Editor's Note: Northwestern will honor Katie Crandol prior to its noon CT first pitch Sunday, April 29, when it takes on Ohio State in a Big Ten doubleheader at Sharon J. Drysdale Field.
The first time I met Katie Crandol, it was a sunny Saturday afternoon after our annual open practice. A 16-year-old cancer survivor and aspiring college softball player, Katie and her family had become the newest additions to our team through the Friends of Jaclyn program. As we shared a meal and exchanged stories about our season and their journey, it was apparent to each and every one of us that we were blessed with the opportunity to get know to someone with such a unique perspective on not only softball but also life itself.
A pitcher and first baseman on the Indiana Rebels, Katie began playing travel ball softball at nine-years-old. For six years, she and her Rebel teammates moved up through the age brackets together, and Katie quickly cemented herself as a clutch clean-up hitter. She thrived in pressure situations; always hoping she'd be the one to come up to bat with two outs and runners in scoring position.
"Softball has been a place where Katie has always excelled," says Lisa Crandol, Katie's mother. "It has been her sanctuary when all other things were going wrong. She could play and feel confident and important."
That all changed, however, when Katie began getting headaches in March 2011. Doctors told her she was coming down with the flu, and she was sick for the entirety of her spring break. She battled through practice and a few games, but couldn't handle much of anything else. When her symptoms worsened and an ophthalmologist informed the Crandol family that Katie's optic nerve was swollen, she underwent a CAT scan on April 18 and was taken straight to ICU at the Corner Children's Hospital after the scan showed a 3-inch mass in the right parietal lobe of her brain.
For four days, Katie stayed in ICU. Two days later, on April 26, Katie underwent a seven-hour brain surgery in which the entire tumor was successfully removed but deemed malignant. All Katie remembers from the surgery is talking to nurses about her softball team.
Over the next few days, Katie struggled to get out of bed, suffering two severe seizures as she attempted to move around. With grit, determination and a little help from anti-seizure medication, Katie was able to return home on April 30 and ventured out to watch her high school team play two days later.
"Everyone was very relieved to see me," Katie recalls. "I was very excited to be there and see everyone."
On May 15, Katie started chemotherapy and began undergoing radiation five days a week for nine weeks straight. Over those two months, she would have nine platelet transfusions due to platelet complications. Doctors talked about putting a port into her chest so she didn't have to get an IV every time she went in for transfusions. Katie, however, refused because doing so would prohibit her from playing softball.
"Softball has been my life. I always looked forward to playing and practicing everyday," says Katie." It has taught me to never give up on the things I love to do. Softball has sometimes been a distraction when all I can think about are the bad things and it's been a good way to keep my spirits up and keep me smiling."
In the midst of chemo, the entire Crandol family shaved their heads in the backyard along with Katie. She finished radiation in August and though she was nervous to go back to school, everyone was so happy to see her, she recalls, "it didn't even matter that I was bald." She restarted chemo in September and in January, the Make A Wish Foundation sent her and her family on a much-needed vacation to Hawaii for a week.
"I've learned that I could go through a lot more stuff than I thought I could," says Katie. "I was terrified of needles before my surgery but I've gotten over that fear. No matter what happens, I always find some way to be happy and I make the best out of every situation. I've learned that I couldn't' get through a lot of things without my family."
This past January, the Friends of Jaclyn program paired Katie and her family up with our team. Katie had been a Northwestern fan for a while and been to several open practices in years past, but that open practice in January of this year was the start of a friendship that has only blossomed since.
"We were very excited when we were told NUSB was adopting Katie," says Lisa. "It meant to Katie's dad and I that Katie would have support and mentoring through her treatments as well as softball. It also meant she was going to have sisters to look up to and inspire her."
This year's spring break was much different than last year's for the Crandol family. Katie and her father even made the trip out to South Bend, Ind., for one of our non-conference games against Notre Dame.
"Wearing purple means to me: family, pride and support," says Katie. "I have always been taught that my softball family are my sisters and we do whatever we can for our sisters. I know right now all I can do is proudly wear purple, and I cannot wait until I can come out and support everyone in person. Plus, purple is my favorite color of all time."
Last Thursday marked Katie's one-year "tumorversary," as friends on her Facebook page like to call it. Just five days ago, the Crandol family received incredible news: Katie's latest MRI came back completely clear. We celebrate the fact that there is no recurrent tumor.
In the midst of it all, Katie was released to play softball and battles daily to regain her abilities in the midst of biweekly chemo, numerous medical tests and doctors' appointments. She gets up in the morning, packs her bat bag for practice or games, puts a smile on her face, and "makes it work," as the Crandol's like to say. And I couldn't agree more. Having the opportunity to get to know Katie has allowed me to see first-hand the fight that she embodies. To get to know her is to understand what it means to defy the odds and to never give up.
"Every softball player has that story of being down by five in the bottom of the seventh and everybody else is sure the game is done, except for the team behind," says Lisa. "I believe softball has given her an unstoppable will to win."