Friday was a big day for Virgil Grissom fifth-grader Kinley Albrecht. It was two days before her 11th birthday, and that night, she was having a sleepover with 10 of her friends.
Lunch wasn’t supposed to be anything special, but unbeknownst to the daughter of Katie and Clint Albrecht, her day — and what was already a special year — were about to get a whole lot better.
Just a few minutes after Kinley and her classmates sat down in the Grissom lunchroom, an adjoining door opened and out walked a group of familiar faces, led by 2016 North Scott graduate Allie (Stutting) Boge, members of her fundraising team for University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, and members of Kinley’s family.
Kinley was wide-eyed.
“I was totally surprised, and had no idea what was going on,” she said. “When I saw Allie, I was baffled, and I didn’t know what to think. Even when she started talking, I didn’t realize what was going on, and then, when she started telling my story, I kind of began to wonder.”
Kinley’s story is nothing short of heartwarming, and Allie’s presence at Grissom on Friday was the perfect way to put an exclamation point on Kinley’s five-year anniversary of being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
In what was a total to surprise to Kinley, Allie announced to the students that their classmate had just been named the hospital’s National Children’s Miracle Network Champion for 2023.
As a result, Kinley will be the face of the CMN and UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital fundraising efforts for the coming year, where her picture will adorn posters and signage throughout Iowa and parts of Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri.
She will make visits and talks on behalf of corporate sponsors Dairy Queen, Wal-Mart and Panda Express, among others, and will share her story at numerous corporate partner campaign events.
After the announcement in the cafeteria, Kinley and her classmates returned to their classroom for a surprise pizza party hosted by Allie and her team.
“Being named a champion means a lot to me because I get to experience all of these things,” said Kinley, who was still in a bit of a shock. “I just want to make other people who are sick feel good, and give back what people gave to me. I’m looking forward to telling my story.”
It’s funny how life sometimes comes full circle, and such is the case with Allie and Kinley. The two have known each other ever since Kinley was born, mostly because Allie’s younger siblings were friends with Kinley’s older brother and sister.
Allie went off to the University of Iowa to study to be a teacher, and in the fall of her sophomore year (2017), she and Kinley’s paths crossed at a pivotal and emotional point in the young girl’s life.
“On the day she was diagnosed, I was actually volunteering on the pediatric cancer unit in Iowa City, through my work with Dance Marathon,” said Allie. “I remember talking to Katie, and it seems like I’ve been part of their journey ever since.
“I really got to know her well, and never did I think I’d be here today doing what I’m doing. I was going to school to be a teacher, and didn’t think you could get paid to fundraise for the Children’s Hospital.”
Fast-forward five years, and Allie is now the assistant director for the corporate and community development team for the Stead Family Children’s Hospital, and half of her portfolio is working with CMN corporate sponsors.
“I work as a liaison to the hospital for all of their fundraising, and I’ve been doing it for two and a half years,” said Allie. “I love it, and the best part is moments like this when I get to see the smile on Kinley’s face, and to see how shocked she was when I walked in.”
Each year, Allie’s team picks four general ambassadors (champions) to help fundraise for the hospital, and from that group chooses one overall champion who will be the face of the marketing campaign.
“Basically, we like to pick someone who has been a champion before, just because they’ve had experience sharing their story,” said Allie, “and Kinley has grown so much in the past year.
“She’s gotten more comfortable talking to other people about her diagnosis and her journey, and when we were thinking about who we might pick this year, I said, ‘How about Kinley?’ Everyone gave a resounding ‘yes,’ and it was a very easy decision.
“I love my job so much, and I know what we do is impactful,” continued Allie. “The best part is seeing this come full circle, from watching Kinley when she was at her lowest and super sick, to five years later and going out to share her story and be a spokesperson for our hospital. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
As she watched her daughter mingle and laugh with her classmates, Kinley's mom stood off to the side, smiled, and took it all in.
“This is awesome,” said Katie. “I couldn’t imagine it going as well as it did. Allie has been on this journey every step of the way, and it’s awesome to have her be part of this.
“She’s been there from the beginning, from when you get this cancer diagnosis, and it’s so scary. To see someone we knew that day was just so comforting, and I’ll never forget it. She was there for Kinley, and now, Kinley just lights up when she sees her. She’s just awesome.
“I’m excited for this next year,” continued Katie. “I’m looking forward to Kinley telling her story, and I hope her story gives people hope.”
Kinley’s five-year journey
Kinley was a rambunctious kindergartner in the fall of 2017, and not long after school started, Katie began noticing that her youngest daughter was prone to bruises on her body.
“Of course, the first thing I did was Google ‘easy bruising,’ and the first thing that came up was leukemia,” said Katie. “I knew there was something going on, but you just don’t want to believe your kid has cancer.
“A couple weeks passed, and she just looked pale one day. I called the doctor, and he sent us to the hospital to get blood drawn. Within a few hours we received a phone call saying we needed to take her to University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City. When you walk off that 11th floor, and see the words, ‘Dance Marathon Pediatric Cancer Center,’ I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”
Nurses immediately started an IV on Kinley and gave her several blood transfusions because her platelet and hemoglobin levels were dangerously low. It was a Saturday, so no doctors were available to make the diagnosis. That came a day later.
“I can kind of remember when I first got diagnosed,” said Kinley. “I was sitting in the hospital bed, and the doctor came in and pulled Mom out of the room. There were two other doctors there trying to entertain me, and I was like ‘Just go away.’”
“They asked me to step out of the room, and basically just said, ‘Kinley has leukemia,’” remembers Katie. “I don’t really remember anything else. All I heard was leukemia, and then they said something about it being a little more than a two-year treatment. That was a lot to process.”
“Mom came back in crying,” said Kinley, “and I was like, ‘Now what happened?’ I was 5, and I didn’t really understand what was happening. I saw Mom crying, so I started crying. I basically had no idea what was going on, and I think it was the doctor who told me I had leukemia.”
“I don’t think I was even in the right frame of mind to be able to have that conversation,” said Katie. “She just knew she was sick, and she was a trooper. She never complained. After that, we just knew what we had to do.”
Doctors started treatments immediately. They took her into surgery that day (Oct. 1), and implanted a port in her chest, which stayed there for two and a half years. She had her first chemo treatment that night.
Kinley spent just eight days in the hospital, and then was sent home with a laundry list of medications she needed to take. At home, her blood pressure and temperature had to be monitored regularly, and she was rushed to Iowa City at the first signs of a fever.
“For two and a half years, we stayed close to home because we couldn’t be more than an hour away,” said Katie. “I didn’t trust taking her anywhere, and Iowa City was our second home.”
Kinley was on steroids for 28 days straight. Her cheeks and stomach became round and tight, and the chemo treatments gave her mouth sores, which meant her food needed to be pureed.
She had to endure numerous blood transfusions, several lumbar punctures, shots injected into her muscle, and an abundance of pills for 802 days.
“It’s crazy to think about it, but she was diagnosed on Oct. 1, and she went into remission on Nov. 2,” said Katie. “But they know the leukemia cells like to hide, so that’s why treatment lasts for over two years. They just have to continue. If they would have stopped after that 30 days, she would’ve relapsed.”
The battle waged on.
“The infusions were kind of painful,” said Kinley. “There were times they couldn’t get it in, and had to try over and over again. That was probably the most painful thing I’ve ever felt.”
“The first month was awful,” said Katie, “because she just felt so bad. Then, she started to feel a little better, but the following February (2018) came the delayed intensification, which made it tough again.
“It was like a roller coaster. She’d not be feeling great, and then she’d feel good. It seemed like she went back and forth. The first six months is the rough part, and most intense, and the last 18 months is maintenance, which means we only had to go once a month.
“For the last six months, we were on a pretty good routine,” she continued, “where she took anti-nausea mediation and we finally got the pills dialed in to what helped.”
Through it all, the fight was a family affair. Kinley lost her hair twice, with the second time being during Christmas (2018).
“Oh my gosh,” said Kinley, “that was when my dad’s family was over, and it was terrible.”
“That was hard because we weren’t expecting it,” added Katie. “We prepped for the first time, and told her that more than likely she’d lose her hair. Once she started losing it (March 2018), we decided as a family that we were all going to shave our heads. We had a big party, and went through it all together. I think that helped.”
“When we shaved our heads, my brother, Colin, and sister, Kamryn, all slept together,” said Kinley. “The pillows were so itchy, and it just felt weird. Before my cancer, I had blonde hair. Now, it's dark brown.”
A little more than two years after her diagnosis, on Dec. 12, 2019, Kinley finished her last chemo treatment and got to ring the bell with all the nurses and doctors on the 11th floor.
Since ringing the bell, Kinley has had to go back for blood tests every three months, and starting next year, they’ll be able to stretch those visits out to every six months. She won’t be considered “cancer free” until the five-year anniversary of her final treatment.
Today, well, at least until last Friday, Kinley is living the normal life of a fifth-grader.
“I’m running around with a lot of energy, and I’m pretty smart,” she said. “I like to play basketball and volleyball, and I know I want to be a pediatric oncology nurse when I grow up. I figure I would be helping the kids out because I would know how they feel, because I went through it, and I’d try to comfort them.”
Now, with grateful hearts, the Albrecht family looks forward to an exciting future.
“It’s very hard to believe it’s been five years since this all started,” said Katie. “I do still worry, and when she gets bruises or gets sick, it’s like, ‘Oh, no! That’s how it starts.’ I think that will always be in the back of my head.
“I remember the day of her diagnosis as if it were yesterday, and that’s the day our lives changed forever. We have endured so many ups and downs in the last five years, and I am most thankful that she is healthy and a thriving 11-year-old girl. I am also thankful our marriage survived, and our family is stronger than before, as cancer can tear families apart.”
As for Kinley, she, too, has plenty to be thankful for.
“There are times I still think about cancer coming back, because I had a real close friend who relapsed and passed away,” she said. “I feel like the further I go, the more safe I feel, but I still have the thought that it can come back. Now, I am just thankful to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving at home, with my family and not have to celebrate Thanksgiving in the hospital.”