It took one tweet and a Facebook following of more than 5,000 for Emily Whitehead to become a household name.
The 6-year-old, currently undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is struggling to battle through a relapse in her cancer, which kicked up in February 2012. Her parents, Thomas and Kari, have been actively updating Emily’s Facebook page, “Prayers for Emily Whitehead, a 6-year old fighting leukemia” throughout the past few days with the status of her condition.
As of 8 p.m. Monday — the last update posted by Emily’s father before press time — Emily was sedated on a ventilator and doctors are waiting to see how many T-cells are left this morning. Again, Tom thanked the supporters for their thoughts and prayers, reminding them that the family is not out of the woods yet.
Emily, the THON child of the Penn State chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America, received a T-cell transfusion — the first pediatric patient to receive a transfusion of this kind — on April 17, according to the family’s Facebook page, and has been suffering from complications since Thursday when she was admitted to the CHOP emergency room.
Through social media, the support continued to grow late Sunday night and into Monday as the hashtag “#PrayingforEm” spread through the Penn State community, sweeping Twitter feeds of Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon advocates, as well as former quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno.
Lauren Alessi remembered the first day she met Emily at the THON Hoops basketball game last year.
Alessi, who was a 2012 THON captain for the OPPerations Committee, said Emily was in high spirits during the basketball game, spending time with Penn State students.
“I remember she kept talking about Angry Birds,” Alessi (senior-communication sciences and disorders) said. “She was shy at first, like any other kid she seemed perfectly normal and happy.”
After meeting Emily, Alessi followed her story closely and continued to share Emily’s story before her OPPerations meetings as inspiration.
Alessi has met Emily several more times throughout the year and with each meeting, Emily was all smiles, no matter how many people were around her.
When Alessi heard that Emily’s health took a turn for the worse, she sent an email to her committee members, asking them to keep #PrayingForEm alive by tweeting from their accounts. To her surprise and happiness, everyone continued to promote the hashtag.
Penn State students aren’t the only ones who have spread Emily’s story.
From their dorm room at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, roommates Kristen Fox and Muranda Maurer have been following what has been happening with the little girl from their neighborhood.
Fox and Maurer both live just a few blocks away from the Whitehead family in Philipsburg, Pa., a small town that fell in love with Emily.
Since Emily was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Fox, 19, said nearly everyone in Philipsburg has held fundraisers for Emily ranging from events at the local bowling alley to the country club.
“This whole thing going on with Emily has brought our whole community together,” Maurer, 19, said. “[The Whiteheads] are wonderful people and the whole town is coming together to make things easier for them.”
The pair got their friends from UPJ to send cards to Emily a few moths ago.
Maurer remembers playing games with Emily, recalling that she had a “firecracker” personality and was a pleasure to be with.
Emily still had a fighting personality, even when confined to her hospital bed for days on end, wrote her nurse, Karli Schellenberg, in a Facebook message.
“I’ve been Emily’s nurse at Penn State since the day she and her parents first heard the word ‘cancer,’ ” Schellenberg wrote, unable to speak on the phone during her work shift Tuesday night. “She was originally diagnosed with your ‘run of the mill’ leukemia and was expected to do well.”
But Emily didn’t get off so easy, Schellenberg wrote, as the 6-year-old experienced many uncommon side effects associated with the disease and treatments.
The past four days, documented on Facebook, reflect the up and down nature of Emily’s health, fluctuating throughout the day and allowing family members and friends to follow along with her progress.
A post on Sunday night read: “We are so thankful for all the prayers and support. Em still needs prayers and is still fighting. I feel lucky to call her my daughter. I continue to believe god has a plan for a bright future for Emily.”
And from the support on Twitter Monday night, Emily was on the minds of the Penn State and THON communities, too. Almost every message urged others to retweet and to continue to spread the word.
Though an outcry spread via social media throughout the THON community, THON Overalls and the creator of the hashtag, Becky Salman, declined commenting on the situation out of respect for the Whitehead family.
Back in the hospital, Emily’s nurse remembered just why the support is so important for Emily.
“She is so unique and perfect,” Schellenberg wrote. “Mature beyond six years old. Spend one minute with her and she melts your heart.”