COLUMBIA — Jill Zulovich rounded third base, her bright pink-accented cleats kicking up dirt as she ran. The 6-year-old tee-ball player grinned as she crossed home plate, high-fiving her father, Joe Zulovich, on her way into the dugout.
Her father is a parent helper for her tee-ball team, the Royals, who are a part of the Daniel Boone Little League.
On the field, Jill’s eyes concentrated on scooping a ground ball into her glove. She shrugged her shoulders as it rolled between her legs. Despite missing the ball a few times when it came her way, a smile hardly left the face of the little girl standing there in her Royals team jersey, her brown hair pulled back neatly into a ponytail under her blue baseball cap.
Looking at Jill, you would never know that at age 2, all of that hair fell out. That she spent 101 days in the hospital. That she endured a 10-hour back surgery, 48 blood transfusions, eight rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation treatment.
That she beat cancer.
That she’s headed to the White House.
Jill had an emergency MRI done at Boone Hospital in January 2004 after repeatedly complaining of a backache and showing a lack of energy. The results showed she had a tumor, which was later determined to be a malignant rhabdoid tumor dangerously wrapped around her spine. The cancer was a sarcoma type, a rare form occurring in the soft tissues of the body. She was airlifted to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., a week later.
At 26 months, Jill was given a 10 percent chance of surviving. And if she survived the surgery to remove the tumor, Jill had a 90 percent chance of being paralyzed for the rest of her life, her mother said.
The tumor ate away at two vertebrae, and Jill underwent two successful back surgeries to remove the tumor and reconstruct her spine. The two destroyed vertebrae were removed and replaced with part of Jill’s hipbone and a bone from the donor bone bank at the children’s hospital. Her mother said she also has many rods, screws and pins supporting her back.
“There is life after a pediatric cancer diagnosis. It’s so depressing and so sad when you find something like this out,” said Joyce Zulovich, Jill’s mother. “But here we are now, and life does goes on after cancer.”
Jill has to visit St. Jude every six months for MRIs, scans and blood work to make sure she remains cancer-free. Her family had to travel to Memphis every three months for the first couple of years, but soon Jill will only need to have annual post-treatment checkups.
“We realize we’re always one bad scan away from the nightmare starting all over again,” Joyce Zulovich said.
Jill will not be considered a long-term cancer survivor until she shows no evidence of disease after five years of testing. But since the fall of 2004, she has been cancer-free.
She is finishing up her second season of tee-ball for the Daniel Boone Little League. Joyce Zulovich said Jill wanted to play after watching her 12-year-old sister Jennifer.
“Jill has always looked up to her big sister, and her big sister plays softball,” her mother said. “So she wanted to be like Jenny and play, too.”
In her tee-ball game Thursday, the Royals were facing the Yankees in a game that only lasted a couple innings. Raindrops started to fall and the sound of thunder threatened in the distance. When lightning flashed across the sky, the game was called because of the weather.
But that didn’t matter to Jill. She was happy to receive her trophy, laughing and giggling with her family and teammates after the game.
“Tell the president hi for us,” a teammate called out to her.
She will have the opportunity to do just that.
Jill will represent Missouri at the Tee-Ball on the South Lawn All-Star Game. Fifty-one tee-ball players, one from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, have been selected to play on July 16 at the White House.
President George W. Bush was the first U.S. President to play Little League. He and the first lady have invited Little League tee-ball teams to the White House for games on the South Lawn for the past 7 years, but this will be the first game featuring a player from every state, according to the Little League Web site, littleleague.org. The games will be followed by a picnic for participants and their families, and the president will present each player with an autographed baseball.
Jill, who just finished kindergarten at Columbia Catholic School, was chosen to play after her parents nominated her and the Daniel Boone Little League president recommended her in an essay.
Jill has been on Royals coach Doug Crouse’s team since she started playing. He said he is glad Jill is getting the opportunity to play at the White House.
“I don’t know a whole lot of kids who have gone through the medical challenges that she has,” Crouse said. “I think coming through that makes her deserving.”
He said he has enjoyed having Jill on his team, especially when he sees her smiling and having fun.
“That smile just melts you,” Crouse said. “She’s just got an incredible attitude, and watching her develop from last year to this year has been a real inspiration and enjoyment for me.”
Joe, Joyce, Jenny and Jill Zulovich will be making the trip to Washington D.C. for the all-star game, which will be a good diversion for Jill and her family before the familiar trip to St. Jude in July. On her most recent visit in January, the family learned Jill was still cancer-free and no longer needed to wear her full-torso back brace.
She still has physical limitations that include no tumbling and no contact sports, but Joyce Zulovich said she feels blessed that her daughter only has these things to worry about.
“When I reflect back to how critical she was in the ICU, seeing her play ball brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “Everything worked in her favor when the odds were so against her, and she pulled through.”
Childhood cancers are rare, and the type of cancer Jill had accounts for only 3.5 percent of all childhood cancers, according to the American Cancer Society’s annual statistics report.
Besides playing tee-ball, she takes dance lessons and likes to swim — activities it was once doubtful she could ever enjoy. Joyce Zulovich is grateful the outcome was different than the bleak prognosis. It’s evident from the smile on her face as she cheers on her daughter from the stands at the ball field.
“Jill loves life and makes the most of every day,” her mother said. “She’s truly our walking, talking miracle.”