Ashley Davis surely stood out sitting among a sea of Louisville red and white and Michigan maize and blue at Michigan’s NCAA Tournament match last November.
There she was, adorned in the pink No. 6 Michigan jersey of her sister Ally.
The match over, Ashley greeted Ally and handed a roll of mint LifeSavers candy to her with a message.
“Thanks for saving my life,” Ashley said.
There is significance in that pink jersey.
Six weeks earlier, Ally — who holds Hinsdale Central’s all-time record for most kills, kills in a season and blocks — had worn the pink jersey as part of Michigan’s breast cancer awareness match.
It was her last match before Ally left Michigan for home, to help her sister.
Ashley Davis, Ally’s oldest sister, was first diagnosed in 2000 at age 11 with primary central nervous system lymphoma after doctors discovered a brain tumor. Ashley was cancer-free for five years following chemotherapy, but in 2005 it came back in a form of leukemia caused directly by the chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma.
A bone-marrow transplant was deemed the best chance to beat it, and it was found that Ally and her sister Abby were both matches. Abby was chosen as a donor, and the cancer went into remission.
A family could exhale.
Ally, a three-time Daily Herald All-Area player for Hinsdale Central, committed to Michigan and spent the summer before her freshman year playing club volleyball.
Before one of those tournaments, in June 2012, Ashley started to not feel right.
Doctors recommended a Donor Leukocyte Infusion, a treatment for leukemia patients who have relapses after initial bone marrow transplants.
The treatment seemed to work, and in August Ally left for college. Still anxious over her sister, Ally started her second match at Michigan and had 10 kills in a win over North Florida. She played in 17 of the team’s first 24 matches.
Just as she broke into the starting lineup, though, the Davis family found out the DLI treatment had failed. The next step was stem cell transplant. Ally was the best possible donor.
“It was pretty emotional,” Ally remembered. “Leaving college for the first time, I knew my sister wasn’t doing well. That was already nerve-wracking as it is.
“When I was at school and heard that the treatment didn’t work I knew that wasn’t a good sign. It’s quite emotional. It’s your sister, and you want the best for her. You’re away, you’re home sick, still trying to get what the feel of college was like.”
Ally was in her dorm at Michigan when she received the call from her sister. They had to work quickly, while Ashley was healthy enough to receive the transplant.
“She was really upset, she kept apologizing to me,” Ally said, “and I was like, ‘That’s completely fine. I’m going to do what I have to do.’ She asked me how I could be so calm, and I said, ‘We’re going to do this, and hope for the best that it works out.’”
It was a quick process after that. Ally was back and forth between Hinsdale and Ann Arbor for two weeks for doctor’s appointments and blood tests. Twice a day, she gave herself injections to draw bone marrow from her bloodstream to prep for the procedure.
On Oct. 26, 2012, Ally played her last match before the surgery, against Purdue. The Davis family met the team after their match in West Lafayette to drive Ally back to Chicago for the transplant.
For Ally the stem cell transplant took five hours, two days after the Purdue match. The next day, Ashley received Ally’s harvested stem cells. Ally was gone from Ann Arbor four days, missing the next weekend’s matches and practice while recovering. With the missed time and recovery, she played in just two sets the rest of the season.
Nearly a year later, Ashley has completed her college studies and plans to work in Chicago with children and adults with special needs. A wedding is planned for the spring.
Ally, for her part, is back with the team. As of Sept. 14, she had played in three sets with 3 kills for 7-1 Michigan.
When Michigan has its next cancer awareness match, Ally’s thoughts will surely be with her sister.
“It reminds me of her; it’s pretty emotional,” Ally said. “She’s doing really well. She lost a ton of weight, but she put the weight back on. I’m not sure how many months it’s been, but they say if you make it five years after a transplant you’re considered cancer free.”
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