Who Are We Wednesdays - Leeza Ohl
ALLENTOWN --- There is a famous quote in the movie, Rocky Balboa, where the former heavyweight boxing champ starts off saying, "the world ain't all sunshine and rainbows" and finishes up with, "(in life) it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." Well, you may be hard-pressed to find someone who knows the true meaning of that phrase more than Leeza Ohl.
Ohl was born and raised in Allentown. She attended Whitehall High School but eventually graduated from Bangor. Then, she got her associate's degree in occupational therapy from Lehigh County Community College. Leeza has served for the last 15 years as an Occupational Therapy Assistant at HCR ManorCare in Bethlehem. She also happens to be the mother of a 20-year-old daughter named Kaitlyn and a 14-year-old son named Jack. Ohl says she had always been a pretty active person but she noticed a change shortly after her daughter was born and while she was pregnant with Jack. You might chalk that up to her being a new mom but as Leeza explained that is far from the case.
"Being pregnant, you sort of forget about it (gaining weight). You're gonna gain weight anyway. Well, it sort of dragged on afterwards," says Ohl.
Kaitlyn was born in 2000 and Leeza says after she had her, instead of losing the baby weight, she put on 80 pounds.
"Eventually, I got an ultrasound done (at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest) and (doctors) had seen that my thyroid was abnormal," Ohl explained.
After a year and a half of medications and further testing, including a biopsy, doctors found nodules on her thyroid. They were benign but during a subsequent thyroidectomy it was discovered her thyroid itself was cancerous.
"When I was first told (I had cancer), it was complete shock, denial. LIke nah this can't be real," Leeza says. "They called me a week later to tell me it was papillary carcinoma (the most common form of thyroid cancer). Yet, I didn't need any further treatment because they took the whole thyroid out. I was more relieved that I didn't have to go through chemotherapy (and) that I had an excellent surgeon."
Leeza says the relief was also due to not having to go through what other members of her family previously had to endure with cancer. Yet despite the surgery being successful, Ohl says she remained skeptical.
"(I thought) What happens if it comes back or what happens if it spreads somewhere else," she said.
Life would return to normal for Leeza the next couple years. She got back to her active lifestyle and she says she discovered a renewed purpose. Then in 2005, Ohl's regained energy disappeared and all too familiar concerns came back.
"I started to feel sluggish, tired (because I gained a lot of weight again)," says Leeza. "I had labs rechecked and some of my levels (from various thyroid tests) were abnormal. I panicked and was scared."
This time, Leeza was pregnant with Jack and had heightened concerns. She immediately went to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City (at the request of her aunt Linda who was a cancer patient herself at the facility). There, Ohl had another biopsy and doctors found more than a handful of lumps on her vocal chords.
"We were told there was gonna be a 50/50 chance I would ever talk again," she explained. "Good news was, when they opened me up, they (lumps) were benign so they caught it before they could do any further damage."
Instead of celebrating this time, all Leeza kept thinking about was if the thyroid cancer would return for a third time. Fifteen years later, thankfully it has not returned. However, that has not been the end of Ohl's journey when it comes to cancer.
In July 2016, Leeza's father Frederick WIlliams Sr. was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. Ohl says she was in disbelief.
"We were like no they're wrong. If you would've known my dad, he was very fit and active," she says.
Williams managed to beat it several months later but his doctors had suggested Leeza and her siblings get colonoscopies as a result of her dad's diagnosis. Sure enough, Ohl's test that October revealed she had precancerous polyps which she was able to get them immediately removed. Leeza had another colonoscopy two years later and doctors found and removed more polyps. She has now been advised to get checked every two years with the next one scheduled for this October.
Also in 2018, Williams was involved in a car accident which Ohl says took a major toll on him.
"He was very tired, sluggish. He was in a walker. He spent three days in the hospital," she explained.
Then in July of that year, he was diagnosed with cancer again. This time it was Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia, a rare type of blood cancer. Doctors gave him two years to live if he underwent chemotherapy and only six months without it. However, Leeza never believed her father's cancer would be terminal.
"(She thought) He'll beat it. He was my Superman. Unfortunately this time, the cancer was his Kryptonite," Leeza sadly said.
The cancer had run its course just three weeks after Williams was made aware it even existed and two days before he was supposed to begin chemotherapy treatments. He was 78-years-old.
The following February, Leeza noticed her son Jack was beginning to get abnormally tired. At first, she passed it off as him being exhausted from playing indoor football. Then one day, he came home from school and had a high fever. Jack was tested for the flu and strep throat over the next couple days but everything came back negative. Leeza finally took him to the pediatrician later in the week where she and his doctor found red spots all over his body. Jack had a complete blood count test done and three hours later the family was told he needed to be admitted to the ER as soon as possible.
"(On the phone) I'm like what's going on and (the doctor) says we think your son has leukemia," Ohl gasped. "I said are you sure you're talking about Jack and she said yes and I immediately broke down. I even told her you have to understand I just buried my dad six months ago from leukemia and it was just silence. She was in shock by what I said."
They went to the hospital where Leeza and her husband waited for the doctor to tell Jack about the cancer. As he was laying down on a gurney, Leeza says Jack cried and asked, "am I going to die like my pop pop?"
The oncologist told the Ohl's Jack had had the cancer at least six months, meaning he and his grandfather may have had leukemia at the same time. The difference the doctor said with Jack was his cancer was curable.
"He said acute lymphoblastic leukemia will be a rough road. We're gonna fight it. It's gonna be a long three and a half years of treatment but I need you to stay positive," she explained.
Fifteen months into chemotherapy, Leeza says Jack gets oral doses daily, periodic spinal injections and chemo through his port.
"It has been a very rough time. He has been hospitalized close to 30 times. He has been in and out of the ICU, he's experienced seizures, complications from chemo and pancreatitis," Ohl said.
This summer, Jack will undergo more invasive genetic testing at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Leeza said watching her son go through this has been the worst cancer experience of her life.
"I did a lot for my father during his 21 days of leukemia, even with his colon cancer," said Ohl. "I always say, I think my father was preparing me for Jack but when Jack was diagnosed it was a total blow."
There are days, Leeza admits, that she wants to shout from the rooftops of the hospital and question why this is happening to her son.
"I'd trade places with him in a heartbeat. My husband would trade places with him in a heartbeat," emphasized Leeza. "I look at these other children that aren't even my own children and I just don't understand (why they have to get cancer)."
Ohl says the only thing that is getting her and her family through this is their positive attitudes and their wishes for a cancer free world.
"I follow other children's cancer journeys. That's just what happens when your child has cancer and it's sad when you see another pass or you find out another child has relapsed," explained Leeza. "What happens then? You're walking on eggshells for a good 5-10 years after he's done with his treatment."
Ohl and her family are also proactive members of the cancer community and have been giving back to those in need for a long time. They take part in Relay For Life. They have also raised money for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley and Every Ribbon Counts among others. Leeza believes it is a necessity given her current circumstance and also the family's history.
"All the different types of donations go a long way for us," she said. "It was hard for us at first for people to ask us do we need anything where we were always giving but we have a hard time asking because now we're in this situation."
So far, Jack is 15 months of the way through the projected three and a half years of treatment and even though it has been a long, grueling fight, Leeza is in her son's corner every step of the way. Like the great Rocky Balboa said, "that is how winning is done."