Saturday, November 04, 2006

5 Inspiring True Life Dramas

Everyone has a story to tell. Maybe you battled a terrible illness. Or committed a great heroic act. Or struggled to make your dream come true. Whatever your story, sharing it can inspire others to overcome their problems or just let them know they're not alone. Here, the life stories of five amazingly brave souls.

"i survived leukemia"

Jack's Mannequin singer Andrew McMahon, 24, thought feeling tired all the time was just part of being a rock star, But then he found out the truth.

Growing up, my family moved around a lot, from Massachusetts to New Jersey to Illinois and California. I'm not sure if that had an effect on my personality, but I do know that I was a weird kid. For one thing, I talked really loud all the time. My parents actually took me to the doctor because they thought I was deaf. But the truth was, I just talked really loud. Hey, I had four older siblings and wanted to be heard!

My siblings were always very athletic, but I was more into the arts. I started taking piano lessons in the first grade, which gave me something to do so I didn't have to pretend that I could play sports. My junior year of high school, in Orange County, California, I started a band called Something Corporate with some of my friends. We won our school's battle of the bands competition and got good buzz from performing locally--but we didn't record anything until the owner of a local venue helped us pay for our demo at the end of our senior year. I sent it to a bunch of record labels, and by spring 2001, when I was 19 years old, we had a record deal!

Our first album came out in May 2002, and we immediately started touring all over Europe. The next two years were amazing but exhausting, so in the summer of 2004 we took a break. Later that year, I decided I wanted to try to record some other music, so I formed another band called Jack's Mannequin. That December, we recorded our first album, and in March 2005 we headed out on tour.

I couldn't believe it, but I was living my dream--I was a rock star! Then one day in April, during the tour, I started losing my voice. I thought it was because I smoked, so I quit. I was also suddenly really tired. all the time. I just figured I was overtired from the tour, so I didn't even go to the doctor. But that May, my voice got so bad that I had to cancel our show in New Jersey. went to see my voice doctor, and he gave me a blood test. The next day, I felt good so I figured I'd just had a sinus infection or something. But my voice doctor called later that day with some disturbing news. "Andrew, your blood work is extraordinary," he said. I was like, "That's good, right?" But he said, "No, it's extraordinarily bad." He told me to go to the New York Presbyterian Hospital--to the leukemia ward. He wasn't saying I definitely had leukemia, but he wanted me to get checked out. Still, the possibility of it was bad enough. I called my manager, and as soon as I said the word leukemia, I started bawling.

The doctor saw me immediately and said it was one of two things--aplastic anemia or leukemia. He said he had to do a bone marrow biopsy to find out and wanted me to stay at the hospital while we waited for the results. That was going to take five days, so I called my sister, Emily, who lives in New York; and she came to the hospital. I also called my parents, who arrived the next day from California. I tried not to stress out too much over the next few days. Whatever it was, I thought, at least I was in a place where they could help me. On the day the results came in, my parents, Emily, my girlfriend, Kelly, and my manager, Arvis, were all with me in my hospital room. When the doctor explained that had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, I didn't know what to think. At 22, you just don't say cancer.

My family was so upset, they had to leave the room. I just lay there bracing myself for what was ahead.

I left New York the next day for Los Angeles, where I began chemotherapy at UCLA. The doctors were optimistic about my chances of survival, but the chemo was brutal, I developed a bad case of pneumonia and almost died. My mom was literally getting ready to call the family to have them come say good-bye to me, but then my blood count turned around. Since chemo doesn't always kill all the leukemia cells, I opted to try another, more aggressive treatment a few weeks later. What I had was a stem cell transplant, a really high dose of drugs and/or radiation that kills the leukemia. Basically, the radiation destroys all your blood cells--even the "normal" ones. Then the stem cells grow into new, healthy blood cells.

There were a few complications after my transplant. Like, I developed sores on my throat, which is a common side effect, so I couldn't eat and lost a lot of weight. But at least I didn't get severe graft-versus-host disease, which happens when donated stem cells react against a patient's tissues--it can be life threatening. In fact, the survival rate for adults who have a stem cell transplant is only about 50 percent. I was lucky.

I can't say my cancer has been "cured." There's always the chance it could come back. But my doctor says that if it hasn't come back within two years of the transplant, the odds are pretty good that it never will. That means I have about a year to go before I feel like I'm in the clear. So right now, I'm just trying to stay positive.

One thing that helps me do that is music. When I was first diagnosed with leukemia, I told my band not to wait around for me just in case I didn't make it. But they stuck with me. Actually, we'd already recorded our album before I got sick, and it was released on the day that I had my stem cell transplant. When I got better, we went back on the road. In fact, we just finished another tour about a month ago, and seeing all our fans being so supportive felt great.

Something I'm planning on doing soon is visiting hospitals to talk to kids who are going through what I went through. Maybe hearing my story will help them in some way. But I don't think of myself as a hero at all--there are many kids out there who are fighting cancer. I just look at it this way: I was psyched to be able to make a living being a musician and touring the world. But now I have even more reason to celebrate life.

Check out Andrew's music and learn about the Dear Jack Foundation at

--Kristen Sardis

"I racked up $15,000 in credit card debt"

Alina Schall, 24, got her first credit card six years ago. Now she's digging her way out of a deep hole of debt.

You'd think that at 24 I'd be an independent person, able to take care of myself. But I'm not. While I have a job and live on my own, I can barely pay my rent each month. I have to borrow my parents' car when I need to go somewhere because I can't afford one of my own, my mom has to buy my groceries, and going out with my friends is a luxury. This is all because every single penny I earn goes toward paying off my credit cards.

When I was in high school in Allport, Pennsylvania, I didn't really worry about money. My parents would always give me cash if I wanted to go to the movies or something. I wasn't a big shopper at the time, so aside from school clothes, which my parents bought for me, there was nothing I really needed.

When I started college at Penn State, though, things changed. Suddenly I found myself wanting new outfits for parties and nights out with my friends. My parents hadn't been able to save much for my college education, so they couldn't help me out with spending money. I felt like I never had enough cash to do anything.

But soon I started getting mail from companies saying that I was "pre-approved" for their credit cards. I had no idea how they got my address, and I just figured it was junk mail. But then one of my friends sent in an application for a card and actually got one--even though she didn't have a job. With her card, she started buying whatever she wanted, and I got really jealous. We'd go to parties and she'd wear her latest cute purchase, while I had to settle for the same old stuff I had in my closet.

Toward the end of my first semester, I went online to try to find a credit card and saw that a bank called MBNA was promoting their new Visa card. I thought that if my friend could get a credit card, maybe I could too. So I called MBNA and said I'd like to apply for a Visa card. When the woman asked me how much money I made, I said, "I don't make anything. I don't have a job." But that didn't matter. Without asking me how I would pay off my charges, she took the rest of my information and told me I was approved. Within a week, I received my new. Visa card in the mail--with a $1,000 limit.

I felt like I'd been handed a fortune. All I had to do was swipe the plastic, sign the receipt, and walk away with my brand-new goodies. I was spending around $400 a month of my "free money." And the more I shopped, the more credit cards I got. I signed up for cards at my favorite, stores--J. Crew, Express, Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch--thinking, Cool! More money!

I always thought I'd somehow come up with the cash to pay my bills each month. And for the first year, I was okay because I had some money saved from my summer job at Uni-Mart. But when that money ran out, I was stuck. I couldn't afford my minimum payments of $40 a month, but instead of trying to figure out a way to come up with the money, I went into denial about my debt. I thought, I already have school loans to pay back--what's a few more dollars? I started spending $1,000 a month on clothes and ignoring my bills completely. Whenever I'd max out one card, I'd just sign up for another. By my junior year, I had four store cards, two Visas, an American Express, and a Discover card. The high interest rates on my balances and all the late fees for missing payments were adding up--by my junior year, I owed a total of $15,000. I was in way over my head.

The credit card companies started calling me several times a day, threatening legal action. So senior year, I broke down and told my mom what was happening. There I was, 22 years old, and I was running to my mom to dig me out of a mess I'd created by being irresponsible. It was humiliating.

As much as I hated having to involve my mom, she helped me get a bank loan so I could start paying off some of my cards. So far, with her help, I've been able to pay off four cards. But I still have almost $5,000 in credit card debt--plus, I have to pay back the $9,500 bank loan. The bank loan has a much lower interest rate than credit card companies, though, so I'm still in better shape than I used to be.

I'm hoping that in a few years, I'll be completely debt-free. Unfortunately, though, by spending money I didn't have, I ruined my credit. That means that if I try to buy a car or even rent an apartment, I'll get rejected once they see my credit history. And bad credit doesn't just disappear. It's like a criminal record--it stays with you for years. So now I'm facing the consequences of what I did. In the meantime, I'm trying to live by a new rule: From now on, I only buy something if I have the cash to pay for it.

Are you in debt and don't know how to get out? Check out American Consumer Credit Counseling at

Katie L. Connor

"i had leg surgery to make me taller"

Amanda Folga, 18, hated the way her body looked. But what she went through to change it was almost unbearable.

I've spent so much time at the Shriners Children's Hospital in Oak Park, Illinois, that most of the staffers know me by name. My visits started back when I was 5. While my mom was giving me a bath, she noticed that my left leg was a bit shorter than my right. She'd never noticed it before, but apparently there had been signs. Back then I used to stand with my hands on my hips leaning off to the side--like I had an attitude. My parents tell me they didn't really think much of it at the time, figuring it was just my personality. But it turns out, it wasn't. I was standing that way because my legs were uneven.

Once my mom noticed the difference in the tub that night, my parents took me to the doctor; X-rays confirmed my left leg was three inches shorter than my right. Apparently, the meningitis I'd had when I was a baby caused the plates in my knees and ankles to fuse, so I didn't grow normally. The doctor said eventually my legs would become so uneven, I wouldn't be able to walk. He suggested surgery to lengthen my left leg, and my parents decided to go for it. During surgery, the doctor had to break the bones in my left leg and put on a metal fixture that went from my ankle to my hip. There were 21 pins connected to three rings, and the pins went straight through my skin and bones and out the other side. Every day, my parents had to turn these clickers that would re-break my leg, leaving space for new bone to grow. I was so young, I don't remember much about it, but it worked--after nine months, my legs were even.

But a few years later, my right leg outgrew the left again; the doctor had warned my parents that might happen. So at 9, I had surgery again. Then again. And again. By the time I was 13, I'd probably had a dozen surgeries. Every one of them was horrible: I had to be in a wheelchair for months after and was in a lot of pain. And being in junior high for most of those months was pretty humiliating. I had to have an aide bring me from class to class. I couldn't exactly look cool with this lady following me around, making notes on a clipboard. I also missed a ton of school, so I didn't make any real friends. I basically spent junior high going to school, then heading straight home.

When I was 13, my legs were even again, but there was one problem. I was only 4′2″. It wasn't just that I was short; I was disproportionate. My legs appeared abnormally short compared with my upper body, which was normal size. So when my doctor told me he could do the surgery again, this time on both legs to make me taller, I decided to do it. I figured, I've already done this so many times, what's once more?

My doctor wanted me to be absolutely sure I was making the right decision, so he made me wait a couple of years before he'd do it. When I was 15, I was still sure. So in May 2005 I had the double leg procedure. This time, though, when I woke up after surgery, the pain was unbearable. Having both legs operated on at once was so much worse. Even the pain medication didn't do much. It felt like I was being stabbed every time I tried to move. And this time I had nerve pain too, which felt like I was being electrocuted. I didn't sleep through the night for months.

I spent the entire summer before my senior year in bed, watching TV or reading. I was so depressed, I started regretting my decision--and blaming my parents. "Why didn't you talk me out of this?" I'd yell. I felt I'd made the worst mistake of my life.

Even though I was still in a lot of pain, I went back to school in the fall. And by January 2006, the pain was gone. I'm almost five feet tall now, and I'm happy with my body. I don't look different anymore; I just look short. The sad part is, though, I thought this would be the end of the surgeries--but it's not. It turns out my fight leg is now about two inches shorter than my left, So I have to have another surgery next year. I feel like this saga will never end. And honestly, if I'd known it was going to be like this, I don't know that I'd make the same decision again. But there is a positive side to my whole experience. I don't get stressed out about little things. Like, if a guy doesn't call me, I don't worry about it because I know that in a few weeks or months, I'll be over it--just like when I thought my pain would never end and then it eventually did. Still, my advice to other girls considering this surgery is not to go through with it unless you're so short that it's really making your life difficult. Otherwise, just try to accept yourself as you are.


The kind of surgery that Amanda had is rare in the United States, but it's not uncommon in China. With the average Chinese woman standing 5′2″, anyone taller than that is admired as a rare beauty. Height is held in such esteem by the Chinese that they even list height requirements in their classified ads for job openings! In the U.S., though, most doctors limit who they'll operate on. And many groups, including the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, are opposed to the practice. For more info, go to

--Josie Swindler

"my parents tried to tear my boyfriend and me apart"

Suzy(*), 18, was only allowed to date within her Vietnamese culture. So when she fell in love with a Mexican guy, her world turned upside down.

I was born and raised in the U.S. by my parents, who immigrated here from Vietnam before I was born. My 14-year-old sister and I were taught to excel in school, to respect elders, and, most importantly, to only date Vietnamese guys. When I was younger, my parents' rules were like law to me, and I was okay with them. I was the perfect Catholic Asian girl who played piano, got straight A's, and had her life planned out for her. But that last part changed when I met Marc*.

In February of 2004, my sophomore year of high school, Marc moved to my town from Mexico. He was in my history class, and my friends and I thought he was cute and funny. He had the same sarcastic sense of humor that I had. But since we sat on opposite sides of the classroom, we hardly talked. Later that month, a fire broke out at school and everyone was evacuated. My friends and I were hanging out by the running track and Marc came over and said hi. I was wearing new pants that day and saying how I didn't want to sit on the dewy grass and ruin them. I couldn't believe it when Marc took off his sweatshirt and put it on the ground for me to sit on! I was embarrassed because all my friends were giving me the oh-my-God look--but secretly, I was thrilled!

After that day, Marc and I talked more during school. I never thought anything serious would come of it because of my parents' rule--my only real boyfriend so far had been Vietnamese--but I liked him, so we exchanged phone numbers. Our phone conversations lasted for hours, sometimes until five in the morning. We talked about everything, from our favorite colors to our career goals. He told me how he plans to become a lawyer; I shared with him how much I want to be a doctor. I'd never met a guy I felt so comfortable with. Marc didn't judge me or want me to be anyone other than who I was. He made me feel happy and free.

When he asked me out on a date in April, I was so excited. I knew my parents wouldn't let me go, so I told them I was hanging out with friends and instead went to a dance show at my school with Marc. We sat in the back of the auditorium, and at one point I leaned over to say something and my face accidentally brushed his lips. When I turned to say sorry, he kissed me. It was awkward--but so cute! We went out a few more times that month, and by May we were a couple.

At the end of the school year, we got some bad news. Our class was going to be split into two schools in the fall, and we found out that Marc and I had been assigned to different ones. We were really upset, and I thought that getting my parents' blessing would help us stay strong during the split. One night my parents were throwing a party and I told them I was inviting a boy I wanted them to meet. I knew they wouldn't approve of Marc not being Asian. But being Mexican was even worse because for some reason, my dad had always sort of disliked Mexicans. So I blurted out that Marc was Italian. When he came to the party, my parents loved him and thought he was polite. My room even suggested he meet us at the mall the next day so they could get to know him better, I'd forgotten to tell Marc about my lie, though, and during dinner at the food court he mentioned that his parents were from Mexico. My parents didn't say anything just then, but after Marc left, everything exploded. "I didn't raise you to date a Mexican!" my dad yelled, as if it were a dirty word. I couldn't believe he was changing his opinion about Marc just because of his ethnicity. I argued with him for days, but he just kept saying things like Mexicans are lazy and vulgar and I could do better.

After a couple of weeks, I started questioning my relationship with Marc. I just wasn't sure it was worth all the stress my family was putting me through. I started treating him differently too. Like, when he'd put off doing his homework, all of a sudden I saw it as laziness. And if he told a rude joke, I'd say, "You're so crude!" Marc was like, "What's going on? Why are you letting your dad brainwash you?" But I didn't see what was happening. All I knew was that I was miserable. I was always exhausted because I'd be up crying all night. I had no appetite and was losing a lot of weight. It was just too much to handle, so in June I broke up with Marc.

I thought I'd feel better afterward, but even though my parents were happy, I was more depressed than ever. It felt like something was missing from my heart. So without telling my parents, I went to see Marc a week later and asked him to take me back. We were both so happy, we were in tears. I couldn't believe he forgave me after how badly I'd treated him. But that just goes to show what an amazing person he is.

Marc and I have been together for two and a half years now, and my family still has no idea. They just think I haven't met a guy I like yet. But Marc's family has been so supportive. They've helped us keep our cover, and senior year, we saw each other practically every day. I do feel conflicted, like I'm living two lives. But I know in my heart I'm doing the right thing. Choosing to be with Marc was the moment I became my own person.

This September, Marc and I started college an hour and a half apart. It's so nice not having to sneak around to see each other on weekends. My parents have gotten used to the idea that I may want to date outside of my race, but I just don't feel ready to tell them about Marc and me yet. I'm waiting until they see me as more of an adult. Through all of this, though, I've learned something important: Love really is color-blind. And no matter what you're raised to believe, your heart always tells you the truth.


"i was molested in my high school bathroom"

Nikol Castro, 18, had always felt safe in her small town. But one day a strange man appeared in the least likely place--and left her terrified.

In September 2005, I'd just started my senior year of high school in Satellite Beach, Florida, a quiet retirement town about an hour east of Orlando. I'd worked hard to graduate a year early and planned to take classes at the Paul Mitchell beauty school. My goal is to own my own hair salon one day--but first I wanted to enjoy my last year of high school. I was looking forward to hanging out on the beach a lot with my friends and my boyfriend, Nathan. He was already in college, but we'd been dating for about seven months, and I was really excited to take him to my senior prom.

But just a few weeks into the school year, something happened that I never would have expected. At 9:55 a.m. on September 12, I asked my geometry teacher for a bathroom pass. I walked to my school's outdoor portable bathroom, which is basically a trailer with five stalls inside. I went into the first stall and had just started texting Nathan when I heard a thump on the floor outside of my stall. When I leaned down to take a look, my heart stopped. Four stalls over, there was a man staring right back at me--and he blew me a kiss. I had no idea what he wanted, but I knew I had to get out of there fast. But before I could, the man's head suddenly popped in from under my stall door. Within seconds, he'd crawled under and was standing in the stall with me.

I was terrified--I thought he was going to rape or kill me. But I thought if I screamed I'd just make him angry, so I tried to stay calm. He didn't speak very good English, so he signaled me to lift up my shirt. When he started kissing me and touching my breasts, I felt disgusting. I tried to get him to stop by saying that my teacher was going to come looking for me soon, but he didn't listen to me. He just kept kissing me and saying things like "shhh," "beautiful," and "yum."

He was standing in front of the stall door, blocking it so I couldn't get away, when all of a sudden he ripped my gold charm necklace from my neck. It was a gift from Nathan, but I said, "This is my mother's, and it's really important to me," hoping he'd feel bad and let me keep it. Luckily, it worked--he dropped it to the floor. But then things got worse. He told me to pull my underwear down, and then he tried to stick his fingers inside of me. I backed away and curled up within myself to keep his hands from touching me, but the stall was so cramped, it was hard to keep away from him. When he started to undo his pants, I freaked. I was afraid if I screamed he'd get mad and act more violent, so instead I shoved him. That seemed to shock him a bit--he kissed me once more and said, "Don't tell anyone. Thank you. I love you." Then he crawled back under the stall and left.

Once he was gone, my first thought was to get dressed--but I was so shocked, I just started crying. After a few minutes, though, I managed to pull my pants up, fix my shirt, grab my necklace, and leave. As I walked back to the main school building, I felt so violated, humiliated, and disgusting. And I just couldn't believe that this had just happened in my school bathroom.

There was another girl walking toward the bathroom as I was leaving, and I grabbed her arm and screamed, "Did you see that man?" She said, "Yes," so I yelled, "He touched me! Come with me!" as lied her to the dean's office. Then I told the dean everything that had happened.

The dean alerted the school police officer, who immediately called for backup to help find the guy. I was relieved that the police were there, but I was still so shaken up that I couldn't stop crying. Over the next hour or so, the police focused on trying to catch the man who had molested me. I gave them a description of my attacker, and they flew a helicopter over the area to try to spot him. But they didn't find him.

I finally called my mom and told her what had happened. She rushed over to the school to pick me up, and when she got there I just felt so ashamed. Somehow, I felt like this whole thing was my fault for asking for a pass out of class to begin with. All I wanted to do was go home, take a shower, and sleep.

I realized Nathan was probably wondering where I was, since I'd suddenly stopped texting him in the bathroom earlier. But I was too upset to call him. Later that night, he got worried and called my mom's cell phone. She told him what had happened--but I just couldn't bring myself to talk to him. I still felt so dirty, So around 8 p.m., I crawled into bed.

The next day, I slept in and didn't go to school. My mom was nervous about me going back so soon, and I was too--especially since my attacker was still on the loose. Nathan came over later that day, and it was good to see him. We didn't talk about what had happened--l just wanted the memories to go away. For a few days, it was hard to hug or kiss him. I couldn't even tell him everything until a week later. But he was so supportive from the start, and I felt so secure being with him. He and my mom helped me build up the strength to return to school. It was about two weeks after the attack that I woke up and told myself, "Listen, I have to graduate. I can't let some man ruin my senior year." I went back to school, and by mid-October, things seemed to be back to normal. I still took a friend with me every time I went to the restroom, though, and I never used the portable bathrooms again.

Later that month, the Satellite Beach police called. They'd had a hunch that my attacker might have been working at one of the construction sites near my school, so they'd gone through the work logs of those sites to identify employees who hadn't shown up at work the day of my attack. They had pinpointed one who matched my description--Oscar Perez. The 35-year-old had a friend drive him to Miami after he saw the police sketch of him on the news. From there, he flew to Kingston, New York, where cops found him. It turns out Perez had been living in the U.S. illegally, and he was arrested on the spot.

My mom and I rushed to the station, and I looked at. a photo lineup. As soon as I saw number six, I knew it was the guy who had attacked me. It was Perez. When police questioned him about the attack, he confessed. He said he'd wandered onto my campus while working construction nearby. I was so relieved that he was caught and that I didn't have to worry about him lurking on the streets anymore.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to speak at Perez's plea agreement meeting in February 2006 because I had to work that day. There were some things I wanted to say to him, though, so I wrote a letter for the judge to read out loud in the courtroom. I wrote about how difficult it was to have to doubt the safety of my own school--a place where I should have felt protected. I told him how much pain he caused me and how I feel like always have to watch my back now. I have no idea how Perez reacted to my letter, but the state attorney called me later that day to tell me that he was going to get at least five years in prison. That day, February 17, also happened to be my one-year anniversary with Nathan, so we made dinner to celebrate. It was the end of that chapter of my life. Now it was time to begin a new one.

Perez ended up getting 10 years in prison, which made me so happy. It's been a year since I was attacked, and I rarely think about that awful day anymore. I'm a student at the Paul Mitchell beauty school now, and Nathan and I are still going strong. I admit, my arm hair still rises when I'm using a public bathroom and I hear a strange noise. Most of the time I have Nathan stand outside of the bathroom and wait for me, which makes me feel better, but I know I won't need him to do that forever. I'm getting stronger every day. And I'm not going to let Oscar Perez--or anyone else--take away my independence.



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