In remission just six months after her initial cancer diagnosis, Toni Partyka can give 65 reasons for the speed of her recovery by simply opening her office door.
The program director of Oxford Academy in Macomb, Partyka was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia on Oct. 31.
“I was going down to Florida for my son’s wedding,” Partyka said. “I never expected to end up in the hospital or to find out I had leukemia.”
Within 24 hours of her arrival, Partyka’s flu-like symptoms landed her in the intensive care unit of a Florida hospital. She never made it to her son’s wedding.
The next few weeks were a blur as Partyka returned to Michigan for treatment and work.
“It was hard when she came back,” said Shelley Rosso, Oxford’s student services coordinator. “She had to spend most of her time in her office and couldn’t go into the classrooms and mingle with the children.”
For one who admits, “I don’t know how to do anything else but work with children,” it was difficult for Partyka to accept her fragile immune system and keep her distance from the students.
“Typically, when there’s a sick child, the first thing they do is go in Toni’s office and she sets out a pillow and blanket and makes them cozy,” Rosso said. “She couldn’t do any of that and I think that was really hard for her.”
Students also had a difficult time, for while most did not fully understand Partyka’s illness, all knew she was sick and wanted to help.
“Children were coming up to me every day asking how I was feeling and checking on my progress,” Partyka said. “Just the kind words and the well wishes and the prayers were extremely overwhelming. I always knew I was well liked. I never knew how deeply I was loved.”
Then on April 19, the school hosted a HOP fund-raiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“I heard about this school and youth program that raises money for children (with leukemia) and thought, ‘This is perfect,’” Rosso said.
While Oxford does participate in fund-raisers and other forms of community service, as part of the Montessori method of teaching, Rosso said the “HOP” was the first time she saw the students really take a cause to heart.
“Parents told me they were practicing their hopping the night before and some of the envelopes the kids brought back (with their donations) were all wrinkled up and you could just tell they had taken them everywhere,” Rosso said.
At the end of the day, the school’s 65 students raised $1,470 for LLS, the “biggest fund-raiser we’ve had for anything,” Rosso said.
Having learned that she was in remission just a week before the fund-raiser, Partyka found herself in tears at the outpouring of love and support from her students and fellow staff.
“It literally took my breath away,” she remembers.
Unfortunately, Partyka can never say her cancer is gone for good.
“It never goes away,” she said. “I’ll always have this type of leukemia … It’s treatable, it just doesn’t ever go away.”
However, the now 53-year-old wife, mother of two and guardian of 65 is taking a much more positive outlook on things.
“After something like that, you look at life a whole lot differently,” she said. “It’s an old, silly cliché, but every day is a gift. I take time to enjoy the sunrise now on my drive to work.”
And her students are just happy to have “Mrs. Toni” back where she belongs.