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The City Journals

Ashtyn Poulsen won her third battle with leukemia — with an army behind her

Jan 22, 2019 01:42PM ● By Josh Wood

Ashtyn Poulsen (center) returns home from Seattle after her third bone marrow transplant. Poulsen died Monday, two days before graduation, but not before receiving her diploma at the hospital from Principal Tom Sherwood. (Suzanne Poulsen, by permission)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

In December 2018, just before Christmas, Ashtyn Poulsen returned home to Utah after winning a grueling battle. Poulsen overcame very slim odds to beat leukemia for the third time in her young life. 

This time around, a big celebration was called for. As she descended the escalator at Salt Lake City International Airport, a crowd of dozens stood holding signs and cheering the brave leader of “Ashtyn’s Army.”

Poulsen was first diagnosed in January 2013 with acute undifferentiated leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming tissues like the bone marrow. After receiving four months of treatment, Poulsen went into remission and received a bone marrow transplant. After three and a half years of being healthy, her cancer returned in October 2016. She then received another five months of treatment, was cancer free and underwent another type of bone marrow transplant. She was sure this second treatment would keep the cancer from coming back.

Then in February 2018, Ashtyn received devastating news. Cancer had come back again. The odds of beating leukemia a third time were very slim. Ashtyn and her mother, Suzanne Poulsen, traveled to Seattle Children’s Hospital to undergo another grueling round of treatment with the hope of beating the odds.

A long, hard fight

The struggle against leukemia began again last March. “There were three things that Ashtyn had to accomplish,” Suzanne said. “First, she had to get cancer free. Number two is the bone marrow transplant so the leukemia cells cannot survive. It’s horrible on the body. Third, you have to gain back everything you lost.”

Ashtyn has tried to keep things in perspective. “I definitely have to take it day by day,” she said. “I actually hope it will take as long as the doctors say it will to recover, but I do everything I can to make it faster. I’m kind of done with the medical thing.”

This means recovering from the traumatic effects of the bone marrow transplant. “It put her on death’s door,” Suzanne said. The transplant affected her heart, lungs and kidneys and effectively replaces the immune system. She hasn’t walked on her own since August. Doctors say it will take about a year for her to recover. “She has to start from rock bottom and build herself up,” Suzanne said.

Her darkest moment

One day during her treatment, Ashtyn was at rock bottom. “She was very, very sick,” Suzanne said. At that moment, Suzanne asked Ashtyn what she was grateful for. “My health,” was her answer. Her mom then asked her what other people should be grateful for.

“Existence,” Ashtyn said. “The opportunity to impact people for good. If you don’t, it’s a waste.”

That is the spirit that has helped Ashtyn beat leukemia for the third time. She quietly endures. Her mom said Ashtyn has a fire in her, that she is a fighter. A quiet, strong fighter.

“She is legit,” Suzanne said.

The staff on the oncology floor of Seattle Children’s Hospital would gather in Ashtyn’s room. They seemed to spend more time there than they probably needed to. Suzanne knew why. “She’s never unkind. She never once said ‘I give up.’”

Welcome home

That December evening as Ashtyn and her mom descended the escalator at the airport, they could see balloons, signs with Ashtyn’s name in big bright letters, and they could hear the warm cheers of dozens of people welcoming her home. They call themselves Ashtyn’s Army. They had been rooting for her throughout the process, reading the blog that Suzanne used to keep everyone updated, and waiting for the moment when they could welcome her back home.

For Ashtyn, it was a long wait. Every time she got her hopes up about leaving for home, her doctors said she would have to wait another week, another month. “I didn’t believe I was going home until I got on the airplane and it took off,” Ashtyn said. “Then the doctors couldn’t tell me it would be longer.”

The homecoming she had wanted for so long was bigger than she expected. “It was a little overwhelming because I can’t wrap my head around so many people supporting me because I feel so little,” Ashtyn said. “I was so grateful, so excited to see the people that were praying for me.”

“Overwhelming in a good way,” she added.

Future goals

Ashtyn knows she still has more recovery time ahead of her, but that hasn’t stopped her from thinking about her goals. She wants to go to BYU or the University of Utah and hopes to start soon. She wants to study nursing and become a nurse on the oncology floor at Primary Children’s Hospital.

“The nurses for me are everything,” Ashtyn said. “Nurses understand, they get it, and they’ve seen a lot. You have to grow up fast when you get diagnosed. These nurses are who you want to talk to.”

Ashtyn Poulsen gets a lot of things. Like the members of Ashtyn’s Army, her future patients will get someone to look up to, someone who understands. Someone who never gives up.