Birthday brings cause for celebration

Monday, August 27, 2007
Sahara Aldridge sat in a recliner at home with her parents.

Just over a year ago, Sahara Aldridge celebrated her 12th birthday as best she could. But she and her family were scared and plagued with worry about what the future would bring. Just weeks before, Sahara had been diagnosed with a rapidly growing, cancerous tumor on her brain stem.

So when Sahara was able to celebrate her 13th birthday July 24, it was an occasion for celebrating life and the ability to continue hoping for a cure.

"It was monstrous," Sahara's father Shannon said of last month's celebration while the family gathered Saturday in the downstairs room of their Cape Girardeau home, remodeled earlier this year at Sahara's request by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "When you have a doctor in St. Louis tell you that you probably won't make the next birthday and you do, that makes it even more special."

Mentally, Sahara is still the same bright, outgoing, sports-obsessed child she was before her long battle with cancer began. But physically she's changed -- the tumor affects her motor skills while the steroids that are part of her current treatment regimen have caused her to gain weight. The physical affects make speaking more difficult for the young girl, but they don't dampen her enthusiasm.

"It was really fun," Sahara said of her recent birthday party, where scores of friends, family and other Sahara's life has affected -- like nurses and administrators at Saint Francis and Southeast Missouri hospitals and her teachers -- came together to honor her tenacity in the face of frightening odds.

Maria Popp, Molly Martin, Ashlyn McKinley and Sahara Aldridge chatted at Sahara's 13th birthday party last month.

The Cape Girardeau Elks lodge was decked out in an underwater theme of Sahara's request, with goldfish in bowls on every table. The lodge rented the Aldridge family the room for free, said Sahara's mother Amy -- just another example of generosity in a long list of support the family has received during their time of need.

The doctors who diagnosed Sahara said she'd never make it this far, but she and her parents knew otherwise. They've never given up hope, though they have questioned why their family was struck by such trials.

"You wonder constantly, why?" Shannon said. "Why is the healthiest, most athletic girl in Cape ... all of a sudden she's got a brain tumor. I still ask myself, 14 months later, I still ask myself why? How can this be? And there's no answer.

"I ask God all the time for the answer, and I keep waiting for the answer."

Sahara loves basketball and other physical activity, but her illness and treatment keep her confined to a recliner much of the time. When she does get around, Sahara requires a wheelchair -- a lightweight model that comes in a fashionable red.

"We didn't want an old lady wheelchair," Amy said, while Sahara nods her support and chuckles.

But despite the trials, Shannon still keeps his faith, as do Amy and Sahara, faith that they'll make it through this time stronger, better people than before.

The family has plenty of support on their side. Since Sahara's battle with cancer began, it's been a public struggle. Amy has known pop singer and "General Hospital" star Rick Springfield for several years. When he found out about Sahara's battle, Springfield rallied his fans to support the family spiritually and financially. Springfield even played a concert for Sahara's benefit at the Show Me Center in December, and put on another benefit this summer in Milwaukee.

Sahara Aldridge and her dad, Shannon Aldridge, led a train of friends and family around the dance floor at Sahara's 13th birthday party. (Photo courtesy of Army Aldridge)

Meanwhile Sahara's blog, www.saharaaldridge.com, attracts well-wishers who write comments daily.

"There are things that we keep private," Amy said. "We don't lay out every last detail. In the future, we may or may not tell everything that happened, because some people want to get too close sometimes. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people in the world that are dealing with us, they're as good as gold. But you have to use some common sense."

Shannon said he was a fiercely private person, but he's had to change his personality in the last 14 months.

"At first I was kind of freaked out about people knowing everything about us, but ... I guess it's the price you pay, because you need help. We couldn't do this without help."

Countless people see a symbol of Sahara's fight every weekday, even though they may not know it. Springfield has worked the orange-and-white "Hope for Hoops" fund-raising bracelets being sold on Sahara's behalf into his on-screen "General Hospital" wardrobe.

Local support has been strong, too, as individuals and businesses have given their money to help pay Sahara's medical expenses. P-Mac Music owner Paul MacDougall has been at the forefront, hosting promotions in his store to sell Sahara's bracelets. MacDougall is currently giving his customers who come in with the bracelets a chance to win a collection of gift certificates worth hundreds of dollars.

But MacDougall is only one of many giving the family their support.

"I couldn't imagine going through this situation anywhere else in the world besides Cape, because we'd be lost," Amy said.

All that support makes the Aldridge family say they're lucky, despite the tough battle Sahara, Shannon and Amy have been fighting for over a year.

"Over the last 14 months, we consider ourselves very lucky, because there's a lot of children out there we've found that are in the same boat, if not worse, and may not have the support that we do," Shannon said. "And guilt weighs on you, too, because not every kid knows Rick Springfield, you know."

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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