Nov 19, 2018
by Natalie Bober
They say that tragedy strikes as unexpectedly as lightning in a cloudless sky.
On March 21, 2018, seniors on the Lake Forest College women’s hockey team, together with the team’s play by play webcaster Natalie Bober, met at the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse ice rink. Always considerate, women’s hockey captain Kayla Griffith, also a senior, had gathered the players and their webcaster to commemorate the team’s winning 2017-2018 season.
But Kayla never arrived. Instead, she was being admitted to Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital for tests.
A day later, the team learned that Kayla had just been diagnosed with leukemia. She was going to be transferred immediately to a hospital closer to her home in Minnesota so that she could begin chemotherapy.
That afternoon --- before Kayla was transferred --- Natalie headed to the Northwestern Hospital emergency room to visit Kayla, who was lying on a gurney holding an enormous stuffed animal.
Natalie handed Kayla a box of colorful cookies decorated with sprinkles and pastel tinted frosting.
“Didn’t I just tell you I wanted cookies?” Kayla said to her boyfriend George Gerasimou, then a senior at Lake Forest College, who was also visiting Kayla.
Before leaving, Natalie extended her fist to Kayla, as Natalie did before every home hockey game.
“I have a feeling,” Natalie said. “You got this.”
Kayla fist bumped Natalie.
“Oh, for sure I’ve got this,” Kayla said.
Overcoming cancer was another competition that Kayla intended to win.
Throughout her collegiate career, Kayla was as determined to vanquish opponents on the ice as she was to win the battle against leukemia.
Kayla’s efforts were recently rewarded when she was named one of the top 30 finalists for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Woman of the Year Award, which recognizes graduating female college athletes who have distinguished themselves in athletics, academics, service and leadership.
As a defenseman for Lake Forest College, Kayla helped guide the women’s hockey team to a 55-13-4 four-year record in Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) play, three NCHA Slaats Cup final appearances, and a trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament. During Kayla’s tenure, the team had 75 victories, the most of any four-year span in program history.
While she was captain of the 2017-2018 team, Kayla led the seniors to a 20-9-0 record overall and a 15-3-0 NCHA conference record.
Kayla ranked fourth in the Lake Forest College women’s hockey program for assists --- with 55 --- and tied for seventh overall in the program with 83 points.
“I remember calling Kayla’s last home goal,” Natalie said. “It was a power play goal. She lined up at the point; she shot the puck; she scored. Kayla’s shot was like a streaking cannon ball. She has one of the hardest shots I’ve ever seen.”
From time to time throughout her senior year, Kayla’s not yet diagnosed leukemia made her feel “like she was skating through mud,” Kayla said. Nevertheless, Kayla played in every game, even in her final season.
Although Kayla sometimes felt unusually tired, her leukemia diagnosis was completely unexpected--- almost like being boarded while playing hockey.
The team was shocked and saddened to learn of Kayla’s illness. “It just seemed so arbitrary and unfair,” a player said.
In the months following her diagnosis, Kayla fought an ongoing battle off the ice. When Kayla arrived at the hospital after being transferred to Minnesota, she immediately began induction chemotherapy for seven consecutive days, 24 hours a day.
After the initial treatment, Kayla remained in the hospital for an additional three weeks waiting for her blood count to rise. Following her first month in the hospital, Kayla went home for a few weeks, and then returned to the hospital to begin consolidation treatment.
Even when Kayla was permitted to leave the hospital, she returned to the clinic every other day to receive blood transfusions.
“Through this whole thing, I was pretty positive,” Kayla said. “Everyone kept saying my attitude is amazing. But for me, that is the only option --- to be positive and to look on the bright side.”
Kayla is thankful for the support she received from her family, friends, teammates, coaches, the Lake Forest College athletic department and hockey alumni who she had never even met.
“Getting cards, the messages, the gifts… it meant a lot,” Kayla said.
Although Kayla was hospitalized almost two months before graduation, she completed her degree in biology.
“I am very thankful that my professors allowed me to finish school from the hospital,” Kayla said. “Usually I would email my professors pictures of my homework, and I would take exams online. With not much to do in the hospital, doing my homework allowed me to focus on something other than my diagnosis.”
Kayla graduated magna cum laude with her class, in absentia, in May 2018 with a 3.83 cumulative grade point average and the highest GPA on the women’s hockey team for the 2017-2018 season. She was on the Dean's list every year and a member of the Forester Academic Team. Kayla was also a three-time NCHA All-Academic Team honoree.
In mid-July, while Kayla was still undergoing chemotherapy, she was notified by an NCAA committee member that she was one of 581 nominees for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award. On July16, Jackie Slaats, Lake Forest College Director of Athletics, called Kayla to congratulate her.
“I had actually found out a few days earlier about the nomination, but when Coach Slaats called, it started to sink in,” Kayla said. “I was overwhelmed by congratulations from the Athletic Department, my coaches, my teammates and my family.”
A month later, Kayla learned that she was among the remaining 154 NCAA contestants. Kayla was subsequently selected as one of the top 30 finalists, all of whom were invited to the Oct. 28 NCAA Woman of the Year Award ceremony at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“Having made it to the top 30 was really something I never could have imagined because I was going up against the top athletes in not only Division III, but also Divisions I and II,” Kayla said.
It was uncertain whether Kayla’s health would permit her to travel to the upcoming ceremony.
“When I found out I was nominated and made it to the top 30, I was actually coming home from the hospital,” Kayla said. “I had just finished my third round of chemotherapy. Because I still had two more rounds of chemo to go, I really didn’t think I would be able to make it to the awards dinner three months later.”
On Sept. 27, 2018, tests confirmed that Kayla’s leukemia was in complete remission, clearing the way for her to attend the awards ceremony.
“The weekend in Indianapolis was absolutely amazing,” Kayla said. “It was incredible to be able to meet 29 other female collegiate athletes who have accomplished so much, not only athletically and academically, but also in their community.”
Celebrating with Kayla were her dad, her sister and George, as well as Slaats and Chris Pier, Lake Forest College Director of Budget and Compliance.
“I was honored to be at the NCAA dinner with Kayla and her family,” Slaats said. “Kayla is an impressive young woman. I am very proud of all that she has accomplished as a student-athlete and will accomplish as a proud alumna of the college.”
Less than a month ago, for the first time since Kayla was diagnosed with leukemia --- she donned skates and played hockey with George and a few members of her family.
“The past 7 months have taught me so much,” Kayla said. “I have learned it’s important to be as happy as possible and enjoy every day. I have also learned that I am so much stronger and more resilient than I ever believed.”