donor. Her new blood type is none other than B-positive.
Now, in remission, Krenicki uses her free time to advocate for childhood cancer patients and survivors. Krenicki has told her story at blood drives, bone marrow drives, golf tournaments, Lea’s Foundation for Leukemia Research events and more.
“The main message that I want to get across is, ‘you’re not alone,’ ” Krenicki says.
She encourages her peers to view leukemia as a bump in the road. There is no reason, she says, to believe that the disease can stop someone from chasing what they want in life.
“If you take things day by day, and step by step, you’re going to get through it,” Krenicki says, “because it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
Influenced by her child life specialist, Kelly Krenicki decided to become a psychology major. Upon graduation, Krenicki plans on finding a program where she can work with patients, potentially in a children’s oncology unit.
“I want to be in a hospital setting, because I know how much [psychologists] are needed,” she says.
Almost immediately after returning home to begin the journey of recovery, Krenicki began her studies online. She was eager to enroll in classes that fall semester, despite a medical deferment that extended until the following spring.
Krenicki utilizes the Disability Resource Center now to cope with the psychological effects her medical history has had.
“In high school I was always in AP classes, and I never had any difficulties learning,” says Krenicki, “but I’ve found now that in school it’s very important for me to get accommodations.”
Despite the emotional hardships and psychological effects, she continues to have a positive outlook. A greater appreciation for life and loved ones comes with adversity, according to Krenicki.
“As crazy as it sounds,” she says, “I wouldn’t take cancer back.”