By BRENNA GRITEMAN
Elise Billmaier’s magenta hair matches her personality.
The 18-year-old senior at Findlay High School laughs often and has the kind of smile that makes you want to smile, too. She’s a gifted artist, plays acoustic and electric guitars and recently took up knitting. At her home, explaining the various disorders she’s been diagnosed with in the past two years — including acute leukemia just days earlier — her spirits were high.
Elise left the last full week of February for the James Cancer Center at the Ohio State University to undergo a month of chemotherapy. Speaking just days before her departure she said brightly, “But I won’t lose my hair or anything.” Assuming everything went well with the treatment, Elise’s mom Anna said her daughter would take a two-week break before proceeding to a bone marrow transplant. This will require another month of hospitalization.
Back at home, family and friends have been busy organizing a benefit to help cover Elise’s medical expenses. A spaghetti dinner, catered by the Olive Garden, will be held from 5-7 p.m. March 29 at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, 750 Bright Road, in the activities center. Dine-in and carryout are available, and a limited number of tickets will be available at the door.
Contact Elise’s aunt, Nancy Jakubiec, at 419-424-0419 to buy tickets, which are $8 apiece and will go toward the Elise Billmaier Medical Fund (there is a Facebook page of the same name).
Donations to the fund can be made at any Fifth Third Bank location or mailed to The Elise Billmaier Medical Fund, P.O. Box 1801, Findlay, OH 45839. A gofundme.com account has also been set up for the Elise Billmaier Transplant Fund.
The whole ordeal started two years ago, when Elise was diagnosed with hidradenitis suppurativa (HS), an auto-immune disorder that attacks the skin, causing open wounds and seeping sores. The diagnosis has since been upgraded topyoderma gangrenosum, acne, and suppurative hidradenitis (PASH) and is so rare, the James Center has only ever seen 10 cases of the disorder.
“It’s very painful,” Elise said, adding she’s been using essential oils such as tea tree and myrrh mixed with coconut oil to help ease the pain.
In November, Elise started having unexplained fevers and chills, weakness, bruising and extreme fatigue. She was soon diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disease that has since progressed into acute leukemia. Elise explained MDS is more commonly seen in older people in their 70s and comes on slowly. With the rate hers presented itself, doctors are looking into the possibility of genetic causes.
She was still going to school and working at Wolfie’s Nuts regularly in early December, pushing through her fevers so as not to miss out on senior year with her friends. Finally, she told her mom something was seriously wrong and that she needed to see a doctor.
“That’s when I knew something was really wrong, because she was missing school and work and couldn’t get up and go,” Anna said.
Elise’s family doctor couldn’t admit her to the hospital and sent her to the emergency room at Blanchard Valley Hospital. Based on her low blood counts, Elise was admitted to the ICU for two days, then sent to the James Center for further examination.
When her white blood cell counts drop, Elise needs to see a doctor immediately because her body cannot fight off infections.
“We’re back and forth to Columbus a lot. We have not one doctor, but many,” Anna says.
Visitors to the home must wear a face mask, just to be safe. That includes Elise’s tutor, a counselor at Findlay High School who comes twice a week for 90-minute sessions. Elise needs just two classes to graduate, literature and government, and the tutor administers tests and assigns homework.
Elise has already been accepted to Capital University in Columbus, where she plans to start next fall. She’ll major in art therapy — a field she’s always wanted to go into but is now getting first-hand training in. Art and music therapy are both offered at the James Center, and Elise and her mom have utilized the programs to paint with acrylics and write stories based on pieces of music. Before a recent procedure, the music therapist came to work early to play special music for Elise.
“It helps with stress. It takes your mind off things,” Anna says of the programs.
After lots of testing of friends and family members, a match has been found for Elise’s bone marrow transplant. She won’t know anything about the donor — not age, gender or where they’re from — but, if the donor is willing, they can meet one year after the transplant.
Elise hopes to someday meet her donor to express her gratitude: “I would love to thank them.”