Aug 27, 2013
Lindsey Wintzinger, seen here in warmups before the Auburn-Mississippi State match on Oct. 5, 2012, has been an inspiration to - and inspired by - her former Tiger teammates.
By Wes Todd
Chelsea Wintzingerhad no idea her phone was ringing.
The Tigers' senior setter had a lot on her mind. She had just finished the Auburn volleyball team's third practice of the preseason - the first workout on the second day of two-a-days. She had orientation for pharmacy school coming up the following Tuesday. And with another practice just three hours away, forgive her if all she wanted to do was take a quick nap.
So she turned her phone on silent and dozed off in the early afternoon on Friday, Aug. 9.
Lindsey Wintzingerhad been dealing with a sore throat for about three weeks. It just wouldn't go away. Earlier that week, Chelsea's younger sister - by two years - had noticed some bruises on the back of her leg. And with just a week to go before school started, she knew she had to get it checked out.
Mono was her first thought. It's relatively common on university campuses. She wouldn't be the first freshman to catch it, after all.
"That's what they thought it was at first," Lindsey and Chelsea's teammate, senior Katherine Culwell, said. "And that's understandable. You get sick so much easier living in close quarters with new people."
So Lindsey's mother took her to the doctor in their hometown of Huntsville.
Finally, Chelsea's parents were able to get through to her.
"I was in the middle of my nap and I had my phone on silent," she said. "I woke up in the middle to check my phone, and I noticed I had about five missed calls from my dad. So I called him back."
Lindsey had leukemia.
"We sent her back home with Bekah (Lee, a student manager), and then once we finished practice, we went over and talked with her some more. She told a couple of teammates that night so that she had somebody with her."
The team had two more practices scheduled for Saturday. But Nold called a 9 a.m. meeting in the team's offices instead. Players filed into the conference room in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum to find that Dr. Michael Goodlett, Auburn's team physician, and Dr. Doug Hankes from the Auburn Student Counseling Center were present.
"We talked with Chelsea about it, and she wanted to tell (the team)," Nold said. "I know it was really difficult. We just kind of talked through it, gave them as much information as we could. But we didn't have a lot of info then. We talked for a little bit, then we let them stay in the room as a team.
"Obviously the team was shocked, very distraught. Lindsey is someone that's close to them, being a teammate last year, and even since then they've all been very good friends."
Emotions eventually got the better of just about everyone present.
"It was a huge shock," Culwell said. "You never expect that to happen to someone who's young and healthy. It's weird. You always think it's not going to happen to someone you know. It affected us then, but we came back and had a great practice that afternoon."
While the team used the time that had been allotted for the morning practice to fight through the emotions of receiving the stunning news, Nold and his staff knew that, at some point, the team had to get back to the business of volleyball. But taking care of the players - and especially the Wintzinger sisters - took first priority.
"There's a part where you think about having a group of girls that you've got to find a way to help them through a tough situation," the coach said. "Maybe as a coping mechanism, you go to that part right away to make plans. Obviously Lindsey was our first thought, but then we're thinking about Chelsea - what do we need to do for her?"
The first answer was clear - Chelsea had to get to Memphis.
But she also knew her team needed her. And pharmacy school orientation was just three days away.
"Once you hear news like that about someone in your family - my best friend - I just wanted to drop everything and go see her," Chelsea said. "But I knew I needed to be there for my team and also starting professional school. There was a lot on my plate."
But her coach wasn't about to let her stay in Auburn for another minute.
"At first, she was saying she was going to stay here and practice," Nold said. "But we didn't feel like that was the best thing. She quickly understood that she needed to go see her sister."
So the coaching staff, through the athletics department and the NCAA's Student Assistance Fund, arranged for Chelsea to fly from Atlanta to Memphis that Saturday afternoon. Within a little more than 24 hours of receiving the news, Chelsea was at her sister's bedside at St. Jude.
"The athletics department helped a lot with that," Nold said. "It's nice to have those resources available, even though you never want to have to use them. We looked at a lot of different options, but the first priority was always on getting what she needed."
Chelsea spent two days with her sister at St. Jude and talked with her doctors to find out as much information as she could. She and her parents, along with both of their other siblings, underwent tests to see if they were potential matches as bone marrow donors.
"That's their last resort, a bone marrow transplant if she's really struggling," Chelsea said.
But it was gratifying to know that Chelsea - along with the rest of the team - had already been placed on the registry.
In February, Katherine Culwellhad been inspired after hearing Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, an Auburn alumnus, and his wife, Kim, speak to the Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
She had the whole team swab their cheeks to submit a DNA sample to the "Be The Match" organization, which was facilitated by the Hudson Family Foundation.
"I thought it would be a good idea to get the whole team to do it," Culwell said in February. "My boyfriend's uncle was saved by (a bone marrow transplant), my dad's friend was saved by it. But everyone all kind of thought the same thing as I did. I would give blood or bone marrow for someone if it would save their life. Everyone got the big picture."
Fast-forward to August.
When Culwell heard the news about Lindsey, she thought back to that day in the volleyball conference room when the whole team swabbed their cheeks.
"It was kind of weird that we had just done that because it happened so soon right afterwards," Culwell said. "Being a part of that was good in that we were supporting her before we even knew anything about this. It shows that we're willing to help Lindsey or anyone else that needs that if we end up being a match."
For now, Lindsey is back in Huntsville, but still hospitalized. After a week at St. Jude, it was decided that the best course of action was for her to continue her treatment at Huntsville Hospital.
Long-term, the prognosis is good. Within AML, there are seven subtypes. Doctors have ruled out the four worst subtypes. And the cure rate for younger people is very high.
"You still have to go through the pain and the process, but the outcome is looking good," Chelsea said. "She's just trying to stay positive, and we are too. We just hope she gets better and it never comes back again."
According to Chelsea, Lindsey is undergoing a very aggressive chemotherapy regimen - seven days on, five days off. The treatment is designed to wipe out all the cancerous cells - and all of her healthy white blood cells with it. In essence, the treatments eliminate her entire immune system, making her very prone to infection.
So that means no visitors, except her parents. A lonely existence for a 19-year-old.
But she's not completely cut off from the rest of the world. And she's definitely not letting isolation get her down.
Lindsey keeps close contact with her friends and teammates via text, Skype, Snapchat, and other forms of modern communication. Just because she can't have visitors doesn't mean she can't have her phone and other technology.
"We've been getting regular updates," Nold said. "Chelsea's been getting updates and letting everybody know. They've got a group messaging thing set up, too.
"Since we found out, we've met with all the players individually to make sure they're all doing all right. Almost every one of them is doing great, and it's mainly because Lindsey is making sure everybody else is OK. She's sending them texts and Snapchats every day, things that cheer them up, which, with everything she's going through, tells a lot about her strength and the kind of person she is. I think that's probably been the most impressive thing I've seen through all of this."
Chelsea credits her teammates and her sister for helping her stay positive throughout this ordeal.
"The girls have been my support," she said. "Lindsey hasn't changed much, either. Her attitude has been really positive, she's been cracking jokes and everything. And the team is doing a lot to help Lindsey as far as texting her, staying in contact with her."
A week after Chelsea was at Lindsey's bedside in Memphis, she was back in Auburn, walking across the stage for the Harrison School of Pharmacy's White Coat Ceremony. One of the biggest moments of her life - one that she wished she could have shared with her sister.
But unbeknownst to Chelsea, Lindsey had a plan.
Lindsey talked their father, Roland, into making the three-and-a-half hour drive from Huntsville to Auburn - talking his way out of a speeding ticket along the way - making it just in time to see his daughter be officially welcomed into pharmacy school.
"I had no idea he was coming down," Chelsea said. "I understood my parents needed to be there for Lindsey - I mean, I wanted to be there for Lindsey. But Lindsey told my dad, `Go down there and support Chelsea.'
"Lindsey wanting them to come down here and see something that was really important to me - it was nice that he could come. I started crying there at the ceremony and the teachers were all concerned, but I was just trying to get out of the aisle to get to my dad. He started tearing up, too, saying how proud he was of me, and to watch me at a big moment in my life."
The 2013 volleyball season begins in just a few short days. Unlike last year, Lindsey won't be on the sideline with her teammates. But the Tigers will have her there in spirit.
The team plans to wear yellow sweatbands around their ankle braces with "Pray For Lindsey" in orange lettering - yellow being one of Lindsey's favorite colors, orange being not only Auburn's color but also that of leukemia awareness.
Other plans are in the works but not finalized. Fundraisers are in the planning stages, maybe something along the lines of a "Dig for the Cure" match. But those plans can wait for the moment.
Right now, for the Tigers, it's about keeping Lindsey close to their hearts and in their thoughts and prayers - and by giving their all every time they step on the court.
"When we found out about it, we were kind of crying and upset, sometimes sitting in silence," Culwell said. "But after all that, we said, `OK, this is what it is, we'll do what we can to help her and encourage her to stay positive.'
"It's motivating us to have something else to play for. We want to leave it all out on the court for Lindsey, because she can't."