HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Natalee Emerson and her family never thought about having to make the walk to the St Jude Clinic at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children.
They’ve been on that journey for more than two years now.
Natalee’s mom, Pam Emerson, remembers, “We were going that morning to get her driver’s license and she had volleyball practice. And we had a full day planned.”
That all changed five days after Natalee turned 16. She’d been under the weather and went to the emergency room.
“I remember the look on the doctor's face when he came in the room that morning,” Natalee’s dad, Mike Emerson, said. “I knew something wasn’t right.”
Natalee remembers that moment, too.
"He came in and shut the door and said, 'I don’t have good news.'"
Natalee had blood cancer known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“It is news that no parent ever wants to get,” her mother said, fighting back tears. “I’m not going to cry.”
"In the blink of an eye, we were blindsided," Pam Emerson said. Mike Emerson added, "You know, your life changes forever."
Mike Emerson got into an ambulance with Natalee. “As a dad, you can fix anything for your children,” he remembers. “And at that moment, you realize you have no control.”
Natalee's mom went home to pack for a two-month stay at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Natalee's focus turned from volleyball practice and driving lessons to beating cancer.
“Yeah, I had to,” she said, “because I really didn’t have another choice.” It didn’t really hit her until she got back home.
“That’s when my 120 weeks started, and after I realized how much longer I had to go with it, then it was like, 'Okay, this is a big deal,'” she said.
Natalee went into remission the second week at St. Jude, followed by 120 weeks of chemo to keep the cancer from returning. It’s been tough.
“She would be sitting at the bar doing homework and she’d be getting sick and she’d go right back to work and then I’d say 'Come lay down, take a break,'” her dad said. “And she was like, 'I’m fine. I’m going to be alright.'”
Even with weekly visits to Huntsville’s St. Jude Clinic, Natalee has kept up with her school work.
“I’m just thrilled to see this day because there were points in time that I thought we may not see her graduate from high school, but here we are,” Pam Emerson said. “I have so much to be thankful for.”
Natalee is graduating with Ardmore’s class of 2020.
“She’s always got a smile, and that gives us strength, to see her handle it that way as well,” Mike Emerson said.
Natalee’s faith has gotten her through some tough times.
“God, 100 percent. He has carried me through it all,” she said wiping tears away. “If I had not had my faith, I don’t know how. I don’t know how people can make it through without having faith that God will bring them through it.”
Her brother Nathan suggested a Bible verse to put on bracelets the Emersons had made for family and friends.
“'How about Jeremiah 29:11?'” Natalee remembers him saying.
That verse says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Natalee smiled when she said, “And that has been my verse that has gotten me through this because I know God will take care of me no matter what.”
Two years and eight months later, she's still fighting and looking toward the future.
“I am wanting to go into nursing, and I’m thinking either pediatrics or maybe even oncology,” she said. Natalee plans to go to Samford University in Birmingham this fall. She’s excited.
“My dream job would be to work at the St. Jude in Memphis or even the affiliate clinic here,” she said. Her brother Nathan graduates in May from UAH. He’s getting his nursing degree.
But first, she’s making plans to do a few things after she finishes her last chemo treatment.
“I’m gonna want to go places because my immune system has been low for almost three years, so I’m ready to go and travel and do all that fun stuff,” Natalee said with a big smile.