After five months in isolation, 11-year-old Laila Anderson was ready to feel the sun on her face. Instead, she found herself under the harsh glare of the spotlight. And she positively glowed, sharing her radiance with a team, a town and an entire sport.
Laila endured months in the hospital, the result of a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy to treat Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), an immune disorder that can trigger a fatal inflammatory syndrome. A self-proclaimed St. Louis Blues superfan, she cheered the team on from her bed and was thrilled with visits from Kelly Chase, Alexander Steen and, especially, Colton Parayko.
Laila’s long road back to health paralleled the Blues’ rise from the bottom of the NHL standings to the Stanley Cup playoffs. So when the doctors declared her isolation completed in mid-May, there was just one place to celebrate: Game 3 of the Western Conference final between the Blues and Sharks. Her mom, Heather, filmed the moment when she told Laila that they were going to the game, then shared it on social media. In doing so, Heather shared her daughter not only with the team but with the entire hockey world.
“I knew then that it would be a perfect story. I knew then that the Blues wouldn’t lose,” Laila said. “It just had to end with the Stanley Cup.”
Overnight, she became a touchstone for a team that, like Laila, had emerged from the depths. Parayko, who struck up a friendship with her at a Halloween party six months earlier, called her a daily inspiration. Pat Maroon proclaimed her the team’s hero. Steen hailed her a lucky charm. And she embraced her moment of attention with lots of charm − as well as passion, grace and exuberance.
On the way to the Cup, she collected a lifetime of memories. Among them:
But her favorite moment of all was being on the ice following Game 7 in Boston. “I wasn’t there to see the Cup, but to see my best friend’s face,” a reference to Parayko, who spotted Laila and took her to the Cup. “After he started crying, I started crying.”
Her grace under pressure, she says, comes from Heather’s guiding hand and the advice of her Papaw, Jim Lewis. “Papaw taught me to be myself, to live life to the fullest, to never give up and go for it,” she said. She also thanks Chase, who “keeps reminding me to give back.”
She’s working on that part, even as life returns to normal. She was back in school in August for the first time in almost three years, and celebrates “that even the routine is nice after so long.”
But she has found ways to extend her platform. At Laila’s request, $5 from the sale of each bobblehead goes to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where she received treatment. She has struck up a friendship with a 13-year-old girl suffering with HLH, serving as mentor and confidante.
She’s helping Be The Match, a bone marrow donor registry, with a fundraiser at which she plans to meet her donor. She and Parayko are serving as honorary co-chairs for Ronald McDonald House’s fund-raising campaign. And, someday, she hopes to restore hope to other children by pursuing a career as a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Safe to say she’s not quite finished and may stretch her inspiring moment into a lifetime.