Cancer survivor to graduate with peers

There was a time Nick Jones and his family didn't know whether he'd live to see 10th grade.

Now the Wichita Southeast High School senior, having continued his studies through cancer treatments, surgeries and a life-saving bone marrow transplant, will graduate with his peers this month.

On time.

With honors.

This fall he will attend Newman University with a Board of Trustees scholarship and plans to major in biochemistry.

"This kid's amazing," said Angie Brown, an assistant principal at Southeast. "The whole time he was sick — and he was very, very sick — he was worried about his education and how he was going to keep up."

Jones was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in September 2007, the day after he turned 15 and just a couple weeks into his freshman year at Southeast. Doctors admitted him to the hospital immediately for chemotherapy treatments.

Those first months in the hospital were scary and grueling, said Jones's mother, Terry Hermreck. Jones developed a staph infection, sepsis and other complications, she said.

When he transferred to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., in 2008, he weighed 74 pounds and couldn't walk. He had brain and lung surgery and was put on the waiting list for a bone marrow transplant.

During the wait, he enrolled in Wichita's eSchool and resumed his studies. From 10 a.m. to noon each day he worked on a laptop in the hospital, completing assignments to "at least try to knock out some credits," Hermreck said.

"It was important to me," Jones said. "It's not that I just loved school, but I never imagined not being in school. ... I wanted to graduate and I wanted to go to college, and that never changed."

On May 2, 2008, Jones received a bone marrow transplant from a donor in Washington, D.C. His mom calls the date "his rebirthday."

The transplant killed Jones' cancer and also helped an underlying medical condition, Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disease. But his immune system was still too weak to handle a return to crowded school hallways and classrooms.

For another full school year, he completed credits at home through eSchool. When he finally returned to Southeast as a junior, some classmates recognized him as the school's poster boy for Pennies for Patients, an annual fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

If asked, Jones said, he'd tell people that yes, he was the one who had cancer. But he tried to downplay it.

"I don't mind talking about it, but I didn't want the whole school to know because I didn't want them to think anyone was going easy on me," he said. "I wanted to earn every grade I got."

The grades were A's and B's, even in honors and advanced placement classes. When he crosses the stage for his diploma May 24, Jones will finish in the top 10 percent of his senior class.

"He's a tough guy, and I'm very proud of him," his mother said.

Brown, the assistant principal, is proud of him, too, and shares Jones' story at every opportunity. Most recently it was during an all-school awards assembly, which Jones grudgingly attended despite earlier plans to meet friends in the library and study for an AP government test.

After the assembly, a sophomore who has been struggling in school approached Brown and said Jones' story had touched her.

"She said, 'Ms. Brown, I'm going to do better. Because there's nothing wrong with me,' " Brown said. "She said, 'I can't believe he's going to graduate with all he's been through. There's no reason I can't do it.'

"It's an important story to tell," Brown said. "So many youngsters who have those kinds of challenges just give up, and he never gave up. His drive and determination are incredible."

Jones wants to study biochemistry because he's considering a career researching and developing new medications.

"He's been on the receiving end of so many medications and dealt with terrible side effects and complications," his mom said. "I think he wants to be on the other side of the microscope for a while."