Sep 4, 2013
By Courtney Ratkowiak
Ashley Davis sat far from the rest of the crowd during Michigan's NCAA Tournament second-round match against Louisville last November. Her light pink, long-sleeved No. 6 Michigan jersey stuck out against the red of the Louisville fans and the maize-and-blue Michigan supporters. But as the TV cameras lingered on her for more than a few seconds, it was clear the waving, smiling girl belonged there.
For the real No. 6 on the Michigan volleyball team, freshman outside hitter Ally Davis, being able to look into the stands and see her older sister seemed normal but hardly felt like it.
The pink jersey was from the Wolverines' annual breast cancer awareness game six weeks before. Coincidentally, Ally had started in that match, her final start before quietly returning home to be the donor in a stem cell transplant to help her older sister fight her 13-year battle with cancer.
When the Wolverines recorded the final point against Louisville, another win in the books en route to last season's surprising NCAA Final Four run, Ashley and Ally greeted each other in person for the first time since the transplant.
Ashley handed Ally a roll of mint LifeSavers candy.
"Thanks for saving my life," she cracked.
Michigan volleyball and Ashley's battle with cancer became inextricably linked last year after Ally was identified mid-season as the donor for the treatment that could save Ashley's life. Nine months after the Louisville game and 10 months after Ashley and Ally underwent the stem cell transplant, Ashley is still in remission, with a success story even more improbable than the Wolverines' last season.
"The game was awesome," Ashley said. "It was the most unusual situation that nobody thinks is ever going to happen and then it does. It was kind of like the underdog story. I feel like that's the story of our lives."
|Top to bottom: Ashley, Abby, Ally, Alex||Clockwise from top left: Ally, Ashley, Abby, Alex|
In 2000, when she was 11, Ashley was diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma after doctors discovered a brain tumor. She underwent chemotherapy and was cancer-free for five years. But in 2005, doctors determined that Ashley had developed therapy-related acute myeloid leukemia, a different type of cancer directly caused by the initial chemotherapy treatments for the lymphoma.
Ashley's best chance to beat the leukemia was to undergo a bone marrow transplant. Ally and her two sisters were tested as possible donors, and she and Abby, the second oldest Davis sister, were both matches.
With the luxury of having two matches in one family, the doctors elected to move forward with Abby as the donor. The procedure worked, Ashley went into remission, and the Davis family returned to some sense of normalcy.
Ashley, the "academic" sister, went to the University of Illinois at Chicago and majored in applied psychology. Ally, nicknamed "Barbie" by her sisters thanks to her height and blonde hair, excelled at volleyball in high school in Hinsdale, Ill. She broke the Hinsdale Central High School records for career kills, kills in a season and blocks in a season, and Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen took notice.
Ally was a little nervous to move away from home, but her sister had been cancer free for six years, and the chances for relapse were slim. She committed to play at the university and spent the summer before her freshman year playing club volleyball.
Before one of those club volleyball tournaments in June 2012, a weekend trip to Ohio, Ashley wasn't feeling well. Since Laura Davis was conditioned to be nervous when any of her daughters got sick, she had stayed behind to visit the doctor with Ashley.
Ally came home from the tournament on a Sunday night and got into the car with her mother. David Guetta's "Titanium" was playing on the radio.
"I have really bad news for you," Laura told her daughter.
"I was leaving in a month for college, and I was not ready to go, and I knew it wasn't looking good for Ashley if (the cancer) came back," Ally said. "It was almost a matter of if she wanted to do the treatment or not, since we were told it was really hard.
"She knew what was in it for her. She had been through it twice, and now that she was older, it was almost like, "Do I really want to do this again and go through chemo again?' and I knew that's how she felt -- my parents told me that."
The doctors recommended a Donor Leukocyte Infusion (DLI), a treatment meant for leukemia patients who have relapses after initial bone marrow transplants. Ashley received a boost of immune cells from Abby, the original bone marrow donor, in hopes that the new cells would send Ashley back into remission.
The treatment initially seemed to work, and in August, Ally left for college. Even with her initial feelings of anxiety and homesickness, she made an immediate impact for the Wolverines, starting in her second match and notching 10 kills in a four-set win over North Florida on Aug. 24.
As the Wolverines started the Big Ten season in late September, Ally found her stride. She played in 17 of the team's first 24 matches, saw the court in eight straight Big Ten contests and started against Northwestern and Michigan State in mid-October.
But as Ally began to crack the starting lineup, the Davis family learned the DLI treatment had failed. The next step of the treatment was a stem cell transplant, and this time, Ally would be the best possible donor. They had to work quickly, while Ashley was healthy enough to undergo the transplant.
Ashley felt terrible about the timing of the phone call. She knew her sister was fighting for playing time at a competitive position, and the transplant would need to be in late October, at the peak of conference play.
"I didn't even have to ask her (to be a donor)," Ashley said. "I didn't hear a crack in her voice. "I'm going to do this, not a problem. I gotta do what I gotta do.' I just asked her, "How are you so calm?' "
The next day, Ally and Rosen sat in the bleachers before practice, and Ally told him about the conversation with her sister.
"I told him, "I'm going to be honest with you, I love volleyball and I'm so grateful to be here, but if I have to give up volleyball for the rest of my life, I would. I would give it up for her if I had to,'" Ally said.
She paused for a minute.
"I'm sorry -- the only time I cry is when I talk about this part."
Rosen, through frequent talks with Laura, had known since Ashley's relapse in June that there was a possibility Ally would have to miss part of the season if she was selected as a donor for further treatment.
"I had told them, "Whatever needs to happen for Ashley, that's the priority.' " Rosen said. "That's not just a line, that's how it is. We couldn't control the timing, and bottom line is, she was really sick, and she needed help.
"Ally was playing really well. She was starting for us and really making an impact. It's a tough situation when you're finally kind of breaking the lineup and something you can't control affects you, but she never said a word."
After that phone call, time moved quickly. Ally went back and forth between Hinsdale and Ann Arbor over the next couple of weeks for doctor's appointments and blood tests. Twice a day, Ally gave herself injections to draw bone marrow from her leg into her bloodstream in preparation for the procedure.
In the meantime, the Wolverines prepared for the transplant in a different way. The team arrived at practice, and on the whiteboard where Rosen usually outlined the practice plan, all he had written was "Ashley Davis." Rosen explained Ashley's illness to the team and Ally's role in the upcoming stem cell transplant, and then with construction paper and markers, each member of the team designed a Get Well card for Ashley.
On Oct. 26, 2012, the Davis family met the team after their game against Purdue in West Lafayette to drive Ally back to Chicago for the transplant.
"I just remember standing outside the gym and a couple of the girls were hugging her goodbye and everybody's crying," Laura said. "It was just such a crazy, emotional time, and it was like people we barely knew, yet they turned around and gave such support. It was before even all the hype at the end of the season with the team doing so well. These girls are really there for each other, and it's just really something."
Ally's part of the stem cell transplant was a five-hour procedure two days after the Purdue game. The next day, Ashley received Ally's harvested stem cells. Ally returned to Ann Arbor later that week but missed the next weekend's games and practice as she recovered.
Volleyball had always been an escape for Ally, from the pressures of home, school and the worry of Ashley's sickness, so she worked to get back in shape as soon as possible. But with the amount of game and practice time Ally missed during the transplant process, she played in only two more sets last season -- one against Iowa and one against Illinois, both in November.
"She's so competitive, she always wanted to break through and get back on the floor, but she kind of accepted her role and turned the bench into a fun atmosphere," middle blocker Krystalyn Goode said. "If you look at any of the film, it's always Ally doing a victory lap or celebrating after a big point. It's not the role she wanted, but she took it, made it fun and tried to bring life to it."
Back in Hinsdale, Ashley started to recover but not without hitches. A few months after she was cleared to attend the Wolverines' game against Louisville, Ashley developed graft-versus-host disease as a result of the stem cell transplant, where Ally's transplanted immune cells recognized Ashley's cells as "foreign" and started to fight back. Ashley stopped absorbing nutrition in her stomach and lost weight at an alarming pace. The disease destroyed her immune system and most of her muscles. It was a few months before she was cleared to be out of the hospital and out in public, and she is still continuing to regain strength.
In late July, Ashley -- who had managed to keep up with her studies during her treatment -- completed the Board Certified Behavior Analyst program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, with a focus in autism. She plans to work in Chicago with children and adults with special needs and is also planning her wedding next spring.
"It's a constant worry every single day, since you can be in remission (with leukemia), but they'll never consider you cured," Laura said. "They don't give us percent chances of long-term survival or anything. They just know it's not a good scenario. You just have to hope and pray this one did the trick."
And as Ally returns to Ann Arbor for the start of her sophomore season with the Wolverines, she knows that thanks to the stem cell transplant, her sister's prognosis is much more hopeful than at this time last year.
"This family has been so inspirational on how they've dealt with it, and I have so much respect for them with how they've continued to live their lives even with all of this going on," Rosen said. "You'd hope you'd be that strong. I don't think everybody is. But Ashley certainly is."