When I saw the note from Columbia Falls prior to the start of the cross country season that senior Kimberly Peacock had returned to the team, I was glad to hear a happy turn in a saga that had unfolded over the past two years for this family and community in northwest Montana. But when I got the chance to write the story, I was blown away by the journey they had taken and how articulate they were about a perspective that was larger than sports.
Those are my favorite stories - the ones that are about something larger - and Kimberly's willingness and maturity to share both the good times and persevering through the hard times over the past few years, the ones that made her high school experience very different than typical, made this a story that impacted me not just in 2019, but will stick with me. -- Lindsay Rossmiller
Earlier this month, Kimberly Peacock ran and hiked her way to Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park, where she stood looking out over the water.
“It felt really good to finally get to the lake and look at everything and reflect on where I was the last time I had climbed that trail,” Peacock said. “It was really cool.”
You see, the last time she had been there, she was a healthy teenager with her entire high school career at Columbia Falls ahead of her.
As the runner-up at the Class A state cross country meet as a freshman in the fall of 2016, Peacock showed promise. But after a good spring track season turned to summer, she received a leukemia diagnosis.
Now, after two years, Peacock is back climbing mountains in her backyard with her father and running cross country with her teammates, all with a new perspective and different expectations.
As she looked out over Avalanche Lake's frigid water, she said she thought about how far she’s come and the different versions of herself from then and now.
But to really understand where she is, you have to understand how far her journey has taken her.
Jim Peacock recalls taking his daughter to the doctor thinking that maybe she had mono. Instead, the trip turned into an immediate trip to the Kalispell ER, where an oncologist broke the news to Jim and his wife, Heather, that Kimberly had leukemia.
As they sat in the hospital that night before falling asleep, Jim told his daughter, “One more day.”
“One more day,” she replied.
It’s a ritual they continued through their medical flight two days later to Denver Children’s Hospital, where Kimberly underwent a month of chemotherapy.
There, she had such a severe reaction to the combination of drugs that her pancreas shut down. She lost 11 pounds of muscle nearly overnight before being readmitted to the hospital with insulin numbers near a diabetic coma.
They continued chemo after she returned home and struggled to walk around their neighborhood. She nevertheless managed to work her way up to walking in a junior varsity race to be with her teammates.
Then, within weeks they were told Kimberly had to go for more treatment.
“One more day,” they told each other while they spent months at Stanford Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California, as Kimberly underwent a trial treatment at the end of 2017.
And they continued after they returned to the Flathead Valley in the spring of 2018 to discover that the Car-T treatment had successfully stopped the cancer -- but had left her with no remaining immunity if it returned.
A bone marrow transplant was the only option. They returned to Denver for more months in the hospital to receive the transplant and endure more complications.
As they did, they continued their mantra: One more day.
“A little over a year ago, we didn’t know, honestly, I mean we didn’t know if she was going to make it through the summer with that bone marrow transplant just with some of the things that were going on and the trips in and out of the ICU and it was really touch and go,” Jim said. “So just over a year ago, we just didn’t know what the future was.”
In addition to the sickness brought on by radiation, her pancreas shut down again, secondary infections developed -- including a persistent respiratory infection that required inserting chest tubes-- and a brain infection paralyzed the left side of her body.
“We had a couple days there where the doctors couldn’t tell us if she was going to spend life with a permanent paralysis or if she was even going to walk again,” Jim said after describing the phone call he had to make to Heather, who had been working back in Columbia Falls, telling her she needed to get on a flight to Denver immediately because the doctors weren’t sure Kimberly would make it through the night.
“She kept getting things thrown at her and she kept finding ways to pull through.”
After a few days, her feeling started to come back. The residual effects are minimal.
“She was in really rough condition when they allowed her to go home, but they let her go home and she had a really long, hard fall,” Jim said.
In August 2018, Kimberly returned home but doctors would not allow her to return to school. It wasn’t until the first day of school this year that she walked back through the doors of Columbia Falls High School as a student.
“I felt like a sophomore, because I only technically really only went my freshman year, so it was kind of strange to walk back into that building as a student again and become a high school student again. It was weird,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think many people get that experience. It’s like being a freshman twice. It’s an interesting feeling.”
Each night, they continued their "one more day" ritual while she studied to keep up with her schoolwork at home and worked on regaining her strength.
Through her recovery last fall, Kimberly also sought a return to sports. Her doctors cleared her to start working out with her basketball team, so a year ago she went to her first open gym.
“I probably would have been in a much darker place for a much longer time if I didn’t have that community to kind of fall back on, but sports have also helped keep my mind off of things and given me something to look forward to and goals to strive for and to meet and I think that’s pretty crucial in recovery,” she said. “You have to have goals and a place you want to get so you know you can work to get there.”
The first time she attempted a shot, she stood right under the basket and was unable to push the ball high enough to reach the net. But as she steadily worked and reached milestones they celebrated.
“There was a point right before basketball season where I jumped probably the height of a piece of paper, but I jumped and that was really exciting,” Kimberly remembered. “Just those small baby steps were huge for me and slowly building back up to what a normal teenager would be expected to do.”
By the end of the season, she was playing a few minutes here and there, including in the Class A state tournament.
This season she’s been back on the cross country course with her teammates, albeit in a different role than the one the former all-state runner remembers.
“She’s not back where she was as a runner and an athlete yet, but holy cow she’s with us and she’s strong and she’s getting stronger and she’s doing normal kid things and she’s getting on with her life,” Jim said.
Kimberly ran on the junior varsity squad this season with the exception of one varsity race in Polson. But part of her new perspective has also allowed her to treat herself and her performance with a bit more grace as she worked to increase her endurance and lung capacity again.
“I’ve had to accept that my body has been through a lot and it’s not just necessarily going to bounce back from chemo and radiation and losing all of my muscles so I had to lower my expectations a little bit and know that I wasn’t going to go out and blow everybody out of the water,” Kimberly said.
“I’m pretty proud of the progress I’ve made.”
She’s shaved her time by three minutes throughout the season and will be at the state cross country meet in Great Falls as an alternate for the Wildkats.
“I’ve had to learn that being a JV runner is just as valuable as being a varsity runner. Your accomplishments are just as big. It doesn’t matter if one of the varsity runners is projected to be an all-state runner, your PRs are just as important as theirs,” Kimberly said. “It’s just been really enlightening for me and I get to look at everything from a slightly different perspective which is kind of cool.”
The Peacocks are all grateful for where they are now.
“So much of it was not even looking forward past the day you were in. In some cases, it wasn’t even looking past the minute you were in, it was just let’s get through right now,” Jim said. “The best we could ever do was take it one day at a time and the worst we were doing was taking it one second or one minute at a time.
“We’re looking into the future. We’re not just looking at one more day right now and that’s a really nice place to be at after the last few years.”
For the first time in years, they can look months in the future to the follow-up appointments and to the approaching milestones most teenagers reach.
“I’m really looking forward to graduation with my friends,” Kimberly said. “That was a milestone I wasn’t sure I was going to get a few years ago and I think that will be really emotional and really powerful for me to get that point of ‘Hey, I made it to this point and my whole entire life is ahead of me.’ I’m just really looking forward to finishing out my senior year with the people that I love and care about.”
She plans to attend the University of Montana and she is buoyed by optimism of recent follow-ups recently where her doctors asked to see prom pictures and talked less about her medical conditions.
She can look back now and when thinking about others in similar situations says, “I’d probably tell them just to keep your focus forward and have confidence in yourself and everything will play out. You just kind of have to stick with it. It feels like you have no control, but you do have control over how you react to things and I think that’s a big part of it."
“Her life for the last couple of years was just one giant list of checking one thing off at a time,” Jim recalled.
Now that list has expanded past just one more day and she has an eye on both the future and the past, much like her reflections on the shore of Avalanche Lake.
“I think about how clueless I was before everything happened. ...I like to think about that girl before the diagnosis and kind of think about what I liked about her and what has grown better because of cancer. It’s just kind of interesting to compare two different versions of yourself,” Kimberly said.
“I liked how optimistic I was all the time. I mean I was just living life and having a great time, but I’ve definitely matured a lot. I feel like I’ve grown into myself and I’m proud of myself for who I’ve become. I feel like I’m a much tougher person because of what I’ve been through and I’m just really excited for my future.”