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On February 21, Penn State students will begin the annual 46-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon to raise funds in the fight against pediatric cancer. THON was first organized in 1973 by a group of students looking to add excitement to a dreary February in central Pennsylvania, and for a way to give back to the community. Today, Penn State's THON continues to be the longest dance marathon in the country. It has grown to engage more than 15,000 students each year and has inspired other university, high school, middle school, and elementary school students across the nation to start dance marathons of their own all in the hopes of conquering pediatric cancer.
Courtney Jarrett loved going to Penn State football games with her family and cheering on the team. She dreamed of one day attending the University and being a part of the Penn State college experience. But at 15, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and within a month, she was gone, never to hold that Penn State degree in her hands. Her sister Tiffaney, twenty months younger, would carry on the dream for her by attending the University and by dancing for THON 2014.
Tiffaney, 18 and a first year student from Mill Hall, PA, says her sister’s diagnosis came as a shock to everyone. She hadn’t had any obvious symptoms or been complaining. In fact, she had just gotten home from cheer camp. She was fatigued and sleeping a lot, but that was to be expected. Cheer camp is tough. When she began vomiting after a few days, her mother thought maybe she just had the flu. Local doctors sent Courtney to the Williamsport hospital where another set of doctors found something wrong with her white blood cells. The next day she was sent to Hershey Medical Center and diagnosed. She would not return home. She would pass away in just over a month’s time.
Doctors suspected Courtney had leukemia for about a month before it was definitely diagnosed. They began treating her right away. She was on the cancer wing at Hershey Medical for two days when her kidneys and liver started to fail. She was then moved to the ICU where she stayed for two weeks. During that time, Tiffaney came to visit and rarely left her sister’s side. “I slept on the floor, on the couch, in the chair beside her, wherever I could find a place, just to be with her.” Courtney was sedated much of the time and on dialysis, but she managed to pull through and was sent back to the cancer wing. About two weeks later, her stomach began retaining fluid, but when doctors attempted to drain it, the fluid moved to her lungs, collapsing one of them. The fluid then shifted to her brain, and just like that, she was declared brain dead. Doctors performed some tests, but she wasn’t coming back. There was nothing to do but take her off of life support.
“We all went in and hugged and kissed her and told her we loved her,” says Tiffaney. “She died almost right after we took her off.” That was the second time Tiffaney allowed herself to cry during her sister’s ordeal; the other when she first saw her in the hospital. Her strength earned her the title “rock” of the family. “I didn’t even cry at the funeral. I needed to be strong for my mom and brother and sister.” Tiffaney says she misses Courtney more than anything but is still grateful for what has come from her illness and death, namely the people she’s met, and the friendships she’s formed, particularly through THON.
Tiffaney and her family learned about THON and the Four Diamonds program while Courtney was undergoing treatment at Hershey Medical Center. “It was the most amazing thing, it helped us out so much,” recalls Tiffaney. The family was so impressed and thankful, they immediately got involved. Courtney was paired with a fraternity and sorority group from University Park through the Adopt a Family program. Organizations like Pi Phi and SAE are dedicated to THON and its mission and spend time with their family or families before, during, and after THON weekend, including pre-THON events and other fundraising activities. The program provides an amazing support system to the children fighting the disease and motivates the students to continue their fight for a cure.
Even after she passed away, the two organizations continued to dance for Courtney, and her family continued to raise their own funds for THON. To honor Courtney’s memory on what would have been her 16th birthday, the family held a skating party. All of the money raised from skate rentals and food was donated to THON. Every home high school football game from what would have been Courtney’s sophomore through senior years were “orange outs,” orange being the awareness color for leukemia. “The cheerleaders wore orange bows in their hair that said ‘Remember Courtney,’ and girls from Pi Phi would come up, and we’d walk around with cans to collect money for THON,” remembers Tiffaney.
The bond created between Pi Phi and SAE members and Courtney’s family remains strong, even now, five years later. “One of the dancers from last year, Sammy, is so close with my family that I have come to think of her as a sister. I was so homesick my first semester, so Sammy would come down to visit and bring me things for my dorm, or take me shopping or to dinner and try to ease some of the hurt. And one of the guys from the fraternity will go to my house a lot to hang out with my brother and sister while my mom works the late shift. It’s just so incredible, they are all so amazing.”
Tiffaney says she picked Penn State as her college based almost solely on THON. It was the only college she applied to, and she couldn’t wait to get involved. “I went to the very first meeting and wanted to apply to be a captain right away. But my mom encouraged me to try to be a dancer. She really wanted that.” So Tiffaney filled out the application on the off-chance she’d be selected as a first year student. She was. “It was so awesome when I found out. I called my mom and she thought I was lying at first. I couldn’t even get another word out of her, she was just crying and crying, she was so happy.”
Penn State Altoona dances for the Kratzer family, in support of Collin, a 4-year-old boy diagnosed with medulloblastoma brain cancer at 16 months, but for Tiffaney, it is double duty. “I’ve been pushing myself at the gym and preparing mentally. I know it will be hard, but if I ever feel like I want to give up, I will just think of Courtney and what she went through. I’ll tell myself ‘you can’t give up, Courtney never did, so you can’t either.’”
Tiffaney is so grateful for the support that surrounds her as she gears up for the big event. Friends from Oak Hall where she lives have already booked hotel rooms, along with many of her mother’s friends so they can stay through the weekend and visit. Her uncle is coming down, and perhaps her grandfather might be able to make an appearance. Plus she has Pi Phi and SAE as an extra support pillar. “It just means so much to me. I’m so happy.” She credits THON with helping transform her as a person. Being involved has helped her meet people and become more confident. “I feel like a different person. I have been to the gym every day to train for THON since the first semester, I’ve lost twenty pounds, and I’m still going. I feel so good about myself. It’s making my mom so happy, and I thank being a THON dancer for helping me.”
Tiffaney plans to apply for a captain position next year and will always be on the dance floor as long as her sister is represented by an organization. She hopes her younger brother and sister will get involved with THON if they attend Penn State and help carry on the tradition. She wants her whole family to have a positive effect on others and to inspire them the way others have inspired her.
Tiffaney sees her sister everywhere; in other people, in herself and her younger sister, in the orange monarch butterflies that occasionally float by. She says she likes that in many ways, but it makes her sad in others. “I always wonder, would we be here at college together, would we be sharing a car? I get pretty jealous when I see these close sister relationships, and I think could that have been us?”
This rock of the family will take to the THON dance floor this Friday, February 21. She will dance for Collin and her sister, to celebrate them both, to honor them. “I feel like I’m doing this for her and like she’s by my side. It’s my way of keeping her memory. I wish she were here, I wish she could see me dance for her. I know she would be proud of me.”