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Butte Falls girls roll through rapids

BUTTE FALLS -- Call it bad luck or coincidence, but the collective consciousness of this small town has been shaken by a pair of personal ordeals in consecutive years endured by two girls who play high school sports.

With only 30 to 35 girls at Butte Falls High, the Loggers don't have a large pool to draw from in athletics. Take away two players counted on for major contributions in volleyball and basketball, and the void is hard to fill.

But the sports implications pale in comparison to the life-and-death seriousness of what happened to seniors Amber Hersom and Kristi McClelland. Both athletes survived, and are expected to lead full and normal lives.

Hersom's ordeal began innocently enough in the fall of 1996. A well-liked, 5-foot-10 athlete, Hersom played basketball and volleyball at the varsity level from her freshman year on. On a volleyball road trip, she came down with a sore throat.

What was originally thought to be strep throat, then mononucleosis, turned out to be leukemia -- a sometimes fatal form of cancer of the blood-forming tissues.

It was like someone pulled the rug right out from under us, says Hersom's mother, Julie Freeman. You just deal with one moment at a time, not even a day at a time.

Hersom's reaction to the devastating news was a common one: Why me? It's got to be wrong!

The diagnosis led to a six-month regimen of heavy chemotherapy treatments. Ironically, her first treatment at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland took place the same weekend that the volleyball team -- for which she had started -- opened play in the Class 1A state tournament.

As fall became winter and the volleyball campaign turned into basketball season, Hersom was experiencing the adverse side effects of chemotherapy -- weakness, nausea, loss of hair and drastic weight reduction. The effects from the treatments on her leg muscles were so incapacitating that she had to learn how to walk again.

I was very jealous of other people, says Hersom, now 17. I wanted to be out playing sports and I was stuck inside.

Two other circumstances complicated the healing process. Soon after she began the chemotherapy, Hersom's liver stopped working. She was flown from Medford back to the Portland hospital, where she spent about three weeks overcoming the liver disfunction.

Then in May, Hersom suffered what was thought to be a stroke. She lost the feeling on the right side of her body -- unable to move her arm and leg -- and her speech was slurred. She spent almost a week in a Medford hospital and her functions returned to normal just as mysteriously as they failed.

That's what was really hard because I was helpless and had to rely on people, Hersom says of the entire experience. I went from this independent person to someone left stricken and helpless.

Living in the close-knit community of Butte Falls was advantageous to her recovery. When she returned to town after the liver failure, the reader board at the school read Welcome home Amber and the windows on the old bank building were painted to honor

her. The town raised about $4,000 at various events to help cover costs. Charitable elves left Christmas trinkets at the door each night, she was serenaded with Christmas carols and residents delivered home-cooked meals for the family.

All I could imagine at the time was living somewhere like in Napa, Calif., where we came from, and how alone we would have been, says Freeman. Up here people were very supportive.

Hersom's teammate Karrie VanLandingham went to the extreme of shaving her head and surprised Hersom with a visit while she battling the liver problem in Portland.

I did it so she wouldn't feel left out with no hair, says VanLandingham. It really, really scared me. I knew some kids with leukemia who didn't come out of it and died.

Hersom's recovery consisted of physical therapy, extensive use of herbs and lots of prayer. Butte Falls High School English teacher Marsha Stewart tutored Hersom at home so she could keep up with her studies.

When her disease was diagnosed, Hersom asked former Butte Falls athletic director and volleyball coach Raygina Sizemore to go the school to explain the circumstances of her disease to other students.

I was real emotional and the kids were real emotional, says Sizemore. It was a time for the kids to pull together and dig down within them to help Amber get through it.

Sports gave Hersom motivation during the recovery process.

My big goal was to get back and play volleyball in the fall and then basketball, says Hersom, whose cancer is in remission. There were times I wasn't too sure.

Longtime Loggers girls basketball coach B.J. Rodgers says Hersom was exhibiting great promise as a sophomore player. She was expected to be a key contributor before her junior season was lost to the disease. Regardless, her presence this season has made a difference.

Amber has come back and been an asset, says Rodgers. When she's in the game she hustles, but her legs aren't where they were. Just having her out there is a plus for the kids. I respect her a ton for it.

As 1998 began, Kristi McClelland was two weeks away from graduating high school early so she could get a job that was to help her pay tuition to attend Oregon Tech. McClelland, who holds a 3.43 grade point average and was a class president, had completed her first season of volleyball in the fall and was a senior leader on the basketball team.

On her way to school Jan. 8, McClelland was driving her parents' van with three younger siblings as passengers. The vehicle hit a patch of black ice at a curve on Fish Lake Road about three miles from school and spun out of control. The van skidded off the road, hit some trees and ended up in a ditch.

McClelland, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, was thrown out of the van and ended up unconscious, face-down on the pavement. As the dazed 17-year-old slowly regained consciousness, she could move only her toes and fingers.

I was in shock, says McClelland. I couldn't believe this was happening. It was pretty much like a dream and I just woke up on the pavement.

Her brother and two sisters were unharmed, but McClelland suffered a broken neck and clavicle. She had injured the C-2 vertebrate in her spine, the same one that actor Christopher Reeve severed.

I was told I was lucky, says McClelland. If I would have moved my neck either way, I could have died.

She spent three days in the intensive care unit at Rogue Valley Medical Center, but no surgery was necessary. She was released from the hospital after five days, then went through brief physical therapy treatments.

Besides being required to wear a halo brace until the end of March or early April, McClelland is able to walk and move around, though she's not 100 percent yet.

I'm just glad to have a normal future ahead of me and I can have a family, says McClelland, who graduated early despite the accident.

VanLandingham, McClelland's stepsister, heard about an accident at school, but didn't know who was involved.

My stomach told me it was them, says VanLandingham. I decided not to go down to the accident until I was told Kristi was asking for me. A friend took me down. It looked worse that it turned out. I thought Kristi would never walk again.

Even though McClelland wasn't going to be with the basketball team the entire season, she was making some important contributions. The 5-5, 120-pound guard had already led the squad in scoring and rebounding in several games this year.

Soon after getting out of the hospital, McClelland made an appearance at a girls game. Her presence gave the team a big lift, according to Rodgers.

I was happy to be there and cheer them on, says McClelland. I went out and did the team huddle. I still consider myself part of the team.

Sitting in the bleachers of the old Loggers gym, Rodgers has a hard time hiding the pain when he talks of what happened to the two classmates.

You just deal with it the best you can because there's nothing you can do to change it, says Rodgers, a lifelong Butte Falls resident. The main thing is I hate to see things like this happen to those kids. They were both good athletes.

After a battle with leukemia, Butte Falls senior Amber Hersom's strength has returned and she is back with the Loggers' basketball team. - Photo by Bob Pennell