Leah Biery may consider herself “just a young lady from Walbridge,” but her strength and kindness belie her modesty.
The 18-year-old Lake High School senior is among this year's crop of Stefanie's Champions, an Ohio-wide award for those who uphold someone facing cancer.
“In our little junior-high lives, something as big as cancer hits really hard,” Miss Biery said. “I really just wanted to be nice to someone who obviously needed a friend.”
Miss Biery's kindness won her a best friend in fellow student and cancer patient Jim Nietz. And tomorrow in Columbus, she'll receive a crystal sculpture symbolic of her “Stefanie's Champion” status.
Four years ago, Jim Nietz moved to Lake Township from Texas. He was a good student and liked the small, friendly junior high school. But a few months later, he developed asthma symptoms after hard hockey games. A doctor X-rayed his chest. The mass he saw there turned out to be a stage-three non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a well-advanced cancer.
Months of surgeries and chemotherapy treatments attacked the disease and left the youth exhausted and nauseated, his mouth full of sores.
“I lost all my hair, but I kept a real good attitude,” he said. “I was worried about how my friends at school would react and found out everyone was really supportive. But there was this one friend, her name was Leah, she really was special. She stuck by me through the whole thing.”
Miss Biery designed cards, baked cookies, and phoned or visited Jim each day to check on his progress.
“She was there for me, always understanding and compassionate,” he said. “How often do you see a young girl, a 14-year-old, who is that kind and understanding?”
When the cancer went into remission, the two became a couple, he said. They've been inseparable through their high school years and will attend the Lake High School Senior Prom together in a few weeks.
They may even attend colleges near one another. He will study prelaw and political science. She wants to be a doctor.
In the fall, when Jim heard about the Columbus-based awards program, he wrote an essay about Leah's generosity and sent it in. A few weeks ago, the phone call came. Leah was amazed, she said.
“It's a huge honor,” she said. “I figure when someone is ill, sometimes they need someone to escape the illness with, someone to offer them a distraction or an outlet. My parents are very loving people. They raised me to be sensitive to others. With Jim, I just wanted to be nice.”
“We have a very special relationship. We're very close,” he said. “I think we're both more mature because of what we've been through together.”
“The prize is wonderful,” Leah added. “But Jim's the best prize I could get. He's the best.”