Elizabeth teaching at BAE.  Photo credit:  Rosalie O'Connor

Elizabeth teaching at BAE. Photo credit: Rosalie O’Connor

I got a message from Elizabeth’s dad correcting some of the mistakes I had made in my earlier post about the death of Elizabeth Maria Walsh.  Just to set the record straight…

1.  Elizabeth was given six months to live, not two.  I got the wrong information from a mutual friend.  Regardless, she proved the doctors wrong.  She went on to live over two years because, as her father said in his eulogy, “she kicked cancer’s ass.”  I’ve pasted said eulogy at the end of this blog.  (Reading it, you’ll see where where Elizabeth got her spunk!)

Mr. Walsh shared with me that Elizabeth didn’t tell her family she’d been given this prognosis until six months later, when she was very much alive and spending the day with them at Disneyland.

2.  Her doctor wanted her to get surgery, not chemo, instead of doing In the Heights.  I mixed this up because at first when her cancer came back she told me it was inoperable.  However, her family sought a second opinion from a Dr. Fojo at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C.  He is the one who urged surgery right away.  However, he warned her that the surgery may not be successful, and that even if it were, the cancer could still return.  So Elizabeth faced a huge decision.  She chose to do the show.  This reminds me of another one of Elizabeth’s favorite quotes:  “I don’t want people who want to dance.  I want people who have to dance.” — Balanchine.

To be truly alive, Elizabeth had to be dancing.

3.  Elizabeth didn’t have cancer in her eye.  But she did get a really terrible stye in her eye as a side effect.  As if things weren’t bad enough.

I was very upset to find out that I got any of this wrong, and I apologize to everybody.   All I can say in my defense is that when your friend is giving you really, really, really bad news, you can get overwhelmed.

But I was so happy to get a few more Elizabeth stories from the very kind and gracious Steven Walsh, Elizabeth’s Papi.  He shared his eulogy with me and gave me his permission to share it.  I couldn’t make the memorial service in Miami, so I was really grateful to get to read it.  Cancer wasn’t Elizabeth’s first struggle.  She was a fighter her whole life.

 

Steven Walsh’s Eulogy

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

This is one of Elizabeth Maria’s favorite quotations and a very powerful one. Many people post philosophical quotes on social media or talk about them, but few people actually live their lives accordingly. Elizabeth Maria is not one of them. Elizabeth started living her dreams even before she knew who Eleanor Roosevelt was.

Fatima and I knew that Elizabeth, from an early age, wanted to be a performer. Elizabeth used to watch VCRs of her older sister Kathy’s performances at “The Dance Center.” She would be acting out the parts in front of the television. At a very young age we enrolled her at the studio, where she fell in love with Broadway Musicals. On stage her smile never left her face. Nothing could stop her, not even her little brother Steven making faces at her from the first row hoping she would mess up her lines!

After a few years at The Dance Center, Elizabeth wanted to increase her ballet skills as she knew dance was the way for her to achieve her dreams. Elizabeth took classes at several studios before she settled on Mencia Pikeras. Since she started a little late in classical ballet, she was often overlooked. Even though all of her dance friends always told her that she had the best feet they have ever seen!

She was accepted in Southwood Middle School Arts Magnet Program, but in theatre and not dance. Elizabeth kept dancing at Mencia Pikeras trying to catch up on her dancing skills. Finally in the 7th grade she was able to transfer from theatre to dance.

Next came New World School of the Arts. Elizabeth auditioned for the dance program, but wasn’t accepted. Most students would have accepted their fate and moved on with high school life. Not Elizabeth! Elizabeth knew what she had to do. She had a plan, she always had a plan. Elizabeth began to research summer dance programs that could prepare her for NWSA. Elizabeth found a program she wanted to attend sponsored by the Boston Ballet and she applied. Then she handed me the bill! I tried to speak to her, but when I started to tell her that we might not be able to afford it she burst into tears, genuine tears of sorrow. Her dreams were officially destroyed, her life was ruined. I had ruined her life! Needless to say we found a way for her to attend! She flew to Boston by herself, attended the program and came back a much stronger dancer.

After the summer was over, she attended Killian High School and continued to dance at Mencia Pikeras. She never took her eye off her target: NWSA. Auditions came around again and this was her last chance. Do or die. If you didn’t make it in by your sophomore year, your window of opportunity was closed. Very, very few students were accepted as incoming sophomores. Elizabeth as always was one of the very few.

But coming into NWSA as a sophomore, had its stigmas. You weren’t good enough to make it in as a freshman. You weren’t a natural. Her teachers already had their favorites and she felt like she was somewhat of an outsider. Did this deter Elizabeth? Not a chance. She continued to dance and progress. By her senior year she was a much stronger dancer – with great feet! Along came time to audition for scholarships! Few of her teachers felt she was strong enough of a dancer to receive any scholarship. Wrong again, Elizabeth received 3 scholarship offers! One at a Los Angeles based dance school; one at SMU in Dallas, Texas and one at Marymount College in New York City. Elizabeth knew that the center of the dance world was in New York City – the Big Apple – and chose to attend Marymount College. At age 18 she moved by herself to NYC. Pastor Leo prayed and tried to convince her to stay in Miami, but Elizabeth had nothing to do with it. This was her opportunity. She was laser focused. Elizabeth knew what she wanted. Little did I know that Elizabeth and Kelly were conspiring since middle school to conquer the dance world and move to NYC.

NWSA is an extremely advanced Arts school and when she got to Marymount, Elizabeth was disappointed at the school, her fellow students and the quality of dance. She was so far advanced dancewise, class bored her. And for the first time, she felt the cruelty of prejudice from her roommates. She would call me crying saying that her roommates would tease her and call her the little Mexican girl. Elizabeth was hurting inside and left Marymount, but did this set back stop her? No. Elizabeth then began taking classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She was offered a scholarship, but before she could begin dancing at Ailey she fractured her foot on the dance floor.

At this point Elizabeth lost some but not all of her passion for dance. She wanted an education! Her other passion was English Literature. She enrolled at Hunter College. The little “Mexican” girl would graduate with honors with a degree in English Literature. As she was going to school, she never fully giving up dance. She became a ballet teacher for little children at the prestigious Ballet Academy East. Elizabeth excelled as a ballet teacher as she did at everything in life. She had an immense impact on many of these children’s lives, many of whom still know her and are mourning her loss today.

As Elizabeth was about to graduate, she got the itch to dance again. She never was cut out for a 9 to 5 job! I was in NYC at the time and we had a nice long conversation about this. I knew she had her mind made up. She just wanted my approval. Being her biggest fan I told her it was now or never. She was far behind her peers, but having rested for 3 years she was ready to go. As usual, she was all in, but the road was not smooth. She auditioned, auditioned and auditioned. She always made the first few cuts, but never got the call back. Never to give up she continued to train.

Then Revolucion Latina, a dance company dedicated to helping Latin youths in NYC, was conducting auditions for a performance in conjunction with a visiting dance company D1 from Lima, Peru. Elizabeth finally got her big break. Being the magnetic personality she is; Elizabeth made many friends at the rehearsals including the director and dancers from D1. D1 offered her the opportunity to dance with the company for 6 months in Lima, Peru. Being the adventurer she is, off she went to dance in Peru. Salsa, tango, flamenco and modern dance with a Latin flair.

She soon found out not all that glitters is gold. Elizabeth got to learn Latin inspired dance, improve her Spanish and delved into a new culture, but she was an outsider to her artistic directors. Elizabeth was an American in Peru. Elizabeth never received the work visa she was promised and as a result, she couldn’t perform professionally as much as she wanted. Elizabeth was an illegal American in Peru. To support her, I flew down to Peru and saw her perform for the first time since high school. What a joy to see Elizabeth on stage again!

Elizabeth finished her six-months in Peru and flew back to Miami for the holidays. This was just a temporary lay over as she had her sights set on Los Angeles. Off she flew to Los Angeles to live with her sister Kathy and pursue her dream of performing on a Broadway stage. Los Angeles was stepping stone on her way back to NYC. Elizabeth finally stated to make head way in the pursuit of her dreams. Elizabeth immediately started making friends in the dance and musical theatre world. What a surprise! Dance teachers started taking interest in her. She performed in a local production of Bye Bye Birdie and was about to perform in Hairspray. She was on her way!

Then came that fateful day; Memorial Day Weekend 2012. Elizabeth called us saying her legs were swollen. Not just swollen, but something is very wrong swollen. Off she went to the Urgent Care Facility to see a doctor. The doctor noticed her potassium levels were low, gave her an injection to reduce the swelling. Elizabeth went home feeling better and went to work the next day. Mid morning her legs swelled up again and she could hardly walk. Again off to the Urgent Care Center where her and her doctor agreed that she was not going home until they found out what was wrong with her. Blood clots negative, x-rays negative, infection negative. Perplexed, the doctor ordered a CAT scan. After the doctor saw the scans, he went to see Elizabeth with a different look on his face. The doctor had discovered a mass in her abdomen. Elizabeth called me and said “Papi, this just got serious.”

Fatima, Steven Jr and I all immediately flew out to Los Angeles to be with her. Elizabeth had no idea Steven Jr was coming as we were unsure we could buy a ticket for him. The joy in Elizabeth face when she saw her brother was priceless.

The doctors and surgeons quickly diagnosed her condition “Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma” a very rare, but aggressive cancer. Only 200 to 300 people a year are diagnosed in the United States every year. Elizabeth was one in a million. Surgery was quickly arranged. She wasn’t able to perform in the musical Hairspray.

On the day of the surgery, Fatima, Kathy, Steven Jr and I all went to the hospital early in the morning. Elizabeth was brought in to be prepped for surgery. We were then let in to see Elizabeth. Expecting to see her scared and fearful, we found her smiling ear to ear. Always the optimist, she knew that after the surgery the tumor would be removed and she would begin to recover and be herself again. Her courage was unbelievable.

Dr Philip Haigh a very straight forward and skilled surgeon was to perform the operation. Elizabeth in her usual way broke him down and she was soon to become his favorite patient. Unfortunately, during the surgery a nodule in her lung was removed and biopsied. The nodule tested positive for ACC. Elizabeth had stage IV cancer. Elizabeth’s reaction: A stage is a place to dance on, not a form of cancer!

After she recovered from the surgery, Elizabeth immediately underwent 6 rounds of chemotherapy from hell. Her body was destroyed. She then took a few months off to recover and underwent a second surgery to remove the rest of the nodules from her lungs. Subsequent scans revealed no new growths. She was now in remission! Celebration! It was time to start training again. She hired a personal trainer and began the long and tedious process of rebuilding the strength in her body. Hour by hour, day by day, week by week, she labored.

In June, Elizabeth decided to take a break and visit us in Miami. During her visit, she complained of back pains. We thought it might be kidney stones or some other ailment. It was too soon after she was declared in remission. I flew back to Los Angeles with Elizabeth. After we arrived the pain got worse. We went to the emergency room. A scan reveled the cancer had returned.

Elizabeth was admitted to the hospital that night. The next morning I went down to the cafeteria to get coffee. Who did I meet in the cafeteria; Dr Haigh. He was in the cafeteria that morning as his surgery was cancelled. I told him Elizabeth was back in the hospital. He said he would look at her chart and come see us right away. The stars had aligned I thought. As promised Dr Haigh reviewed the chart and came to visit Elizabeth. Expecting Dr Haigh to say we can schedule surgery for next week, he told us that the tumor was inoperable. I was devastated. Dr Haigh left and started crying in Elizabeth’s arms. A few minutes later Elizabeth said “Papi stop crying. I’m still here.” I was more scared than she was.

Radiation was given to slow the growth of the tumor. Soon after her radiation treatment was over, Elizabeth was back in the gym and dance studio pursuing her dreams. A minor setback. Fatima and I flew back to Miami, while Elizabeth stayed in Los Angeles and continued to work like she never had before. She was in the best shape of her life. By the way, Elizabeth also enrolled in grad school at USC and set up her charity Dancers with Cancer, to help patients heal through the pursuit of dance. As we found out, dealing with cancer is as much mental and it is physical.

Then came the auditions for “In the Heights”, Elizabeth’s absolute favorite musical. After losing all of her hair from chemotherapy in 2012, she purposely kept it short so she could stand out at auditions. She turned a negative into a positive. At the audition, she made it to the final round. The casting director brought Elizabeth and another dancer to the stage also with short hair. She said I can’t keep both of you. The music started. Guess who won?

As Elizabeth was rehearsing for the show, she had another CAT scan done. The tumor had grown and a new one had appeared. Her oncologist said there was nothing else she could do for her. We immediately reached out to several cancer centers, which led us to Dr Tito Fojo at the National Cancer Institute. We travelled to Washington DC to see Dr Fojo. After 5 minutes with Elizabeth, Dr Fojo fell in love with her. He knew immediately Elizabeth was one of a kind. We talked about many things at the appointment, including Quality of Life. Elizabeth understood this concept, but I did not until that day. I thank Dr Fojo immensely for this.

Dr Fojo said that surgery was still a possibility, but it had to be done immediately. There were no guarantees if the surgery was successful, the cancer wouldn’t return. One thing was certain; surgery would interfere with Elizabeth’s dream musical which was about a month away. Elizabeth faced the biggest decision of her life. She choose her dreams. Quality over quantity. The show must go on.

We all flew out to Los Angeles to see Elizabeth perform as a featured dancer in “In the Heights” Fatima and I stayed in Los Angeles for the entire 2 weeks the show ran and went to almost every show. No me digas. Needless to say we were extremely proud to see our daughter, sister and dear friend on stage, not just because of her talent, but also because we knew how hard she worked and the obstacles she faced. Elizabeth never let her cast members know she had cancer until they got to know her first. She wanted to get them to know Elizabeth, not the girl with cancer.

After the show, Elizabeth’s health began to slowly decline, but she continued to train. Elizabeth auditioned and was accepted into Dana Foglia Dance Mentorship Program in Los Angeles. Dana Foglia Dance Mentorship Program is an elite training program for dancers. Only 12 people are selected for this program out of thousands of applicants. Elizabeth made it to the top.

Elizabeth returned home to Miami for the summer to receive treatment in hopes of returning to Los Angeles in the fall. The mentorship program begins next week. Once she arrived in Miami, Elizabeth’s health continued to decline. Additional scans were taken. We sent the scans to Dr Fojo for him to look at. Dr Fojo confirmed that Elizabeth had taken the right decision in not having surgery. Are we surprised?

Elizabeth lost her life, but she did not lose her battle to cancer. She kicked cancer’s ass. Cancer never told her what to do. Elizabeth Maria never stopped living her dreams.

 

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams- The world belongs to you!

I love you Elizabeth Maria Walsh.

 

 

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