Updated: Nov 8, 2019
Sawyer Sanchez boarded a plane on Aug. 19, 2016, ready to see his grandparents in New Mexico.
But this was not like any plane ride Sanchez had ever experienced before. As he sat in his airplane seat, he felt his body slowing beginning to freeze, and he felt like he was stuck. He attempted to stand up but failed. He attempted to eat but had no appetite. He could not stand the misery, but he waited.
“I walked off the plane and felt dead,” Sanchez said.
After three days of sleeping in New Mexico, he and his family were in desperate need of an answer. They decided to visit the doctor, ready to hear he had pneumonia or the flu, something that a 16-year-old could easily catch in school. The first urgent care said he had a virus. The second urgent care said he had strep throat. The third urgent care just gave him an antibiotic shot. Finally, the ER said he had, in fact, leukemia. This type of cancer can be found in the blood cells which help to fight infection in the body. It can depend on the type of blood type and DNA a person has.
When he heard the news, Sanchez said, he took a 30-minute private jet ride from New Mexico to Virginia with his mother to immediately start receiving treatment. He needed it so quickly because his white blood count was very high, but his red blood count was extremely low.
“The doctors told me I needed to start treatment within 24 hours or I would not make it,” he said.
The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughter was the closest hospital to his home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina; it was his home for the next four months. Sanchez’s junior year of high school was spent laying in the hospital bed where he would receive chemotherapy and lose 50 pounds, his hair and the strength in his knees, but surprisingly also receive and learn lifelong lessons and memories among the nurses and friends he met there.
“I was actually a terrible patient," he said with a laugh. "I would leave my room all the time, walk down the street with my IV to eat some food, and would get calls from nurses to come back there.”
Sanchez’s friends would visit as well and talk to him just like old times. He was at that hospital until it was time for him to receive his bone marrow transplant at Duke University.
Sanchez explained that a bone marrow transplant is when the lost blood cells from transfusions are replaced by new ones. The doctors took his DNA to hopefully find a match with someone else’s blood in the database. They finally found one match out of hundreds in the system. After one month of Sanchez’s body trying to accept the blood or DNA from a ten-year-old girl, whom he is still trying to find, it worked.
“If I were to rob a bank and leave blood somewhere, the police would think it is the girl who committed the crime,” he joked.
Sanchez has the blood of somebody else and a life that many people did not think he would have. But he said he knew he would always get out of the hospital-- which is why he waited to make his special decision.
This special decision he was waiting on was his Make-A-Wish. This foundation grants a wish to children 18 and younger who have cancer in case they do not survive. Many might wish for a concrete object or a trip to their dream destination, but what Sanchez decided to ask for was something that many people take for granted: education.
With college approaching, Sanchez decided he wanted his tuition paid for. He was determined not only to survive but also to obtain a degree in hopes of being a doctor one day. Each year he is given $7,000 toward his tuition through East Carolina University.
“My major is human nutrition and I want to go to medical school to change how hospitals view nutrition," he said. "I never ate the hospital food, so I want to implement this idea of nutrition more into the food.
Sanchez is currently attending the University of Kentucky. He attends class, works out and hangs out with his friends as most students do. He follows the ketogenic diet, which he believes is one of the reasons he is still alive. It supposedly starves cancer cells. His diet consists of things with high protein and high fat, such as eggs, meat, vegetables; sadly, it includes no carbs or sugar. Doctors have even told Sanchez that he is healthier than the average person.
“Going through treatment shaped who I am," Sanchez said. "If I could go back in time, I would do it again.
"Living with cancer was all about the mindset. When I was in the hospital, I said when I get out, I want to buy a dog. I bought a dog. When I get out, I want to start getting tattoos. I got tattoos. As soon as I get out, I am going to buy a car. I bought the car I have always wanted. I just kept telling myself I was going to get out.”
During his sophomore year, he hopes to attend the DanceBlue Marathon, compete in bass fishing tournaments, and live a positive, healthy life that he will certainly never grow tired of.
Photos By: Victoria Rogers