Paige Babbs has never wanted to be a wrestler herself, but she has a love for the sport that runs deep.
Now a senior at Washington High School, Babbs was a freshman when she signed up to be a manager of the school’s wrestling teams. What she found were friendships more akin to family, which is a word she uses over and over again to describe the WHS wrestling team.
“There is nothing that we wouldn’t do for each other,” said Babbs, daughter of the late Jason Babbs and Jennifer and Mike Matchell, Washington. “We may joke around with each other and pick on each other, but every single one of them, I know, has my back. Even outside of wrestling, we are a family.”
Babbs experienced that perhaps more than any other member of the team when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in June 2017, the summer before her junior year when she was 16. Some of the worst and most intense parts of Babb’s chemotherapy treatment occurred during wrestling season her junior year, preventing her from attending practices and meets and participating as much as she wanted to, but the team never stopped thinking about her and reaching out to lend their support.
“I ended up not being able to walk for several months because I had such bad nerve damage . . . I had mouth sores so bad I was literally peeling off the entire inside of my cheek at one point, throwing up blood, and I couldn’t get out of bed for weeks at a time,” said Babbs. “That’s when it was nice to have the wrestlers. They would text me and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Can we come over?’ things like that.”
To show her appreciation for all that the WHS wrestling team has done for her and means to her, Babbs has added extra intensity to her portion of the team’s annual Snap Raise online fundraising campaign.
“The wrestling team is a very, very, very important thing to me,” said Babbs. “This is probably my favorite thing that I have done in my high school career. These boys are so special to me. I talk about them all the time, because this is my favorite thing ever.
“This team has taught me the benefits of having an amazing support system. I want to try to leave as big of an impact my last year as I can,” she wrote in an email that she sent to area businesses asking them to make donations.
The team’s goal is $8,000, and already they have achieved more than half of that. The funds will be used to pay for tournaments and equipment that the athletes need, including the shoes, singlets and protective headgear that they wear.
“We buy a package every year for each wrestler that comes with a bag, shoes, socks, singlet and headgear. Each student is responsible for buying it himself and the cost is around $200 or $250,” said Babbs.
To see the team’s fundraising progress or to make a donation, go to https://www.snap-raise.com/fundraisers/washington-wrestling-2018-19/participant/518400.
Wrestling Team Manager
Babbs is one of four students who serve as managers of the WHS wrestling team,
which includes varsity, junior varsity and a new girls team that is starting this year. Being a manager involves keeping score during meets and taking down all of the stats, making note of takedowns, near-falls, reversals and more for each of them.
“There are a lot of times when we go to tournaments and there are five of our team members wrestling at once, so we have to jump from mat to mat to take score, or take score of two different matches at once,” said Babbs.
Being a manager also involves a little bit of caretaking and looking out for the wrestlers. Babbs and the other managers (Morgan Sprehe, Kira Hey and Clementine Hamai) will get the wrestlers food if they need it before a match, and check up on them about getting enough sleep and staying hydrated.
“If they spill water, I’ll clean it up,” said Babbs. “They know if they need anything, I’ll take care of it.”
Managers are considered members of the team, and so they attend all of the team’s practices, meets and tournaments, traveling with them wherever they go.
Before she joined the team, Babbs had never even watched a wrestling match, but she caught on to it quickly and right away it felt like family.
“I just kind of fell in love with how close the team was,” she remarked. “I feel a connection with every single wrestler, and the coach is a fantastic coach. He really cares about everybody individually, and he tells the wrestlers, ‘If you aren’t treating the managers with respect, then this isn’t the place for you,’ because everybody is treated equally.”
‘Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree’
About a month before Babbs was diagnosed with ALL, she had symptoms that appeared to be from a sinus infection — puffy eyes, runny nose and a cough. After taking a round of antibiotics, the symptoms mostly went away.
When she noticed some swelling in her upper abdomen, the area around her liver, spleen and pancreas, she expected the cause would be equally as benign. Perhaps it was a bladder infection or something easily cleared up.
Her pediatrician ordered a CT scan, and the results set off alarm bells.
Her scan “lit up like a Christmas tree,” Babbs recalls the doctor telling her and her mom that day. “All of my lymph nodes were very enlarged.”
Her pediatrician didn’t try to sugarcoat the news. He told the family there was a strong possibility that Babbs had leukemia or lymphoma and would need chemotherapy treatment. He sent them immediately to Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
A blood test diagnosed Babbs with T-cell ALL, a type of acute leukemia that is aggressive and progresses quickly.
“It was definitely super, super hard to get the news,” said Babbs’ mom, Jennifer Matchell. “It was just she and I in the office to get the news. The doctor was upset about it too. He has been her doctor since she was born, for 18 years now. He was breaking down.”
Babbs had a bone biopsy to see if the cancer had spread to her bones, but it hadn’t.
“I only had 25 percent leukemia cells in my body at the time, which is Stage 1,” said Babbs. “We caught it really early. They said I probably only had it for four months before that.”
Still, there was no time to waste in beginning her treatment. She was admitted right away at Mercy Hospital St. Louis and was in the hospital for seven days.
“Part of her treatment was that four times she had a 24-hour chemo treatment of methotrexate,” said Matchell. “They admit you to the hospital, and you do it for 24 hours. They give you the treatment and then they flush your system of the aftereffects of it. Paige was always having a hard time getting it washed out, so she was in the hospital longer. She was in the hospital nine days one time and eight days another time.
“Her immune system level, from the beginning, has been so low that sometimes she couldn’t even get the treatment done,” said Matchell, explaining that the plan was to do a strenuous treatment for the first 30 days, but it took 90 days for Babbs to complete hers.
Many days it felt like if there was any negative complication or reaction that could occur, it did.
“Even the nurses say, if it’s going to happen to someone, it’s going to happen to Paige,” said Matchell.
Babbs had an infection in the port that was surgically put in her chest for the many chemotherapy infusions she needed, so that port had to be removed and a new one put in on the other side of her chest.
She also has received a number of lumbar punctures (spinal taps), in some cases to check if the cancer had spread and, in other cases, to administer chemotherapy into her spine as preventative medicine.
Babbs said she experienced a lot of pain as a result of her treatments. That included overall aches, headaches and bad back pain from the lumbar punctures.
Twice she lost her hair, which had been so long it was down to her waist. That was actually one of the harder parts of this ordeal for Babbs.
“When you look in the mirror and don’t see who you know you are because you’ve lost your hair and the steroids made me puff up really bad, it’s hard,” she said. “I would look in the mirror and think, I’m not the same person I was a month ago.”
She wore hats or wigs all the time to keep her head covered. Now that her hair has started to grow back she wears hair extensions, “so it kind of feels normal again.”
Babbs shakes off the pain of what she has been through to this point.
“As long as I get to live, whatever I have to go through is going to be worth it in the end,” she said.
Babbs has received more than 400 chemo treatments since she was diagnosed in June 2017 and continues to receive treatments now on a daily (pills) and monthly (IV) basis. She went into remission about six weeks after she began receiving chemo, but receives treatments now as “maintenance chemo.”
Her last treatment is scheduled for October 2019.
“Sometimes I’ll get sick out of the blue or get really tired really easily, but it’s nothing like what it was during the intense treatment,” said Babbs.
Whereas last year she had to miss a lot of events and activities because she was in the hospital (she was still able to attend 10 wrestling tournaments and take stats), this year life has been more back to normal.
Babbs attends school daily and can go wherever she wants and do the things she likes. She’s looking forward to the new wrestling season as much as the wrestlers.
She will graduate WHS in May 2019 and is planning a career as a psycho-oncologist, something she didn’t even know existed before her own cancer diagnosis.
“That’s another blessing in disguise from all of this. I never would have thought of psychology for a career. I always wanted to be a biomedical engineer,” said Babbs.
Psycho-oncologists work with cancer patients, counseling them in coping with their emotional needs.
“With chemo, you can get what’s called a ‘chemo fog’ or emotional numbness, where you lose all of your emotions,” said Babbs. “That actually happened to me the first two months. I had zero emotions because of the chemo.”
Matchell said she thinks the field would be an excellent fit for her daughter. She has already talked with several of the psychologists at the Pratt Center at Mercy St. Louis, and she has really taken a liking to it.
“I’m super excited for anything that she wants to do,” said Matchell. “Last year was such a hard year, because she pretty much did not go to school the entire year, and she was really worried about grades and had to drop certain classes. She was devastated.”
Babbs always been a very good student and had all four years of her high school classes planned out from the start, said Matchell. She was in all honors classes, and when the doctor told her to think about dropping down to regular classes because it would be hard to keep up with all of that intense school work while receiving treatment, she refused.
“She was very determined to get done what she needs to,” said Matchell. “And she’s done it. She took summer classes to catchup. She took precalculus and personal finance, just so she could still take the exact classes that she wanted to take her senior year.
“The way I look at it is anything she wants to do is great. I will support her 1,000 percent in anything she wants to do, and I’m excited to see what her next years bring,” said Matchell.
2019 L&L Student of the Year
Back in May, Babbs spoke at the Man and Woman of the Year grand finale banquet for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Gateway chapter. Speaking to a room of more than 800 people, she talked about her cancer journey as she introduced Legacy Leader, Dr. Rob Hanson.
Organizers were impressed and approached Babbs about serving as one of the 2019 Student of the Year candidates.
Students of the Year is a seven-week philanthropic leadership development program through which highly-motivated student leaders embark on a journey of professional growth. Students utilize professional skills such as entrepreneurship, marketing and project management in order to raise funds for LLS.
The title, Students of the Year, is awarded to the high school and collegiate student in each community who raises the most funds during the seven-week competition.
There will be 12 to 15 candidates participating. Currently Babbs is one of eight already selected, and organizers are continuing to recruit more.
“Paige was clearly an inspiring leader among her peers,” said Molly Devin, campaign manager. “We are excited to have her as one of our 2019 Student of the Year candidates!”
The St. Louis campaign will kick off Feb. 15 and ends April 5 with a grand finale celebration at the Hilton Frontenac. For more information, go to www.studentsoftheyear.org/students-year-st-louis.
The mission of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.
LLS funds lifesaving blood cancer research around the world, provides free information and support services, and is the voice for all blood cancer patients seeking access to quality, affordable, coordinated care. Since 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 32 blood cancer treatments to date, and LLS helped advance 26 of these at some point in their development. These revolutionary new treatments are powering our efforts to attack cancer from every angle. And this impact is made possible by the generosity of our supporters around the world.
To learn more or to donate, visit www.LLS.org/gateway.