Paying it forward

Ten-year-old Ellie Stewart was diagnosed with choriocarcinoma in February. Her only plans for the summer were to finish her chemotherapy treatment at N.C. Children’s Hospital. Then she received a surprise gift: tickets to attend Taylor Swift’s June 9 concert in Raleigh. Now Ellie has some memories to help carry her through.

Paying it forward click to enlarge Ellie with her mom, Terri, at the hospital.
Paying it forward click to enlarge Willie Burns surprises Ellie with two Taylor Swift concert tickets.

by Hannah Crain, UNC Health Care

Willie and Linda Burns, of Morehead City, N.C., were on vacation in Aruba last month when they received a call no parent is prepared for: their daughter, 33-year-old Allison, had been diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“The first thought that came to mind was, ‘How am I going to tell my parents this news while they’re trying to enjoy vacation?” remembers Allison, who was transferred to N.C. Women’s Hospital two days following her diagnosis in Morehead City.

But she called them, and as soon as Willie and Linda heard the news, they found the next available flight back to North Carolina to support her.

Allison’s care team scheduled her first radiation therapy treatment for June 9. Linda had planned to be in Raleigh that day to attend the Taylor Shift concert with her sister.

With the news of Allison’s diagnosis and her first treatment, Willie and Linda decided they wanted to donate the tickets. For the Burnses, the decision was clear: give them to another patient at UNC Hospitals -- one who could leave the hospital setting and truly appreciate the concert.

Paying it Forward

The day before the concert, Willie was introduced to Linda Bowles, director of UNC Hospitals Volunteer Services. Willie explained to Bowles why he was at the hospital. In Bowles, a seven-year breast cancer survivor, he met someone who understood what he and his family were about to go through.

“She passed along something very special to us that made us even more excited to find the right patient for the tickets,” says Willie.

Bowles shared with Willie that, after her own diagnosis, she’d called a friend who was a Child Life Specialist at UNC to talk to her about it.

“She welcomed me to the ‘club’ and gave me an angel that I hung on my bulletin board in the office,” says Bowles. “On the angel is an inscription that reads, ‘Protect This Woman.’ Willie was so emotional about his daughter and helping a patient get to see Taylor Swift, I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay it forward, so I gave it to him.”

Willie pinned the angel up in Allison’s hospital room and tears of joy quickly followed.

“Talking with Linda encouraged us even more to provide someone with a special experience during a difficult time,” says Willie. “It’s remarkable that we’ve met so many cancer survivors within a small amount of time, and it’s so encouraging to see how good things can come out of a bad situation. Allison will surely give the angel to someone down the road.”

Smiling Ear to Ear

Bowles did some research and soon introduced Willie to the perfect candidate for the tickets. Together, Bowles and Willie walked to N.C. Children’s Hospital to see Ellie Stewart, a 10-year-old girl from Apex.

“I was waiting for the nurses to come back into the room, and the social worker came in to ask me if I would like to go to a Taylor Swift concert,” says Ellie, who was diagnosed with choriocarcinoma in February and was undergoing chemotherapy. “It was very exciting." 

Moments later, Willie and Bowles entered the room and found Ellie smiling from ear to ear.

“Willie was very nice and even sat down to chat with me,” Ellie says. “When we talked about our dogs, I found out that his daughter, Allison, has a dog named Ellie.”

Ellie and her mom, Terri, made the trip to PNC Arena in Raleigh later that night.

“This was a great opportunity for Ellie, because she was physically able to travel and, as an outpatient, wasn’t required to stay at the hospital overnight,” Willie says.

Sitting in a suite with box seats, Ellie and Terri enjoyed the show, having their own lounge area, snack bar, and private bathroom.

“My mom and I saw the whole stage from the window, and we both got light-up bracelets to wear during the show,” Ellie says.

As the two sang along to the music, they made new friends who were sitting nearby.

“I met a mom and her daughter and got to hang out with them during the concert,” says Ellie. “They were so fun to be around – they even bought me a Taylor Swift t-shirt.”

“We met three other people who had cancer survivors in their families, and it was empowering to speak with others who experienced a similar situation,” says Terri.

New Fans of Carolina Blue

Allison’s treatment on June 9, her first, was emotional for Willie and Linda.

“Sitting in the waiting room, we were in shock,” Linda remembers. “We thought, ‘This can’t be real – this can’t be happening to our Allison.’”

But, as a family, the Burnses have been strengthened for the challenges ahead by the incredible people they’ve met during Allison’s visits to UNC. They’ve listened to stories of other cancer survivors and had their spirits lifted by members of Allison’s care team, including Hannah Perry, one of her nurses.

“She’s so genuine, and she easily bonded with my family and me,” Allison says. “Right before I was discharged, Hannah came from the sixth floor of the Women’s Hospital to the Cancer Hospital lobby to deliver an order for a prescription and to give me a hug and say goodbye.”

The Burnses plan to stay in touch with the people they’ve met, including Ellie and her mom, and will continue to share their story to encourage others to pay it forward.

“We have not had a single negative experience with anyone or anything during our entire time here,” says Willie.

Allison and Willie, who are both graduates of N.C. State, joke they have never had a special affection for Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels, but, says Willie, “We both look at that Carolina Blue quite a bit differently now.”