Faith Johnson first started to feel sick back in August with a small, annoying pain in her knee that eventually escalated into more — a temperature, cough and fatigue.
Her mother, Erika, assumed it must be COVID-19. Faith is a very outgoing girl who loves talking to everyone she comes across, and she had just gone back to Lambert High School for face-to-face learning for her senior year. After a few weeks and negative tests, they realized something was not right.
Later in October, Erika took Faith to see her pediatrician, and after some initial lab tests, they found that she was anemic. This led Faith down a rabbit hole of tests, ruling out different infections and diseases to try to figure out just what was going on. Her doctors checked for common symptoms of cancer, and all came back normal. Erika said that although none of her blood work was “screaming cancer,” doctors still recommended that they at least see a hematologist.
They ended up at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at Egleston earlier this month. Erika said she figured they would do some more tests, they would rule out cancer and then they could continue looking for what was truly making her daughter sick.
Erika got a call from the doctor the next morning, on Nov. 11, saying that they could confirm a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
That very same day, both Faith and Erika started getting calls and messages from friends, family, community members and even old friends who they had not talked to in years just wanting to offer them and their family help and support.
“Oh my gosh, it’s been amazing,” Erika said.
They were getting so many messages from those in the community concerned for Faith and wanting to check in on her that Erika decided she needed to start a Caring Bridge journal where she has started to post updates and read through everyone’s comments online. So many have offered to help out the family in so many ways, whether it be helping drive Erika’s younger son to school, help to take care of her mother or even help clean up around the house.
Erika said that Faith’s swim and dive coach at Lambert, Kerry Langley, has been an especially huge help through the situation. As soon as she had found out that Faith had been diagnosed, she started a meal train for them, encouraging anyone who could to bring meals over to their home.
“At first, I was like I don’t really know that I’ll need all these meals,” Erika said. “I’m going to be in the hospital with her and my youngest son swims every day, but it has been amazing. We went to the hospital on Friday, and we were there literally all day because it was just super busy because of the upcoming holiday. And when we got home, we were starving, and there was a meal there. My son had set it all out, and it’s just a lot of comfort for when things are just not good.”
Langley has also been working with other students on the swim and dive team to show extra support to Faith in the past few weeks. After she was diagnosed, they held an Orange Out meet where everyone wore orange for leukemia, students at Denmark High School helped make orange bracelets and they even handed out tangerines to those who won awards at the meet.
For the team’s most recent meet on with South Forsyth High School on Tuesday, Nov. 24, students from both teams wore shirts featuring a dinosaur across them that read #fight for Faith.
Grace Drawdy, one of Faith’s friends and a student at South Forsyth, said that she designed the shirts, deciding on a huge dinosaur across each one because she knows just how much Faith loves them. She remembered someone saying when she was first diagnosed that Faith would end up with more dinosaurs than she even knew what to do with.
Drawdy was inspired to create the shirts for the meet because she and Faith used to swim together at the Chattahoochee Gold Swim Club where they would participate in Swim Across America, raising money for cancer research and for the Aflac Cancer Center. Now that Faith is battling with the disease herself, Drawy said she simply wanted to do something special for her.
“I just wanted to make sure she knows there are so many people out here that support her and love her,” Drawdy said. “She’s got the biggest smile, the warmest personality. I mean, you talk to her once and she’s the sweetest girl you’ll ever meet. I just wanted her to feel like she has a support system here in Forsyth County, too.”
After they designed the T-shirt, Langley said North Georgia Promotions rushed to have the shirts ready for their swim meet so that all of the students on the South Forsyth and Lambert teams could wear one. The team plans to sell the remaining T-shirts and donate the profits for cancer research.
Katie Williams and Emma Power, Faith’s best friends who also swim on the team at Lambert, said that the extra support has been especially helpful for Faith since she cannot go out right now because of the pandemic. They are the only two friends who can visit her right now, and even then, they said they still have to be careful.
Despite her diagnosis, the hospital visits and the pandemic, her friends and family all said that Faith has kept positive through it all. Although she knows there will be bad days as Faith will have to continue with treatment for the next two years, Erika said Faith has always been someone who tries to look on the bright side.
“She’s got such a good attitude,” Erika said. “If anyone is going to beat it, it will be her because she’s just so positive. And she’s doing everything she needs to do. It’s hard; she’s on a ton of meds, but she’s never fought me. She knows she needs to take them, and even though they don’t make her feel very good, she does what she has to do.”
Faith’s family is trying their best to stay positive as well, focusing on what they can control in the moment. Erika said that she has learned to live more in the moment in the past few weeks, enjoying the good days and rolling with the bad days as they come.
“She’s been really good, but I know there’s going to be those days when it's hard,” Erika said. “Like when she feels really bad or when she loses her hair. You can’t stay up all the time, and she needs to know that she doesn’t have to be up all the time, especially for us.”
Right now, Faith is mostly missing her friends and the moments she would have had going to school during her senior year. With a coronavirus vaccine possibly on its way, Erika hopes that she will be able to swim at one more meet. If anything, Faith would love to go to graduation where she would be able to give a final speech as senior class president.
Until then, Williams and Power visit her and hang out when they can, bringing some sense of normalcy for both them and Faith as they have not been together at school. They come over, joke around, watch movies and just have a good time like they always do.
“Just being in her presence makes it easier,” Power said. “We just miss her.”
“We have benefited from both of these organizations in the short time we have been here and they are changing the lives of families stricken by this disease,” Erika said.