Cook: Her bucket list isn't to see the world before she dies, it's to change it

Cook: Her bucket list isn't to see the world before she dies, it's to change it

Fame is nothing beside heroism

October 31st, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Kayla Perry

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

The doctor was supposed to bring her good news.

After all, she'd gone through chemo. Spent all those nights in the oncology ward. Her neuroblastoma? It should have tucked its tail and run.

But in August, Kayla Perry watched her oncologist walk in without any good news on his face, and listened as he said this:

Your cancer has progressed past the point of being curable. Whatever you want to do with the rest of your life, start doing it.

Perry is 19. Bucket lists aren't for teenagers.

The room began to spin, like life had put on its most frightening mask.

Then it stopped. And she knew.

It wasn't backpacking through Europe or sailing the seven seas or eat-drink-be-merry until she dies.

She looked square at the doctor.

"I want to be a nurse," she said. "I want to go to school."

"'Hope'" is the thing with feathers," American poet Emily Dickinson wrote. It's also a terminal cancer patient enrolling in college.

"No matter how long my future lasts, I still have a future," Kayla said. "And I want to use my future to make an impact and do things that last."

The story of Kayla Perry -- born in Chattanooga and now a pre-nursing student at Auburn University -- is spreading. She's started a foundation and made a video -- -- that I dare you to watch without crying or goosebumping or both.

World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner recently signed a baseball -- Be strong and very courageous - Joshua 1:7, it says -- for her.

Alabama quarterback Blake Sims played against Florida with a purple bracelet on his right wrist. It read "Kayla."

Two Fridays ago, rock star Ben Rector came to town and invited Kayla backstage. (Rector's her fave.) He'd seen her video, and it moved him so much that the normal fan-rock star encounter got reversed; he was the excited one.

"Since I watched the video, I've been nervous to get to meet you," Rector said.

"How ironic," Kayla smiled back.

So why are the quarterbacks and baseball heroes and rock stars all weak in the knees over her?

Because Kayla's story is The Story.

She's showing the rest of us how to live.

(Tiny example: Rector's looking at her Instagram, not the other way around.)

"I want to be her when I grow up," said her mom, Christen.

Perry was born in Chattanooga. Her dad, Rob, was the music minister at Concord Baptist Church. In the late 1990s, the family moved to Alabama. After her senior year, Kayla went to Kenya for a missions trip.

Then the nosebleeds began.

And didn't stop.

She left Africa for a Birmingham hospital and a diagnosis of neuroblastoma, which usually is a childhood cancer. A year of treatments later, the Perrys thought they had whipped the cancer. Then, August. And the doctor said what he said.

So Kayla decided to ... live.

She enrolled in Auburn to study nursing. She created a foundation -- Open Hands, Overflowing Hearts -- which is expected to raise $250,000 by New Year's. She started a social media campaign -- 100 Ways, 100 Days -- to promote childhood cancer awareness. A December fundraiser at Region's Field in Birmingham has St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a silent auction, food and drinks.

All to shine a light on childhood cancer.

"It's underfunded and under-researched," Kayla said. "I want people to know."

Every three weeks, her parents drive to Auburn, take her to Atlanta for treatments (doctors are just trying to keep the cancer from spreading further), then back to Auburn in time for next morning's class.

"She just wants to go to school," said Christen. "And we don't know how long she'll be able to."

Before the doors opened for his Track 29 show, Rector invited Kayla, her family and pals to the stage. He sat at the keyboards -- just Rector, the sound guy and a few bar backs -- and played "Song for the Suburbs," her favorite song, at her own private concert.

Cause I wanna live

Until I die

Don't let the devil bury me alive.

Had you walked in suddenly, it would have been easy to think that out of that crowd, the celebrity was Rector, the one singing under the bright lights.

But the real star, the real one to watch, was the nursing student in the blond wig, smiling -- stunningly so -- from the front row, showing the rest of us how to live.

"There's no dress rehearsal," Kayla said. "What's most important in life is the impact you make and what you leave behind, not what you can collect from the earth."

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP