By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Three-year-old Melissa ran around Thursday morning, throwing handfuls of leaves into the air and giggling as they landed in her hair.
When she grew bored of the leaves, she enlisted her father’s help in climbing a tree.
Most would consider a toddler playing with her family a typical scene, but for the Joyners, it’s the equivalent of a miracle.
“It’s so lovely to see her do normal things,” Adam Joyner, Melissa’s father, said.
Melissa hadn’t traveled beyond a 35-mile radius of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the United Kingdom for at least two years until her family’s trip to Salisbury this month.
After being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, at age 1, she started undergoing a grueling two-year chemotherapy regimen.
Side effects from the chemo kept the family close to the hospital at all times.
“Every time we thought she was getting a little bit better she would get an infection or something,” Melissa’s mother, Moona Joyner, said. “There was always something. We were always scared.”
Not being able to travel prevented Melissa from meeting her father’s side of the family.
Adam grew up in Salisbury before joining the U.S. Air Force. He and Moona, a Finnish citizen, met in Belgium and moved to the United Kingdom about seven years ago.
David Joyner, Adam’s father, is the only one of his family members who has gotten to meet Melissa. He flew over to visit shortly after her diagnosis.
Adam and Moona decided to book at trip to the United States after Melissa’s final round of chemo last month.
David and Tami Joyner said they are delighted to have the family in their home.
“Having them here is really fantastic, it’s been a really enjoyable visit,” David said.
Tami said the first time she saw Melissa was as she was walking downstairs to the basement.
“That was wonderful,” she said. “Her eyes lit up and my eyes lit up, so it was pretty neat.”
The road to Salisbury
Melissa’s tiny frame had to overcome a lot before her trip to Salisbury.
The first symptoms of her cancer came in the form of swollen eyes and night sweats. Then she stopped eating and started having difficulty breathing.
Doctors treated her for pneumonia and released her. A week later she ended up in the intensive care unit.
When doctors asked to talk with Adam and Moona together, the couple knew the news wasn’t good.
“They brought us into their leather-clad room and sat us down and the short of that is that our daughter had cancer and we wouldn’t be getting discharged,” Adam said.
That was the beginning of Melissa’s two-year battle.
She was poked and prodded with all kinds of medical gadgets. And several months into the chemo, her wavy brown hair started falling out.
“She was so young she didn’t understand what was going on,” Moona said. “At first, she was so traumatized by it, she was looking at us like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ ”
But Moona said it didn’t take long for her daughter to become a “star patient.”
“She just got used to it. She was never afraid to go to the hospital,” she said. “With children they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They just keep going.”
Melissa was getting along well until April.
“She became very unwell and started losing her mobility,” Adams said. “Eventually, she was paralyzed from head to toe. She was barely able to blink.”
The family learned she had a strain of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder that causes the body’s immune system to attack the nervous system.
The syndrome likely spawned from a virus or surgical procedure, but the family never found out the exact cause.
“That was easily the worst time of the entire treatment,” Adam said.
After about eight weeks, Melissa was back on her feet.
“We didn’t have to motivate her. She would go as hard as we would let her in therapy,” Adam said. “There was no stopping her.”
Although dealing with Melissa’s illness has been emotionally draining, Moona said the family has fought tears.
“We’re trying to be really brave in front of her,” she said.
Since Melissa’s diagnosis, the Joyner family has been committed to raising money for cancer research.
They hosted a fundraiser called “Melissa’s Miracle Walk,” in their hometown of Downham Market earlier this month. The event brought in more than $2,300 for blood cancer research.
This Saturday, they’ll be attending a fundraiser to benefit Relay for Life.
The charity poker run will begin with registration at 10:30 a.m. at the Carriage Room, 2141 Statesville Blvd. The first bike will leave at 11 a.m.
After the ride, there will be a celebration with live music and barbecue plates.
The event will run until 10 p.m. with “Slow Rollin Lo” playing from 3 to 6 p.m. and “Kry Havok” performing at 7 p.m.
Tickets to the event cost $15 per bike or $7 for food.
Part of the proceeds from the day will go to the Joyner family.
Enjoying the States
The Joyners will get to see their extended family Saturday and go trick-or-treating Monday before heading back to the United Kingdom on Tuesday.
Their favorite attraction in Rowan County has been Dan Nicholas Park, where they went paddle boating, took a spin on the carousel and rode the train.
“Melissa loved it there,” Moona said. “I liked it too. It was just gorgeous.”
They also took a trip to Concord Mills and Melissa had her first meal from Bojangles.
But they said the best times have been spent with David and Tami.
“The real highlight has been being able to sit down and have a meal with her grandparents,” Adam said.
Adam said it’s been good to be back home.
“Having been in the military for 21 years, Salisbury is still the only place in the world I consider to be home,” he said. “It’s the only place where I have roots, and that’s why I’m here.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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