Brad McClenny/ Staff photographer
Kelsey Waters with her family -from right Dad Jerry,
Mom Donna and brother Weslee in Keystone Heights
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS — When she first heard the words from the doctor, that she had thyroid cancer, Keystone Heights center fielder Kelsey Waters didn't cry or scream. She turned to her mom and said, “I don't really know why this happened, but God has a reason.”
Seven months ago, Waters took on cancer and won. In three days, on Mother's Day, the junior will play the biggest softball game of her career when Keystone Heights (19-7) takes on Tallahassee Florida High (21-6) in the Class 4A state semifinals in Clermont.
The Indians are on quite a roll, winners of 10 straight and 18 of their last 19 games. And Waters has been the inspirational leader throughout, an exceptional outfielder with incredible range (no errors) and a consistent hitter (.549, 9 triples, 5 homers, 28 RBIs) whose power is pretty much back.
“The cancer is completely gone because it was removed in surgery,” she said. “So right now, I'm doing great, just focusing on softball and school. It couldn't be better.”
A first-team all-area player since she was a freshman, Waters has played her summer ball with Florida Select. It was last summer, after a tournament, when she started not to feel well and was looking pale, she said. Within a few days, she had severe throat pain and her lymph nodes were severely swollen. She thought it was strep throat because she normally gets it once a year.
But a strep test at a local doctor's office came up negative. Eventually, an ultrasound on the thyroid was done and a small bump was discovered. Waters then went to see Dr. Sujata Wagh, an endocrinologist in Gainesville. Another ultrasound was administered and two nodules were discovered in her thyroid.
“We had another choice, like my original doctor, wait six months or do a needle biopsy,” Waters said. “Now that freaked me out because I do not like needles. They (her parents, Donna and Jerry) did go with the needle biopsy. The doctor took a three-inch needle and inserted into my thyroid, into one of the nodules twice to get cell samples. They said they would call us within a week with the results.”
When Donna Waters, a fourth-grade teacher at Keystone Heights Elementary, got the voice mail message at home a week later (Sept. 21, 2011), she knew it wasn't good news.
“Jerry was at work, so I had to call him,” she said. “They wouldn't tell us anything over the phone. I just remember sitting there at the table and started crying because I knew. We didn't tell Kelsey anything. We let the doctors tell her just in case we were wrong and worried her unnecessarily. I am always going to remember that date.”
Kelsey Waters, 16 at the time, had surgery a few weeks later on Oct. 7, 2011. She said she will never forget the car ride to the hospital before surgery. She found divine strength on the trip.
“I have a lot of trust in a lot of things,” she said. “I have trust in my family and my friends. But the biggest thing I trust in is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I never realized how merciful he was until he gave me that. And I felt that I wasn't scared because he was going to bring me through it. On the way to the hospital was the first time I actually was starting
to freak out, ‘Oh my gosh, I am going to have surgery for cancer.'
“I had my Bible with me. And I flipped it open just to a random page and my eyes came to Psalms 103, Verse 3. And it says, ‘He will heal all your iniquities and cure you of your diseases.' I actually smiled and started laughing, and my mom gave me a funny look. I shook my head because I knew that God made me flip to that page for a reason. With the support of my friends and family, and the strength that I got from God, that's what kept me through it. I knew I was going to be OK. I wasn't scared.”
Kelsey received support from all three of her families (home, softball, school) who visited her at North Florida Regional Medical Center. That support, she said, is something she will never forget.
“There was so much family, and so many friends, I probably won't know exactly how much support I had, but it was definitely enough to make me see how many people love me,” she said.
It wasn't long after surgery that she returned to school, determined not to let people think what she went through bothered her. She instead had a message she wanted to share — of faith, belief and the power of the strength within.
“She handled it better than any family member did,” said her father, Jerry, an assistant chief at the City of Starke Fire and Rescue. “It was extremely hard for me. Because of my profession, I'm used to dealing with problems immediately when they arise. This is something that I had to rely on other people in the system. That made it incredibly hard for me to deal with.
“Fortunately the family we have, including the softball family and the school family and friends, made everything tolerable during an intolerable time.” Keystone Heights coach Belinda Phillips said Kelsey has been an inspiration to her teammates. “She has been a leader on this team,” Phillips said. “I think a lot of things have impacted this team, and that was one of them. It has definitely made her stronger. She is able to share that, and the girls do respond to it.”
“I look at her and I see strength,” Donna Waters said. “Spiritually, physically, emotionally, maturity beyond her young years, without a doubt. She always said something good is going to come out of this.” As to Kelsey's prognosis, she said her doctor said the odds of the cancer returning are “as close to zero percent as there can be.” Kelsey still has routine health check-ups. She is scheduled to have another ultrasound later this month.
This group of Keystone Heights teammates have played a lot of softball games together, and on Sunday can give their moms a wonderful Mother's Day gift — advancement to Monday's Class 4A state championship. “If we put our minds to it, and if we make the routine plays along with some awesome plays, and hit like we have been hitting, we can do this,” Waters said. “We are strong enough mentally and we are definitely strong enough physically and have enough natural talent to pull this out. We are confident we can do this.”
Article by Larry Savage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.