For many kids, returning to school after months away can feel like being sent back to prison after a brief glimpse of freedom. Yet when 8-year-old Bridget Kelley returned to Merrymount Elementary School in Quincy, Massachusetts, she was glad to be back.
Back in September of 2016, Bridget was getting swollen tonsils removed when the MRI picked up on something far worse: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer.
“We were completely blindsided,” her mother, Megan Kelley, told TODAY.
“We just thought she was getting her tonsil out.”
She was only in 2nd grade at the time and had to be pulled out of school for treatment. She started with 88 days at the Boston Children’s Hospital undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries. Then, in March, she needed to undergo a stem cell transplant for which her little sister, Shannon, served as a donor.
After the surgery, she could only have limited contact with people. The medication she was on suppressed her immune system, so her family had to be extra careful not to get her sick. She had to stay in her room, stick to a specific diet, and limit her contact with friends, if she wanted to stay healthy.
“She had to live in isolation,” Megan said. “We couldn’t have anybody in the house. She understood that the cancer was serious, but it was almost more devastating that she wasn’t able to go to school or soccer or dance or birthday parties.”
Despite this, people kept coming to her for support. Community members would bless the Kelleys with free food and money for Bridget’s procedures. Bridget was able to find a tutor to teach her within the hospital, so she could graduate into 3rd grade alongside her classmates.
On January 2, 2018, after 15 months away, Bridget made her way back to Merrymount Elementary with much fanfare.
“The first night she had to stay in the hospital, the first thing she said she was upset about was missing school, so this could not be more exciting for her,” her dad, Dan Kelley, told WBZ-TV.
Hundreds of people from classmates to parents to faculty members stood outside inside in freezing cold weather waving signs and cheering Bridget on.
“When we saw all the people we thought she could be overwhelmed and embarrassed,” Megan said. “But she raised her arms like ‘Victory!’ and she soaked it in. She totally went with it, and that made it that much more exciting.”
As it turned out, Kristin Healy (the mother of Bridget’s classmate, Seamus) was the one who put everything together. She started a Facebook forum, not thinking it would get much attention, but she soon found out just how wrong she was.
“I invited 50 people, and by the end of the day it was 150 along with the police,” Healy told TODAY. “Everyone was just super excited for Bridget after she had a really tough battle.
“Her classmates wanted to let her know, ‘You were out for 15 months, but we absolutely did not forget about you’.”
Aside from organizing, Healy also handed out over 200 signs and 150 hand warmers to Bridget’s welcoming brigade. The campaign was a rousing success with both the Kelleys and Healy expressing sincere gratitude.
“It was almost overwhelming,” said Megan. “She felt so special and so welcomed after such a long and hard road.”
“There were parents crying,” Healy said. “It was amazing.”