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Elkhart teen used faith, hope to beat cancer

Sarah Mervosh | Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It was every mother’s worst nightmare.

Tonya Ebright of Elkhart was only 22, juggling a toddler, an infant and a full-time job when her daughter started sleeping more than usual and complaining that her bones hurt.

When she took 3-year-old Destinee Smith to the doctor’s office, she was told her daughter had strep throat. Another time, it was scarlet fever. But Ebright knew something more was going on.

Eventually, Ebright obtained an appointment at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. There, Ebright got an answer: her daughter had leukemia.

“It was a huge life adjustment,” Ebright said. “Your normal becomes different.”

After the diagnosis, Destinee had to be taken to the hospital three times a week for treatment, and was often hospitalized for days at a time as she battled high fevers.

During those bouts of fever, Destinee sometimes experienced hallucinations.

“That was very scary … She told me one time that she was talking to her angels,” Ebright said. “I was like, ‘Please don’t take her home right now.'”

As her treatment progressed, Destinee lost her hair more than once.

“That was hard,” Ebright said. “It would come out in clumps and she would just cry.”

Sometimes, hospitalizations could last up to a week, during which Ebright would drop everything to stay with her daughter. Meanwhile, she had a full-time job and was still breast-feeding her six-month-old son.  

“My son couldn’t be around Destinee at all, because he had been exposed to chicken pox,” Ebright said. “As a mom, that was the hardest part, was trying to be the mom to both of them and be with Destinee the whole time, and then be with him too.”

Ebright said her family’s Christian faith and support from loved ones helped her family stay positive during Destinee’s illness, but there were moments when she feared her daughter wouldn’t make it.

At one point, Destinee’s blood counts got dangerously close to zero. Ebright had been told that when that happened, that would be “the end.”

“We just immediately got on our knees and started praying,” Ebright said.




That was 14 years ago. Now, Destinee Smith is a cancer-free high school junior who relishes her long, brown hair.

She’s what her mom calls a “fighter.” And she’s also a giver, as she volunteers to help those currently fighting their own battles against cancer and other medical conditions.  

She will speak tonight at the kickoff event for The Bald and the Beautiful, an annual event at Notre Dame where students donate their hair to raise funds and awareness for cancer research.

“I like giving hope to those that are going through it, to know that it doesn’t all end badly,” Smith said. “There is still hope that they’ll make it through it, and live the life that they want to live.”

Seventeen-year-old Paige Robison, who also overcame childhood leukemia and was in South Bend Memorial Hospital’s pediatric oncology program with Smith, will attend the event as well.

Both girls experienced hair loss as a result of chemotherapy treatment.

“I remember definitely being taunted, being called a boy and stuff,” Smith said. “I always wore a bow on my head so they would know that I was a girl.”

Robison said as a young girl, she found an upside to being bald.

“The best thing about it was that my mom would take gel pens and would draw on my head,” she said. “It was just the coolest thing, I loved it.”

Robison said students shaving their heads and donating hair through The Bald and the Beautiful means a lot to children who are currently battling cancer.

“I just think that makes it so much easier for them,” she said. “They can see older adults supporting them, and I think that just makes all the difference.”

Both Robison and Smith have previously donated their hair to Locks of Love, a non-profit that provides hairpieces to children suffering from medical hair loss.

Smith said she did it “to give back,” but added, “I love having long hair now that I can have long hair.”

When Smith speaks at The Bald and the Beautiful tonight, she hopes to share a message with children in attendance fighting battles with cancer.

“Have hope. [Don’t] let it bring you down, because there is always a fighting chance that you are going to make it,” she said. “Be happy, and live life as much as you possibly can and experience everything that you want to do. To just celebrate [life] because it could be taken away from you.”




Smith has lived out that message in her 17 years, and is determined to take advantage of what she views as a second-chance.  

“I have big dreams and goals that I want to see come true,” she said.

Smith wants to turn her love of cooking – she makes a mean lasagna and chicken enchilada – into a career, and plans to go to culinary school after high school.

She hopes to open her own bistro one day, striving for the perfect mix between Starbucks and Panera Bread.

Smith said her family now goes on with life as normally as possible, letting her battle with cancer fade into a memory. Like most mother-daughters, Smith and Ebright strive to find a balance between independence and staying safe, and next weekend, Smith will attend her junior prom.

But since a high school friend died of leukemia a few weeks ago, Smith said her fight with cancer has been on her mind more than usual.

“It’s just kind of a ‘That could have been me’ kind of thing. It kind of just gives me a different perspective to live every day to the fullest,” she said. “I want to make sure that I do everything that I’ve set out to do, just because I could not have had that chance.”

Ebright said she thinks there is a certain serendipity to Smith’s experience and her namesake.

When Ebright first became pregnant, she decided on the name “Destinee” because she felt God had given her a child for a purpose. But in watching her daughter fight leukemia so early in life, Ebright sometimes wondered what that purpose was.

Now, Smith’s namesake has come full circle.

“I think she’s still a work in progress, but I know she has a purpose and there is a reason for her to be here,” Ebright said. “I, at one point in time, said, ‘I know what her destiny is.’ I think that she really will be a good helper and mentor to others because of things that she has gone through in her life.”

And Smith shares her mother’s vision.

“I just want to see that something good comes from me staying here,” she said.

Contact Sarah Mervosh at [email protected]