Margaret Ackley of Blue Springs has terminal cancer and had a dying wish to see her oldest daughter graduate high school.
Her wish was granted on Monday when more than 100 family members and friends gathered at her Blue Springs home to have an early graduation ceremony for Emily Ackley, a Blue Springs High School senior.
Blue Springs High School Principal Dave Adams, Associate Principal Bob Jerome, a few of Emily’s teachers, members of the high school’s choir and even Scottish bagpipe players were among those at the special ceremony. Emily also received her cap and gown and diploma earlier than her graduating class.
“We knew surgery did not go well,” Emily said about her mother’s May 5 operation. “She wasn’t going to make it by the May 25 ceremony.”
What was supposed to be a lengthy surgery to repair a ruptured bowel turned out to be an inoperable outcome: Margaret’s entire abdominal cavity was riddled with cancer.
“I remember the doctor coming out and just saying, ‘bad, bad, bad, bad,’” said Emily’s father, David.
In fact, Emily’s mother was plagued with health problems throughout her entire high school career.
Originally diagnosed with a form of topical cancer during Emily’s freshman year in 2009, Margaret later discovered that she had vulvar dystrophy, a disorder more commonly found in older women, David said. She had a lump surgically removed in that region during Emily’s sophomore year, however, another lump resurfaced that following year. Eventually Margaret had to undergo a vulvectomy, followed by radiation treatment.
But after falling and breaking her arm in 2012, Margaret’s health deteriorated, at a time the family was also dealing with another problem: insurance.
Margaret’s doctors ordered a PET scan, which checks the entire body for cancerous growths, along with the X-ray for her broken arm. The Ackleys at that time found out that Margaret’s health insurance was cancelled due to pre-existing conditions.
“We never had payment issues,” said David about his wife not being covered with insurance. “It was over some form we never filled out in the past.”
He said the insurance company took back the money that covered past medical bills from Margaret’s previous procedures and treatments, which now leaves him to foot all those past bills, in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
However, Margaret insisted to get a biopsy performed from her vulva area to ensure everything was OK. Her doctor at the time refused to see her because she had no insurance. She then had to see another doctor to get the biopsy.
“The nurse later said the biopsy came back negative,” said David.
But in October 2013, doctors at KU Medical Center found something else in Margaret: Cancer had developed in her pelvic area.
“They performed what’s called a pelvic extraction,” he said. “They removed her bladder, her uterus and a portion of her bowels.”
Weeks after the extraction, an opening where the procedure was performed leaked fluid and later became infected. The bacterial infection led to bleeding and a ruptured bowel led to doctors discovering her abdominal cavity filled with cancerous growths.
And on top of all David had to endure with his wife's health, he became a victim of a theft.
“I had about $4,000 worth of tools and equipment stolen from my work trailer,” he said.
David owns a contracting business and was working a job in the Susquehanna area of Independence. The windowless and clamp-locked trailer was left at the job site overnight and he returned to discover that it been broken into.
“They took the most important stuff. Some of what they stole cost a thousand a piece.”
He added that his business insurance offered him $200 after a $1,000 deductible once he made the claim. He also said that he has a job that is supposed to be finished by this Friday. Luckily, he said a buddy of his offered some of his tools to complete the work.
Emily, who cared for her ailing mother, remained strong despite the hardships by excelling academically. She completed her high school education with a 3.97 grade point average, was vice president of Student Senate, ran cross country and track and field and was nominated for prom queen.
At the end of her senior year, she was awarded a total of $34,000 in scholarships. She will attend Truman State University where she wants to earn a master's degree in elementary education.
“I want to become a third grade teacher,” she said. “I used to be a counselor at camps and worked with that age group. Building relationships with those kids made an impact on my life.”
She said Blue Springs High School has been supportive and understanding of her situation. Jerome’s secretary even drove Emily and her prom date to visit her mother in the hospital.
“Blue Springs (High School) cares about their students.”
When asked how she and her family have endured their difficulties, Emily said it has enabled her and her sister to grow up faster and not worry about trivial things, such as breaking up with a boyfriend.
“Everyone has their difficulties. We had our own and we have handled it.”
To help alleviate the medical debt and work equipment loss, David’s sister, who is also a teacher in Lee’s Summit, has set up an online fundraiser where anyone can donate money to help the Ackleys. The link to the website is http://www.gofundme.com/93gn38 .