Feature

What Happened to Abbey's Mom

She was 25 years old and pregnant with her first child—the picture of health, happiness, and the potential of life. But Nicole Davis had no idea that she’d developed a relentless form of cancer that was, in a cruel twist, aggravated by her pregnancy.

August 2011

Nicole and Tyler arrived at their condo near Chatfield Reservoir at almost the same time. Standing in the driveway, they collapsed into each other. “I’ll go through any fight with you,” Tyler told her, “no matter what.” Nicole clung to him, her awareness narrowed down to two short thoughts that slid across her mind like ticker tape: Will I die? Will I lose Abigail?

Tyler and Nicole met as teenagers. He spotted her at 16-and-over night at a club called Hollywood Legends, near Sixth Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard. He looked at her, she looked away, and he figured he’d missed his chance. But then there she was in front of him.

“Why aren’t you dancing?”

“Because no one asked,” he said. He was transfixed by her eyes, hair, and smile, but there was something else that captured him—a sense of playfulness and pure joy, as if any place could be illuminated merely by her presence.

Two days after the phone call, family members joined the couple at the Kaiser Franklin Medical Center to meet with Dr. Steve Panian, the general surgeon who diagnosed Nicole’s cancer. The group was too large for an exam room, so Panian led them down a hallway and into a conference room. Along with the anxiety about Nicole’s diagnosis, there was the usual tension that arose when Nicole’s extended family was in a room with her parents.

Nicole’s mother and father had wrestled with alcoholism while she was growing up, and after one violent clash between 13-year-old Nicole and her mother, Child Protective Services threatened to place her in foster care. Her aunt and uncle, Marilyn and Ted Medina, took her in, and she grew close to them while her relationship with her mother remained volatile.

They were all there that day: Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Ted, Nicole’s father, and Tyler’s mother. Panian explained what cancer was, how it spreads, and which treatments could be used to fight it. While Marilyn and Tyler’s mom scribbled notes, Nicole could barely comprehend the words: “cell,” “invasive,” “lumpectomy,” “mastectomy.” She was supposed to be picking out baby clothes and painting the nursery, not looking at diagrams of the multiplying cells that, left to their own devices, could kill both her and her daughter.

The first decision was whether to get a lumpectomy and remove the tumor and surrounding tissue, or to remove the entire breast. Mastectomies were standard until the ’80s, when studies showed that lumpectomies with radiation were just as effective; women began opting for the less-invasive surgery. Many young women still choose mastectomy, though, to decrease risk for recurrence. The less breast tissue, the less long-term risk.

Because the more extensive surgery required prolonged general anesthesia—potentially dangerous for both her and the fetus—she chose to have the lumpectomy. Tyler brought her to Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital, near Kaiser Permanente’s complex on Franklin Street. Nicole was nearly seven months pregnant, three months from her due date, and she was about to go under the knife. The doctors assured her that her baby would be OK while they put her under general anesthesia and operated, but she was so terrified that they wound up agreeing to station a nurse in the operating room expressly to monitor the baby’s vitals.

Before she was wheeled into the operating room for the eight-hour surgery, during which Panian would slice away the tumor against her chest wall, Nicole pleaded with her husband and doctors to save the baby if for some reason the operation went awry. The fear, the dread deep in her gut…she’d felt it before, years earlier, when she was a student at Columbine High School.

On April 20, 1999, Nicole, then a freshman, was sitting with friends in the back of the Columbine cafeteria when they heard shouting and saw dozens of classmates sprinting in terror. As bullets tore through the lockers that lined the walls, Nicole and her friend Julie Naslund ran up a nearby staircase with a stream of people. As they climbed, Nicole turned to glimpse two figures in black trench coats approaching the stairs. The girls reached the top, and Julie tripped and fell. The crowd, crazed, surged over her, and it was all Nicole could do to stand firm and resist getting carried away. She leaned down, throwing elbows to keep Julie from getting trampled, and yanked her friend to her feet.

Nicole glanced back and saw the gunmen. She draped her friend’s arm over her shoulders and pushed ahead, half-dragging Julie. In one direction was a long hallway that led outside. In the other, and much closer, was the library. “Let’s hide in the library,” Julie said, her voice strained with panic and pain. “No,” Nicole replied, calm and resolute. “We’ve got to get out of here.” They half-limped, half-ran toward the exit. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold eventually wandered into the library, where they shot 10 of the 13 people killed that day. “Nicole was my hero before she was anyone else’s hero,” Julie says. Each year on the anniversary of the shootings, Julie’s sister calls to thank Nicole for saving her sister’s life.

The anniversary of the shootings was April 20, less than three months away. Nicole’s due date was April 23. She prayed she wouldn’t go into labor on the 20th. Since her diagnosis, Nicole had been haunted by this thought: She had eluded death once, but had it returned to claim her and her unborn child?

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