• Bill Althaus: Courageous girl smiled in the face of death

  • I have so many wonderful memories of Ryan Christian, the brave little girl who battled cancer the past three years in a fashion that would make any warrior proud.

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  • I have so many wonderful memories of Ryan Christian, the brave little girl who battled cancer the past three years in a fashion that would make any warrior proud.
    The daughter of former Missouri Mavericks all-star Jeff Christian knew she was sick, but she never let the disease sap a moment of joy out of the 11 years she had with her mom Dorie, dad Jeff, her dogs, cats, fish, hamster and the countless bugs and frogs she collected in her many outdoor adventures.
    She had an inquisitive soul and a smile that lit up a community. And now, she is gone. But anyone who ever met Ryan Christian is a better person for that meeting.
    Whether they saw her on a St. Jude’s commercial with Troy Aikman or Terry Bradshaw or met her in the hallways of the Independence Events Center or Children’s Mercy Hospital, they were greeted with a smile and a presence that was wise beyond her age.
    I can remember writing stories from the office in my home with Ryan sitting on my shoulders, wiggling and giggling and doing everything she could to keep me from getting a column done so we could go to her beloved craft room where she would make a card, paint a picture or create something special for a friend or family member.
    She was one of my wife Stacy’s best friends. Now, I don’t mean a kid-type friend. No, they had a bond that will never be broken, and the only thing that is keeping Stacy and me from totally breaking down is the fact that Ryan is no longer suffering.
    The last time we saw her, before she and her family moved to Columbus, Ohio, to be closer to Grandma Ohio, we gave her a hug. She cried out that it hurt.
    I think it was at that moment that we realized what she was facing on a daily basis and we knew that we would likely never see her again.
    One thing kept her going through the tortuous pain – it was a dream she shared with her family. And that dream came true when she survived long enough to enjoy one final Christmas and her 11th birthday.
    Two small victories, but when you’re staring death in the face, the smallest victories are sometimes the ones that mean the most.
    I was at the Independence Events Center three years ago when Shannon Dvorak, the wife of Mavericks equipment manager Andrew Dvorak, ran onto the ice to get Jeff during a morning practice session.
    Everyone knew something was wrong, but no one knew how the Christian family’s life would change forever. Ryan had collapsed at school, and it took weeks to discover the real cause of her illness.
    Page 2 of 3 - Jeff and Dorie spent hours on airplanes and in cars taking Ryan to and from St. Jude’s Hospital, where they learned she had a rare form of cancer.
    The Christians never gave up hope. I would never speak for them, but I think that deep down inside, we all thought that this story would end with a miracle cure.
    The miracle is that Ryan was able to enjoy three years that doctors said would likely never happen. She and I were driving in the car one day and she asked me about going to our church.
    She said, “When I get to heaven, I want God to know who I am.”
    Jeff brought her to church each Sunday that the family wasn’t traveling to Memphis for treatments and procedures at St. Jude’s, and I hope that God was there to welcome her to a place with no pain, no tubes running through her body and no bouts with chemo-induced nausea.
    I don’t know how many surgeries she had or how many rounds of chemo she underwent, but I do know that I drew inspiration from her and her family on a minute-by-minute basis.
    She inspired me and an entire community. One memorable night, Independence raised more than $70,000 in an amazing show of support at a Mavericks game, and Thursday morning I had a long conversation with David Simoes, a Mavericks defenseman who had to deal with medical problems with his daughter Lucy when she was born prematurely and needed countless blood transfusions.
    Early Thursday night, as the national anthem was being sung before the opening tipoff of the Blue Springs-Blue Springs South girls basketball game at South High School, I got a message from Jeff.
    I didn’t want to read it, because I knew what it was going to say.
    Somehow, and I really don’t know how I did it, I managed to get through the game, interview coaches and players from the Wildcats and Jaguars, and write my story before collapsing into uncontrollable tears.
    Ryan was like the daughter Stacy and I never had. She was razor sharp and had a sense of humor like her old man. She called him Jeffrey and she loved cuddling in his lap and falling asleep as they watched a football or basketball game on the television.
    I am heartbroken and angry and filled with white-hot rage that she is gone. But, I wouldn’t have traded one tear or heartbreak for the joy Stacy and I experienced from Ryan Christian being a part of our lives.
    I just wish she was back on my shoulders, begging me to “quit writing!” so we could go “have some fun,” as I write this column.
    Page 3 of 3 - My tears will soon dry up and disappear.
    But the memories never will.
    Bill Althaus is a sports writer for The Examiner. Reach him at bill.althaus@examiner.net, 816-350-6333 or @AlthausEJC.

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