At the age of 12, Jenny Eyre has made decisions few adults face in their life-times. And her sixth-grade classmates in Frederick County have built a network of support to pull Jenny through an ordeal that can be terrifying to a person of any age.
Jenny is being treated for cancer of the neck, a malevolent disease that first appeared when she was 10 years old. In October, in hopes of ridding her neck of recurring tumors, surgeons removed her larynx and vocal cords. Jenny lost her voice and now she communicates with a portable electrolarynx that creates an artificial, computer-like voice for her.
Through several surgeries, nauseating chemotherapy treatments, the loss of her blond hair and now the loss of her voice, Jenny has impressed everyone around her with her courage, determination and quick wit. But what she wants more than anything, says her mother, Lyn Eyre, "is to be treated like everyone else."
It's a tall order, but one that Children's Hospital and the Washington Hospital Center are working on. Last week the hospitals sent a speech therapist, social worker and nurse to Jenny's school in New Market to explain what Jenny has gone through and to pave the way for her return to school after a four-month absence.
Sharon Albinson, a Washington Hospital Center speech therapist, talked to Jenny's class about her new voice. She believes that if children are given a reasonable explanation for something unusual, they will accept it.
As Albinson explained the anatomy of the larynx and why Jenny's vocal cords were removed, the youngsters gave up their giggling and whispering, and listened raptly. Then she gave them a chance to experiment with an electrolarynx themselves, to get a sense of how Jenny's new voice works.
"Hey, that's neat," one boy called out, as Albinson demonstrated the high-pitched voice that sounds like R2-D2.
"Does it feel different? Does it hurt?" asked a solemn-faced child. Albinson reassured her that it is not painful for Jenny to use the electrolarynx and that Jenny's "still just a regular kid."
Jenny, who lives with her parents and two older sisters in Monrovia, returned to school Friday.
"She had a fantastic day," said her father, Lewis Eyre. "She was expecting the worst and it turned out the best. The kids were glad to see her and they were anxious to see this new way of speech."
One of Jenny's worries, Eyre said, was that she no longer would be able to whisper in the back of the classroom with her friends. But he said one friend has learned some sign language and the two of them managed to talk behind the teacher's back, just like old times.
A few days before returning to class, while she was in Children's Hospital for chemotherapy, Jenny talked about her fear that she might not be readily accepted at school.
"Last year, my friends in class got used to it," she said, referring to the changes in her appearance, such as baldness and a weight loss, since developing cancer. "But I didn't have this," she added, pointing to the beige, plastic electrolarynx she holds against her neck when talking.
Eyre credits the easy transition to the presentation by the hospital staff members to Jenny's class and teachers. But an immeasurable influence was the matter-of-fact way in which Jenny's friends rallied around her.
The sixth graders are new to New Market Middle School this year, and several of her friends worried that older children would tease Jenny or pull off the scarf she wears to cover her baldness.
"If they do," 11-year-old Kyra Testerman declared firmly the day before Jenny returned, "we're here to stick up for her."
Jenny's illness has generated a spirit of protectiveness and support not often found in children at an age when teasing and unwitting cruelty can be the norm. At the same time, it has drawn out fears in these youngsters that are difficult for many adults to handle. They worry about lumps in their own necks, check out books from the library about cancer and are frightened about the idea that, as one boy put it, "cancer can eat you up."
"It can be very scary for kids," explained Nancy Reilly, a Children's Hospital nurse who works with Jenny. "Lots of kids think: Could this happen to me and would I look like this? If you explain (the disease) to them, they're not afraid."
While Jenny's friends may have grown up a little faster because of their exposure to cancer at an early age, Jenny has confronted problems most adults pray they will never face.
From the first discovery of a tumor in her neck two years ago, Jenny has been informed about every aspect of her disease and treatment. She participated in the decisions to receive chemotherapy and the laryngectomy, fully aware of the consequences.
Jenny also is very straightforward with strangers who are curious about her unusual voice. Her father said she recently had an experience in a shopping mall in which an adult followed her and stared at her. "Finally," Eyre said, "she turned and said to him, 'Why are you following me and staring at me? This is the way I talk.' "
In many ways, however, Jenny is every bit the 12-year-old. She adores roller skating, stuffed animals and having friends sleep over, and her blue eyes perk up when she talks about the Himalayan kitten she received for Christmas. She has a lively sense of humor and she once told a social worker that the worst part about losing her voice is that she can't laugh heartily when she hears a good joke.
Jenny's electrolarynx is a temporary measure that enables her to communicate until she learns esophageal speech, a technique in which she will swallow air and then regurgitate it to produce a vibration in the throat that creates sound.
The road ahead for Jenny also includes chemotherapy at Children's Hospital for one week out of every month. Although she will feel seriously ill those weeks and miss school during the treatment, Jenny and her family are anxious to create the most normal life possible for her.
"School is the occupation of a child," said Children's Hospital social worker Kathy Connell. "It's important for her to get back to school, because we are planning on a life and a future for her."