The tattoo on June’s forearm of Simba from The Lion King stands out among a tangle of IV lines and hospital blankets. June, an avid animal lover, smiles wide despite the fact that she’s been in the hospital for over two weeks for a bone marrow transplant.
The North Dakota native used to spend her summers researching and tracking wild grey wolves in the wilderness – all towards pursuing her Masters in Biology at the University of North Dakota.
But, in March of 2014, June was diagnosed with T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma which acts similarly to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Out of necessity, she left school and headed to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for treatment. June’s doctor told her cancer could be cured with a few months of chemotherapy, so she remained positive and planned to return to school “as soon as the whole cancer thing was over.”
After a few treatments, June had developed a friendly relationship with her oncologist at Mayo Clinic. At her next visit, she could see the anguished look on his face as he entered the room. She had a rare genetic mutation in her cancer cells that made it far more likely for her cancer to return. She needed more intensive chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. In order to receive it, she needed to be closer to her sister, Terri, who lives in South Carolina, for caregiving and rides to appointments. June decided to begin treatment at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL to be within driving distance of her sister.
Our founder, Todd, was introduced to June during one of her stays in the hospital for chemotherapy. Knowing she would be in the hospital for nearly a month for her transplant, we wanted to give her a memorable Life Adventure before she was admitted.
June’s love of animals and biology is apparent the moment you meet her. She talks fondly of days spent outdoors tracking wolves and hopes to one day partner with her sister to open their own animal sanctuary for retired big cats.
Her sister, Terri, is also passionate about animal biology, but the sisters’ bond goes beyond a love of animals. Terri drives June to and from Jacksonville for treatment from her home in South Carolina. Moreover, they share the same bone marrow type, a perfect match. Out of love, Terri willingly donated her stem cells to save June’s life.
June’s wish was to experience elephants and other mammals in a conservation setting. So, we partnered with the National Elephant Center, Save the Chimps, and Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary to help make June’s dream a reality.
“Everything sounds like it’s going to be so amazing!!” June exclaimed as we unveiled the plans for her three-day Life Adventure.
To kick off the activities, we checked June and Terri into an oceanfront suite at the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa. Coming from North Dakota, June told us “any beach time is good time” as her and her sister enjoyed sunrise views and long walks.
In the morning, the sisters headed to the National Elephant Center in Fellsmere, Florida for a breakfast to learn about the history of the center. After meeting staff members, learning about the centers beginnings, and hearing their plans for the future, it was off to see the elephants! They arrived in time to see the elephants get their morning baths, a daily ritual the elephants are trained to participate in. The girls met the handlers and asked questions about caring for the large animals. The morning also included a golf cart tour of the natural 225-acre property where the elephants are free to roam.
“The Elephant Center was so awesome! An experience of a lifetime!” June told us.
That evening June and Terri enjoyed an oceanfront dinner at Ocean Grill in Vero Beach and a good nights sleep before heading to a chimpanzee rescue center the following day.
Save the Chimps, the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary, is located in Fort Pierce, Florida. Their mission is “to provide and build support for permanent sanctuary for the lifelong care of chimpanzees rescued from research laboratories, entertainment, and the pet trade.”
June and her sister were welcomed for a private tour at Save the Chimps. They learned about the centers operations and even witnessed some of the chimpanzees’ artwork (Yes, the chimpanzees paint).
“Saw the chimps today. It was so awesome. Everything has been so wonderful”
After a two-night stay in Vero, the sisters returned to Jacksonville for a tour at the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary. The ranch aims to give a “life-long home to rescued big cats” and is open to the public.
June and Terri enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at the center and learned about the history of the ranch and its big cats.
“The last sanctuary was awesome! The private tour was so great and we got to spend a lot of time getting to know the cats,” said June.
The next day, the girls were back to Mayo Clinic in preparation for June’s transplant. Terri donated her stem cells over two days for June. On July 23rd, June was admitted into the hospital, not to be discharged for at least three weeks.
Yet, the once-in-a-lifetime trip brought hope and joy to June before starting her transplant.
“Everything was SO amazing – seeing the animals, the hotel, and the food! Couldn’t ask for a better way to spend my days before going in to the hospital… If nothing else, this experience has definitely showed me to appreciate everything in life and experience as much as possible.”