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Zara Strong: Father gives daughter second chance at life

Story by Staff Sgt. Ceaira Young

Moody Air Force Base

“I got really scared because that means there was a 60 percent chance that I was going to lose my baby girl and that didn’t make me feel good at all,” said Jay, 723d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron electronic warfare technician.

With very little hope for a positive outcome, his mind began to race. He remembered a cousin who’d had it and survived, but also remembered an Air Force-battle-buddy who wasn’t so lucky. And now his precious little girl, his “ladybug,” would be forced to face leukemia in its most aggressive form.

Unlike some other forms of cancer, AML creates an overproduction of immature white blood cells and is notorious for progressing quickly. When left untreated AML can take a life in a matter of months.

“When they told us she had two months to live I thought about all of the things that transpired up to this point and I believe she had less than that,” said Jay. “As a father, I knew I had to make sure I was strong for her. I couldn’t imagine going through what she was about to go through.”

The next few months were riddled with chemotherapy, blood transfusions, feeding tubes and most critical to Zara, hair loss.

“I loved my hair so much and I was like ‘oh my God, am I going to lose my hair’ as soon as I thought it [the doctor] said ‘you’re going to lose your hair’ and that’s when I cried,” said Zara, who’d had long black hair for as long as she could remember. “I was like, oh, I’ll be okay. The hair was what I was sad about, not the cancer and it should have been vice versa.”

In that moment, she wasn’t just a typical teenager who’d rather spend her spare time dancing and shopping but instead she had cancer and was in for a one-year uphill battle for her life.

Even with the grim diagnosis, there was no way Zara could have fathomed being confined to a hospital bed for months at a time, struggling to keep her meals down, her parents being out of work to provide around the clock care and support, and missing out on more than half of her seventh grade school year.

“I was so proud of her because she was so strong, fighting and giving it her all the entire time,” said Jay. “As a father, we take that role as their superman and nothing is going to happen to them as long as we’re walking this green earth. It was agonizing, it really was, knowing that there was nothing I could do but hold her hand and talk her through it.”

As time went on, Zara’s condition became unresponsive to stronger and stronger more potent doses of chemo until finally the doctors suggested a bone marrow transplant as a last resort. Immediately, her family was tested and her name was placed on the donor list.

“Last year was a miracle for me,” said Zara. “My dad was my donor. They got bone marrow from his hips and did the surgery. I felt blessed because even if he didn’t have a match there were other people [from Moody] who were willing to give me marrow if my daddy wasn’t a match.

“That day I had my second birthday because that was the day I was reborn,” Zara added. “Last year, my birthday was a miracle, every holiday was a miracle and from now on I have a second chance at life. The day I was reborn is April 14th and this year I’m going to turn one year old.”

With the transplant complete, there was nothing Jay and his family could do but wait, either the transplant would take or it wouldn’t. Despite the odds being stacked against them, Zara’s transplant was a success. Her worries went from extended hospital stays to Algebra homework like every other eight grader.

“It’s a blur now because we’re on the other side of it all,” Jay added. “When we were going through it, every moment was so surreal. Every day when we walked through those double doors and down that hospital hallway, we questioned, ‘is it real or is this all a dream?’ But still we walked through those doors for my baby girl. It was tough as a parent, but not nearly as tough as it was for her.”

“I helped my wife bring her into this world and now I gave her a new lease on life by giving her my bone marrow,” said Jay. “Most parents only get to give their children life once, but I got to give my daughter life twice.

“We made it. She made it. Thank you, Father God.”

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