Michele Gerdes recalls the date with no issue.
“April 16th, 2019. Two weeks before Lydia’s 9th birthday.”
That was the culmination of a nightmarish five days that started when her daughter woke up feeling under the weather with flu-like symptoms and ended when she was admitted into the hospital to begin cancer treatment that would continue for the next eight months. The surreal change in circumstances is incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced it. It’s overwhelming to anyone. Well, almost anyone.
“Lydia is a very stoic person,” Michele said of her daughter. “Even through all of the treatment, she wouldn’t get upset or worried.”
The circumstances are akin to being thrown in the ocean. There are two options: sink or swim.
Lydia Gerdes is a swimmer.
It’s through that lens that someone can begin to understand how a then 9-year-old was able to persevere through an ultra-rare cancer diagnosis, 101 doses of chemotherapy, 32 days of radiation, and 22 blood transfusions over the course of seven months .
That was followed by a global pandemic that posed a particular risk to immunocompromised individuals like Lydia. That’s to say nothing of the effort to regain her strength and return to form as a swimmer. On Saturday, that journey comes full circle as Lydia jumps into the San Francisco Bay to swim a mile and a half in an event organized by Swim Across America to raise money for cancer research.
Lydia started swimming when she was 8 years old. The Eureka resident joined the team after her friends had already started. As her swim coach Kelly Nathane points out, swimming is categorized by level and not by age. Within a year, Lydia was on pace with her friends.
“She’s the most coachable kid I’ve ever had,” said Nathane, Lydia’s coach at Humboldt Swim Club. “She wants to challenge herself.”
Then came the fateful morning when she woke up for a swim meet in Santa Rosa. After traveling down with her mother for the meeting, Lydia didn’t leave the hotel all weekend. Her fever and illness escalated when she returned home, and then she woke up with a baseball-sized lump on her chest that was later identified as Ewing sarcoma, a cancer that affects less than 1,000 children a year. Adding to the rarity of her situation was the location on her chest, which caused damage to her lungs and could not be removed through surgery. Within days, Lydia was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“This was like a parent’s worst nightmare,” said Michele of the early days at UCSF Benioff Hospital.
But as caregivers tried to connect to Lydia, she witnessed her daughter’s resolve to return to normalcy.
“They were trying to build a relationship with her. They’d ask her ‘well what do you like to do?'” recalled Michele. “Her response was always, ‘I’m a swimmer'”
Of course, she’s really quite a bit more than that. As a student at Jacoby Creek Elementary, Lydia completed her school work for the third grade in between chemo treatments. She insisted on taking the state-mandated standardized test and completing a culminating project on Native American culture that involved learning to weave. She started the fourth grade that fall, on time, and essentially became a pioneering student for distance learning.
Lydia started swimming again in October, two months before her treatment ended. But however happy she was being back in the pool, her coaches were just as excited once she was back.
“I mean, she smiles the whole time,” said coach Nathane. “It makes my life easier when she’s at practice.”
Although recently, Lydia has not been able to be at practice as much since she began playing volleyball for the first time this year. But swimming 1.5 miles on Saturday gives her a chance to stay active in her passion. When she does return to practice, her coaches are confident her trajectory is only headed upwards.
Lydia’s trademark focus on improvement and moving forward could explain why she’s reluctant to talk about her experience with cancer. Her family and coaches all noted that the subject isn’t something she delves into, and it was only during her first visit as part of the survivorship clinic that she decided to participate in this first event with Swim Across America as an advocate and cancer survivor .
And although so much about Lydia is atypical, one thing that is very normal for the 12-year-old is her short answers. When asked about how she was feeling ahead of the event and starting volleyball, Lydia was straightforward.
“Good,” she said. “I like it.”
As her coach, Nathane offered insight on the difficulty of swimming a mile and a half in the freezing cold San Francisco Bay, a thought occurred to her: the isolation and focus in swimming leaves someone with their own thoughts.
“Lydia had all that time to just think about what was happening,” she said. “To be able to not have thoughts like ‘Ouch or this sucks.’ She pushed through it.”
As hard as it is to comprehend the difficulty of her situation, it’s harder for people to grasp how she got through it with so much strength and resiliency. Still, her mother has one explanation.
“My daughter is one of the toughest, bravest humans I know,” said Michele. “And you know she wants to just move on and be a 12-year-old kid”
So for now, Lydia is a sixth grader, cancer survivor, and of course, a swimmer. And as she moves on, she’s clearly destined to be much more.
Jake Matson can be reached at 707-441-0526.