Kayla Griffith (center), Lake Forest College (Illinois) women's hockey. Photo courtesy of Matt Demirs
During a routine physical, Kayla Griffith’s nurse was listening to her heart when she heard a murmur.
Griffith never had a heart murmur before. She was an athlete, a three-time All-America defenseman on the Lake Forest (Ill.) College women’s hockey team. Griffith, who went to East Ridge High School in Woodbury, underwent the physical March 21 because she needed it for her graduate physical therapy program.
From there, Griffith took a blood test, spending the night at Lake Forest Hospital near Chicago.
The next day Griffith, who had completed her final hockey season just three weeks earlier, was walking back from class and got a call from a cardiologist.
She had been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, an aggressive form of cancer that can be curable with chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant.
“About two months before the hockey season ended I got really tired and my legs started getting really heavy,” Griffith said. “I thought it was due to the skating we were doing, but that was really my only sign.”
Before learning the news about Griffith that same day, teammate and roommate Caroline Campbell had finished up her auditing class and, while celebrating her golden birthday, went to lunch with some of her teammates. They were talking about Griffith as they searched on Google for what she might have. The subject of leukemia came up and the group thought it couldn’t be that.
“There’s no way that’s even possible, right?” Campbell said. “It was a very surreal time period.”
Minutes after Campbell left the cafeteria, she answered her cellphone. It was Griffith, calling to tell her of the diagnosis. Campbell said she remembers every detail of that day and ended up spending much of it at the hospital with Griffith.
Griffith’s mother, Kathy, was working at HealthEast Sports Center in Woodbury when she received Kayla’s news. Griffith’s father, Tom, was working from home nearby. Both parents traveled from Woodbury to see their daughter surrounded by visitors — her teammates and the school’s athletic director, Jackie Slaats.
“Any parent would not want to hear that news, of course. I think it helped because she was handling it so well,” Kathy Griffith said. “She’s never broken down, never got super sad, just taking everything great.”
Since Griffith learned she had leukemia, her hockey teammates started a “Be the Match” campaign in her honor. Players have set up tables around campus and at their rink. With the help of a member of the “Be the Match” campaign, the team gave students personal information sheets to fill out, followed by cheek swabs. Those students put their names in a bone marrow registry so people needing bone marrow transplants can find matches on that registry. The campaign’s motto — No Stopping 19 — recognizes Griffith’s jersey number and the April 19 date they started the event.
During the drive, the team provided snacks and had a caring table, where people could write notes to Griffith offering their support.
“Her teammates are here to support, but so is everyone on campus,” Foresters coach Carisa Wahlig said. “I see a lot of students that I don’t recognize as student-athletes. Just that they’re out here and doing it for the cause is fantastic.”
Griffith’s first round of chemotherapy started March 24 and ended after a week. She said she didn’t have any serious side effects afterward. Griffith considers herself lucky.
“I think it relates to what I learned in hockey,” Griffith said. “Just having a positive attitude and making sure to look on the bright side of things and then also being mentally tough.”
Jack White is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.