This is a story of coincidence, long odds, a rare disease, friendships, grief and the generous alumni who have channeled their emotions into helping support the educations of future physicians and medical researchers.
The story begins in fall 2008 when Dr. Lara Masullo ’97 Ellison, family practice physician at Edward Hospital in Naperville, met two children who changed her life: Max Lacewell, 6, and Brianna Sharp, 13. Both lived in Naperville about a mile and a half apart. And both were diagnosed within weeks of each other with a rare form of brain cancer—diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma—while they were under Ellison’s care.
“There are 150 children diagnosed with this cancer every year and to have two in Naperville was just so rare and unexpected,” says Lara Ellison. “And they were such amazing kids.”
Ellison found herself immersed in the families’ decisions about where to seek further treatment, reviewing medical records and potential drug trials. Her own four children began to get to know Brianna and Max. Their parents and the Ellisons shared cell phone numbers. The lines separating physician and family-friends began to blur.
But even the best medical treatment couldn’t stop the cancer from progressing and within nine months of diagnosis, both Max and Brianna died in July 2009.
The children’s illnesses also deeply affected Shane Ellison ’95, husband of Lara. “Max was the same age as my oldest child,” he says. “But then I also realized that our calling should be to honor the children.” The Ellisons decided to establish a scholarship at North Central—the Max Lacewell and Brianna Sharp Memorial Scholarship—for a student who’s interested in pursuing oncology or cancer research. “We wanted a way to give back that was meaningful for us,” says Shane. “Both families were happy with our decision.”
“Lara’s dedication and persistence is the reason Max received the care he so promptly needed. It’s rare to find a doctor so patient, caring and personable,” says Leanne Lacewell, Max’s mother. “It’s an honor that the Ellisons chose to remember Max and Briana in this way but not surprising.”
The first scholarship recipient, Rebecca Tran ’12, met the families in August 2010.
A biology major with an interest in oncology, Tran is already preparing to apply to medical school. “The families were telling stories and sharing pictures,” she says. “Hearing those stories firsthand isn’t always something you get to experience. And they were so positive and supportive of me.”
And this story continues with Brianna’s mother, Jennifer Sharp ’99 Siemann M ’05. “The scholarship is extra special for our family because we didn’t have anything set up yet to carry on her legacy,” she says, adding that they’re establishing Brianna’s Brigade Foundation to support Gregory Middle School scholarships.
Now working on a second master’s degree at North Central, Siemann channeled her graduate school project for a Teacher Leadership course into a new student organization at Lincoln-Way West High School, where she is a social sciences teacher. “I was assigned to teach freshmen this year and I realized last fall Brianna would’ve been a freshman,” she says. “And I started a club (at Lincoln-Way) for freshmen after I found out they had lost a classmate during eighth grade to leukemia.” Called Compassion is Our Passion, the club gives young teens a place to talk about grief and to work on fund-raisers for the Ronald McDonald House and other charities. “I have my moments and I think ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be leading a group like this,’” she says. “But everything happens for a reason. Eventually, I find out why.”
North Central Now Spring 2011