It’s not a long horse ride from The Summit to Northwest Oncology & Hematology, but its pathway is burned into the hearts and memories of anyone who watched Willow Henke make her way to her final chemotherapy infusion.
The six-year-old blonde spitfire sat astride her horse, Wrangler, as the two buddies made their way in a parade to celebrate her end of chemo, led and followed by flashing lights from fire trucks and law enforcement.
When they made it to their destination, Willow and Wrangler were given a hero’s welcome, with signs and cheers celebrating the end of 13 months of intense chemo infusions to battle her pediatric brain cancer.
“Today is her last day of chemo,” Emily Henke, Willow’s mom, said as she looked on while Willow hugged friends and family at the end of her ride.
Chemo was the only option for Willow’s tumor, Emily Henke said; it is otherwise inoperable.
She had surgery scheduled the week after the parade to free her of the port put into her body to facilitate the treatments, and will be able to transition back into her kindergarten class, which she has been attending via Skype.
And while the tumor may have taken the sight from her right eye, it didn’t take her spirit. Despite the illness and weakness that accompanies such treatments, Willow kept up with Wrangler the whole time.
“She’s an avid little barrel-racer,” Emily Henke said. “She barrel-raced all through chemo.”
Her cowgirl reputation was noted, with signs cheering on “Willow Our Warrior,” celebrating the spirit of “Cowgirl Strong.”
When she has a brief lull in her well-earned moment of celebrity, Willow, sporting a rainbow tiara and purple-rimmed glasses framing big, inquisitive eyes, was able to answer a few questions.
Does she like to go fast or slow while barrel racing?
“Fast,” came the answer, through the gap in her smile where her two front teeth used to be.
Does she like to spend time with Wrangler?
“Yes,” she said, the smile widening at the mention of her horse friend.
How many belt buckles does she have for barrel-racing?
“Five!” she answered.
“Five? But you’re only six years old!”
She giggled, then gracefully extracted herself from the conversations with adults to pay attention to something much more important.
Nearby, a small group of young kids skittered and ran all over the grass and landscaping, playing an impromptu game of hide and seek. One particularly good hider declared that they had won, but then the matter was resolved by a unanimous vote among the players.
“I win!” came the first exclamation.
“No, Willow wins!” came the reply.