Cancer Survivor Alyssa Iacoboni Goes on the Hunt of a Lifetime
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR AN UNLIKELY PAIR, match the fresh-faced girl with two earrings in her right ear sitting with...
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR AN UNLIKELY PAIR, match the fresh-faced girl with two earrings in her right ear sitting with the cowpuncher with the droopy gray mustache, sweat-stained hat, and dusty jeans. He is leaning more than halfway over the coffee table in the windblown desert town of Rock Springs, Wyo., here in the lobby of the Best Western, and holding both her hands in his upright palms. He holds them like precious things he might break were he not careful, and behind a three-day stubble and his weathered features, he is smiling so hard as to be on the verge of tears. “I been looking forward to this more than any hunt I’ve booked all year,” he tells her. “We’re gonna get you a good deer, honey. I promise you that. You’ll see hundreds of deer. They’re moving down off the mountains now, coming down into their winter range. The big ones tend to move last. Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re finally here.”
He turns and smiles at the girl’s father, sitting next to her on the couch. “You have to hunt with me…forever. Every year. You and your dad. On me. Understand?” She blushes, glows, looks at her father, then back at the cowboy. He is serious. She hardly knows him, but he is, here and now, making a commitment that will last as long as either of them lives. The cowboy drops his eyes for a moment, giving her time to take it all in. But she doesn’t need time. She neither flusters nor embarrasses nor flees to the safety of a polite protest that it is too great a gift. She smiles. He coughs, then continues in a different tone. “Now, it’s okay to spend a little time with this fellow,” he says, cocking his head in my direction but keeping his eyes on her. “Just remember,” he says, slowly tapping his chest with a forefinger, “I’m your number one.” His eyes are watering again. The gray mustache that obscures his mouth stays put while the silk bandanna around his throat rises and then settles back into its place.
Her eyes dance and change with the light, sometimes hazel, sometimes green. She is beautiful. Her metal crutches lean against the back of the sofa. She has been waiting for this moment forever, nearly 10 months, since last winter at a sporting show in Grand Rapids, when her two brothers wheeled her by the booth of the outfitter who had agreed to work with the Hunt of a Lifetime charity. That was when the man asked her and her father to be his guests for a mule deer hunt. Her name is Alyssa Iacoboni and she is 15 years old. Her head is smooth. Her eyebrows and eyelashes are gone. The chemo took them all (although she insists that a few eyelashes are already growing back). It is as if her head and face in their unashamed nakedness permit her beauty to shine stronger. She is unselfconscious about her appearance: her lack of hair, and the stump of leg that stops above where her left knee once was. She smiles and talks freely. Yet she holds within herself a world that is hers alone. Later, photographer Erika Larsen and I will discover that we both thought of Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, upon first seeing Alyssa. In that picture a similarly luminous girl has just turned her gaze to the viewer, as if someone has just entered her room. Vermeer chose to portray his girl without hair, too, though hers by virtue of the blue and gold cloth that covers it completely. It is a trick the artist used to draw your eye to her expression. Both share that startling combination of openness and self-containment, present and vivid, yet reserving unto themselves a mystery.
Vermeer’s picture, often dubbed the Mona Lisa of the North for its haunting beauty, was done more than 300 years ago. Alyssa Iacoboni (Yaka-Boni) is right here. And if she bears a wisdom beyond her years, she is also very much a 15-year-old girl. “I am so psyched to go on this hunt,” she says. “My brothers are totally jealous.” Just two weeks ago, she killed her first whitetail, a doe on 37 acres the family owns not far from home in Grand Rapids. Her father, Evan, says she is weary from the trip, from delays that caused them to arrive at 4 A.M., instead of 10 P.M.
THE NEXT MORNING, WE CARAVAN to the unit where the outfitter, Bruce Feri, who runs Canyon Creek Outfitters, has a special tag for Alyssa’s buck. It’s high desert country, about 7,500 feet, an endless undulating carpet of sage west of the never-ending spine of the Wind River Mountains. We load up in trucks and head up into the hills to glass for deer. Alyssa is being fitted for a hydraulic leg but is still on crutches at the moment. She hops nimbly into the cab and stows them beside her. I ask about the doe she took. “I’d taken my hunter safety even before I got sick, but didn’t have a chance to hunt until this year. First I was nervous when I went out with my brothers. I was afraid I might not like hunting as much as they did. But when I saw that doe, I got so excited I could hear my own heart. It was so intense. And then I made a good shot with the .30/30 and I was even more excited. It was just really cool.” She has been practicing with a .22 magnum, and her brothers helped her sight in the new .308 that Savage Arms donated to Hunt of a Lifetime.
There was already a foundation, Make-A-Wish, for young people facing life-threatening illnesses. In 1996, it granted a seriously ill Minnesota boy’s wish to hunt Kodiak brown bear in Alaska, a gesture that enraged animal rights groups, prompting them to mount a national campaign against Make-A-Wish. Some members were threatened with bodily harm. When Tina Pattison, a school bus driver and mother of six in Erie County, Pa., told the group that her son Matthew, an 18-year-old with Hodgkin’s disease, wanted more than anything to hunt moose in Canada, she was told the foundation could no longer grant such wishes. It simply wasn’t safe. But Pattison was not the type to be intimidated. She and her husband, Chester, got mad. Then they got on the phone. In time, thanks to the hard work of his parents and the generosity of some outfitters, a lodge, a grocery store, and countless others, Matthew and his dad went on the hunting trip and bagged a 55-inch moose. The anticipation of the hunt kept him going through months of pain, Tina says. “He kept saying, ‘I’ll be all right because I’m going on that moose hunt.'” Matthew died in April 1999, at the age of 19. And Tina founded Hunt of a Lifetime to honor Matthew’s memory and to grant the wishes of other youngsters who love hunting and the outdoors.
As we drive and glass muleys tucked away in the sagebrush, Bruce explains that this is the Sublette herd, the most migratory deer in the West. They travel up to 100 miles from the Salt River, Wyoming, Wind River, Gros Ventre, and Snake River ranges to winter in the desert of the Green River Basin. “They’ll stay around here as long as the wind blows the snow off the vegetation. If the snow gets too heavy for that, they’ll just keep heading south. Come spring, they’ll follow the snow line back up into the mountains.” The deer have a tough life, he says. “Sometimes it gets to 40, 50 below up here. That’s without windchill. It doesn’t stay that cold for long, but they can’t stand it for long, either. Come spring, most of these deer are hanging on by their fingernails.” The state recently pushed back the date that shed hunters can start walking in this area in the spring for fear of stressing the deer at a critical time. Alyssa doesn’t say anything, but she has some experience of her own at the margins, the places where the distance between life and death is as thin as onion skin.
Bruce stops the truck and pulls out a spotting scope. It’s a bright, windy day in the low 60s, warmer than usual, warmer than he’d like. There was a dusting of snow a few days ago. He points out four groups of muleys dotting the landscape, numbering nearly 50 in all. “Now let’s see if we can find you a good buck.” He glasses about six, all with does. It is just before the rut, the females not yet ready but tolerating the bucks, which merely jockey for position rather than fight. Bruce gives his 10-power Swarovski to Alyssa and shows her a bedded 4×4 nearly half a mile away. It takes her a while to see the gray deer hiding in plain sight. “I see him now,” she says. Bruce clucks his tongue, thinking it over. “He’s not bad, but we can do better.” He shoves the truck back in gear.
UNTIL SHE WAS SENT THE TERRIBLE blessing of cancer, Alyssa had been just another normal–if abnormally successful–schoolgirl. She was popular, the girl elected to represent her class at the homecoming dance, an athlete who played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She was the fastest kid in her junior high, just half a second off the school record in the 200 meters. High school coaches were already scouting her. She also did the long jump and shot put. I tell her that she looks too light to be a shot-putter. “Yeah, I know. Everybody thinks it’s about upper body strength, but it’s more about using your body the right way, momentum and leverage.” Her brothers, Daniel and Justin–both jocks, both lifelong hunters, and both set on becoming sheriff’s deputies–helped her learn that.
Then one day she came home from basketball camp complaining of pain in her left leg. At first the doctors just thought it was hyperextended and counseled rest. Eventually, they X-rayed it and saw the tumor in her knee, an aggressively can cerous mass in the bones. They scheduled her for an appointment with the oncologist for the next day and gave her a name for the disease: osteosarcoma, bone cancer. Two weeks later she was on her way to Detroit for her first surgery.
Another hour into the hunt, the sun high now, Bruce spots a better buck in the company of about 10 does. A subordinate buck lingers in the brush nearby, causing the big one to assert his dominance and move the ladies. The smaller male invariably shadows them. “Good and bad,” Bruce says. “They’re moving, but distracted enough that we might get close.” He, Alyssa, and I aim for a rock that would give her a decent shot, but soon 12 pairs of eyes have us pinned. Then they take off running. “Don’t worry,” Bruce tells her as she swings her way back on the crutches. “We’ll get you one. You feeling tired or anything?” She shakes her head. “I’m fine.”
The diagnosis changed everything. It was as if a portal had opened into a parallel universe, a world invisible to those who live on the surface. All at once Alyssa could no longer measure joys and sorrows by a schoolgirl’s standards: cute clothes and the coolest ringtones, popularity and which group you were going with to the football game. When the social worker assigned to her case asked if the idea of dying scared her, Alyssa confronted her parents. Were they keeping something from her? No, honey, they said. We’ll never keep anything from you. They told her that her cancer was serious, possibly terminal, but that they would take things one day at a time. She understood that she was in a fight for her life. The possibility of death, someone wrote, tends to focus the mind rather intensely. Alyssa seemed to decide quickly that she still had the three things that mattered most to her: her family, her faith in God, and her belief in herself. That was not to say there weren’t times she cried, times she lashed out at her parents, or times when she despaired. But for the most part she showed what many kids show, only more of it: an acceptance of the situation and its possible outcomes that an adult can only envy, and a resolve to fight. “I just realized it wouldn’t do any good to be negative,” she says. “It doesn’t help, doesn’t make you stronger. It’s like when you’re behind in a basketball game. You just focus on what you need to do to get back in it.”
Her faith had always been important to her, and it became even more so now. Nearly every day she would recite her favorite verse, 29:11 from the book of Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” She was in God’s hands. Whatever happened, it was what He had chosen for her. She could live with that. If necessary, she could die with it.
We drive some more, stop and eat sandwiches, chew and look at the country. It’s sparse and clean and pitiless. Alyssa seems at ease but doesn’t say much, doesn’t readily reveal herself. I will wonder about this so much that I will call her mom, Linda, after the trip. She will tell me her daughter’s composure unnerved her as well. “At each new turn in her illness, she was like, okay, let’s fix this and keep going. She is incredibly competitive, I can tell you that. The coaches always had her run anchor for the 400- and 800-meter relays, both for her speed and because she absolutely refuses to lose.” During Alyssa’s last race, she tells me, the girl handing her the baton dropped it before the pass. “But it was still in the lane, so Alyssa picked it up. And I remember feeling the crowd’s reaction, how they didn’t think she could catch up. But she did. And she won. She has always been the kind of girl you don’t want to say, ‘I bet you can’t’ or ‘I dare you’ to. She’s not insecure, but she has always lived her life like she’s got something to prove.”
The doctors eventually told her they needed to take the leg. She was offered “limb salvage,” in which a combination of cadaver bone, metal rods, and bone grafts enable a patient to keep an arm or leg. But she wouldn’t be able to run on such a leg, and there were other risks: increased chance of the cancer recurring and of infection, loosening of the implanted bone, and mechanical failure. On December 7, 2005, she let surgeons amputate her left leg above the knee. She also underwent intensive chemo, six rounds of three treatments each. Chemo, she tells me, is as much torture as it is therapy. The poisons kill the cancer cells, the fastest-growing ones in the body, but they kill everything else as well. The theory behind it is brutally simple: Inflict as much destruction upon the body as possible while still leaving the subject “viable.” As soon as the patient has recovered from the last round to the point where she can be expected to survive more, more is administered.
Alyssa became so sick that her mother figures she attended school a total of 10 days during her ninth-grade year. She took drugs to flush the chemicals from her body between courses of chemo, drugs to cope with the excruciating “phantom pain” from the nonexistent leg. The human brain, perhaps perceiving that a limb has been chopped off, reflexively responds, activating the nerve cells in that area to register a traumatic event. Her immunity plummeted to nothing, leaving her defenseless against normally mundane maladies. A nosebleed might last for eight hours and require an emergency trip back to the hospital for a transfusion. Sores in her mouth and nasal passages became infected and required intravenous antibiotics and morphine. She seemed to live at the hospital. Her sense of smell and taste became abnormally acute. The odor of hospital food made her ill. Liz, a 17-year-old friend she had made in the hospital who had a more advanced form of the same cancer, died. “It was hard” is all she’ll say. She doesn’t dramatize the death, doesn’t choke up about it for your benefit, doesn’t use it to make some point about her own suffering. “It was hard when Liz died,” she says. She reminds me of soldiers I’ve talked to who have survived extended combat. Such men tend to be low-key to the point of self-effacement. They have transcended any need for the approval–or even the attention–of others. Any questions about their identity, or worth, or place in life have already been settled. They know that each breath is a gift.
BRUCE ABRUPTLY STOPS AND BRINGS his binocs up to his eyes. “Shooter buck,” he tells me. He backs the truck slowly and angles it to get his window broadside so he can put the spotting scope on the buck. “That’s the best one I’ve seen in a while,” he says. Two bucks and two does are feeding about 500 yards away. Studying the lay of the land, however, we see there is no good approach. They are on a little ridge in the sagebrush, higher than everything around them. “Have to throw the dice,” he says. Our only option is to drive a little closer before making a right that will take us into a fold in the land from which we could sneak on them. “If we could get to that rock over there,” he says, pointing to a boulder, “we might be close enough for a shot.” He creeps forward and makes the right, then moves steadily onward. The deer do not take alarm. After a few more minutes, they all bed down: two does about 25 feet away from the bucks, the second of which is much smaller. We get out the .308 and a tripod to steady it on. Bruce asks Alyssa if she can crawl the last 50 yards to the rock or if she’d prefer to be carried. “I can crawl,” she says.
“I’m gonna hustle up to that rock, make sure they’re not spooked, and try to range ’em,” says Bruce. Alyssa hops down from the cab and gets her crutches. I sling the gun across my back so I can crawl when we get close. We set off, Alyssa planting her foot, then swinging forward with her crutches. Each time she moves them, she swings them either around or between the crackly sage tufts to avoid unnecessary noise. I walk doubled over, staying as low as I can. We travel for about 100 yards this way toward Bruce, who is pressed to the rock, his hat on the ground behind him, rising as slow as a snake to peer over with his binocs. He drops back just as slowly, gives us a thumbs-up, and motions that we’ll have to cover the rest of the distance prone. Alyssa balances on her foot as she places the crutches quietly on the ground. Then she lowers herself down to her two elbows and one knee and begins to pull herself over the ground.
At last we make it to Bruce and the rock, which is barely big enough to screen us even if we bunch up. Bruce whispers for the shooting tripod, but we have left it behind. I take off my parka and pass it forward. He folds it across the rock. I insert the clip, quietly chamber a round, check that the safety is on, and pass it forward. He helps Alyssa squirm into a shooting position, sitting on her folded knee. All four deer are bedded now, the two does to the right of the bucks. The little buck is bedded left of the bigger one and is easier to see. Bruce wants to make sure she is sighting on the bigger one. The sun is nearly in front of us, and she is having trouble seeing through the scope because of it. At last, she says, “Got him. Oh my gosh.” Bruce claps her gently on the back. “We’ve got ’em where we want ’em, honey. That is a really nice buck. You just try to stay on him.” He looks again through his glasses, then ranges the buck. “Two hundred yards,” he says. He tells her to relax. We just have to wait now for the buck to get up and offer a good shot.
Minutes pass. Bruce is in an awkward position and needs to drop down and rest every so often. He tells Alyssa to stay on the buck, to wait until he rises and turns broadside, then to shoot just behind the front leg and midway up the body. I sneak a look and watch through the glasses as the big buck lays his head down so that just the four tines on his left side are showing, nothing more than tiny glints of sunlight 200 yards off. We sit some more. I’m lying on my side and it’s getting wet, the last of the snowmelt still pooled on the ground. Just then, Alyssa says, “They’re getting up!” She has had to shift slightly, causing the bill of her blaze orange cap to slide over her eyes. When she adjusts it, she can no longer find the buck. And the sun, lower now, is lined up almost directly behind the four standing deer. “I can’t see them,” she says, and her voice is plaintive and desperate. Bruce repositions her hat a second time to cut down on the glare and points in the direction of the deer, which he and I can see clearly. “I still don’t have them,” Alyssa moans. “Keep looking, honey,” Bruce says soothingly. The barrel of the rifle is waggling. She is way off now.
I’m worried. I’m worried that she’ll acquire the wrong buck when she does get back on them because, once again, the smaller buck is standing in a more open spot. I’m worried that she’ll rush the shot and miss or, worse, wound the buck and then we’ll be in for a nighttime tracking job to find him before the coyotes do. Finally Alyssa says she can see the buck. I’m hoping it’s the right one. I’m hoping he’s standing broadside and still with his head down grazing so she doesn’t get transfixed by the antlers. Bruce tells her to shoot now but she doesn’t. I know she doesn’t have a very solid platform, my coat and her shoulder, her body sitting atop her one folded-under knee, surely numb and cold by now. The longer she waits, the less confident I am that it will happen the way it ought to. After an eternity, during which I stay mum, prone, and praying, there comes the sharp, loud crack of the rifle. I had forgotten about the muzzle brake to reduce recoil on a girl’s shoulder. Bruce explodes upward like a rocket. “You got him! You got him!” I rise in time to see the buck stagger and collapse. Bruce has lifted Alyssa and is hugging her. Then he hugs me. Then I hug Alyssa. Her dad and Erika, who’ve crept closer behind us, are shouting and coming up. “Run over there and make sure he’s done,” Bruce tells me. “I’ll bring Alyssa.” I take off, my own legs scarcely obeying me after being stuck so long in one position.
The buck is lying dead with his eyes open and a small hole in the middle of his body right behind the front leg. It is a perfect shot, the diagram any hunter has seen countless times of where to shoot a deer. The buck has a dark, forked 4×4 rack and is enormous, bigger than any whitetail I’ve ever seen, girthed up from months of feeding in anticipation of the rut. Alyssa swings her way over to pose for photos and get congratulatory first, second, and third hugs from everybody. The men, all three of us, are now looking away, drying the tears we would swear are just from the wind in our eyes. Bruce begins gutting the animal and has Alyssa take part, both their hands on his heavy knife as they slice up the belly. He removes the heart and hoists it for us to see. The top of it has been pulverized by the shot. “Can’t shoot them any better’n this,” he says. Alyssa strokes the flank of the buck quietly.
That night, after a celebratory dinner in Bruce’s camper trailer, he prints out some of the shots he took on a digital printer. Everyone wants signed copies of Alyssa and Bruce together. She has her hands on the buck’s antlers, striped in their own shadows by the slanting sun, the wind pushing both ends of Bruce’s long mustache toward Alyssa. Alyssa signs all of hers with her name and “the deer slayer.”
I tell her I can’t get over the shot, that it is almost unbelievable. “Tell you something else,” says Bruce. “It was actually 223 yards. I told her 200 because I didn’t want her to overthink it or hold high or anything like that.” I look at her and blurt, “You couldn’t make that shot twice.” I don’t know why I say this, and even as the words come out of my mouth, I know they’re stupid and just hope that she doesn’t take offense. But the luminous girl with two earrings in her right ear and the Vermeer skin just regards me with that look, at once open and impenetrable, and says quietly, “I could make that shot again.” She says this neither in irritation nor as a boast. It is just the truth, a thing that she knows. And she has never found there to be any great virtue in hiding the truth. It is at this moment that I see the steel beneath the beauty. Suddenly I understand. This is a girl who cannot be defeated, even if she should die in the fight. Of course she could make that same shot tomorrow. She could absolutely make that shot.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Want to help kids like Alyssa take their own dream hunting or fishing trip? Tina Pattison, founder and president of the nonprofit Hunt of a Lifetime organization (866-345-4455; huntofalifetime.org), says there are many ways to get involved, and they don’t all require writing a check. “We don’t turn anything down, so call us, even if you think what you’re offering is silly.” Here is Pattison’s wish list:
Frequent-Flier Miles: Airfare is one of the main expenses of these trips, so donations of miles are popular and appreciated. “They need to be for a full ticket–we can’t combine miles–so it must be 25,000 miles or better,” says Pattison.
Gear: Hunt of a Lifetime children need equipment and clothing. “If your kid outgrows something but it’s still in good shape, we can use it.”
Services: The organization loves to hear from guides and outfitters who want to host kids. “We prefer full-price hunt donations, but if you can only give a partial trip we’ll find a way to work with you.” Most in demand are Rocky Mountain elk hunts and hunting and fishing trips in Alaska and Mexico.
Money: “We can always use cash,” says Pattison.
Publicity: “Please tell people about us. We’ve had kids pass away before we could send them on a hunt simply because they didn’t find out about us until it was too late,” says Pattison. “Our organization is open to anyone 21 or younger with a life-threatening illness.”