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Zack Wills plans to work in medical field to help others deal with illness

By: Marlana Ward
Freelance Writer

A young man’s teen years are full of life-changing and character forming events.  For one young man from Johnson County, these years were even more so due to a fight for his life against cancer.  
Zack Wills began his journey on May 2, 2013 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin‘s Lymphoma.  “My family doctor, who sent me for further testing when I first noticed I had a swollen lymph node, is Dr. Raina Sluder,” Wills shared.  “I am so thankful for her realizing that something wasn’t right and looking for an answer to find out what was wrong.”
 Zack was referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.  When his family arrived on a Sunday, the staff immediately set out to ease his mind and encourage the family.  “I can remember being so nervous when I walked into the hospital not knowing what I was about to face,” Wills recalled.  “The nurse that came out to the waiting area to take me back was so nice and immediately made us feel at ease.  She explained everything that she was going to do that night and then what would happen throughout my visit.” Zack’s days were filled with multiple clinic visits and tests.  “There were days that first week that I had as many as eight appointments in a day,” remembered Wills.
Zack received the best care available with the doctors and nurses assigned to help him.  “My doctors at the St. Jude clinic in Johnson City are Dr. Marcela Popescu, Dr. Cathleen Cook, and Dr. Kathryn Klopfenstein.  “My primary doctor at the St. Jude hospital in Memphis is Dr. Monica Metzger,” Zack shared.  “I would just like to thank them for all they have done for me.  They have been so caring and tried to do whatever they could to make my treatment process as easy as possible.  I would also like to say that I have had the best nursing care as well.  They all have a very difficult job seeing sick children every day and they are a very special group of people.”
When not busy with doctor visits, Zack was able to enjoy the entertainment that the hospital provides for patients and families.  “St. Jude does a great job of providing activities for patients and there is always something going on,” said Wills.  “Even when I was in the hospital during my stem cell transplant and couldn’t leave the floor, I had a state of the art room with an amazing entertainment center which kept me occupied.  My parents were with me and we enjoy spending time together so it wasn’t so bad.”
Zack’s family played an intricate part in keeping his spirits high and providing emotional support:  “My family has been so supportive this past year.  My mom and dad have been there every step of the way.  They have been there to get me through some tough moments and I always knew that I wasn’t alone in this fight.  My grandparents have also been there to encourage me and take me to some of my treatments when my parents couldn’t.  My Mamaw Peggy even retired just so that she could be with me during my recovery after my stem cell transplant.  My aunts, uncles, and cousins have been just as supportive.  I am thankful that I have a caring family.”
 Zack is also grateful to the people of Johnson County for their caring support.  “I have been amazed by the outpouring of support from my friends and the community,” said Wills.  “It has been such an encouragement to me.  My parents and I will never be able to thank everyone enough for all they have done for our family. I feel that I am very blessed to live in Johnson County because people here really do care about one another.”
The road to recovery for Zack was difficult at times but his resolve to beat cancer helped him not succumb to the exhaustion that chemotherapy can cause in patients.  “While I was on the transplant floor in the hospital, they have a challenge to walk a marathon (26.2 miles),” detailed Wills.  “I was able to complete my marathon in 14 days.  This helped me to get stronger each day.”  He added,” I tried to get back to my normal life as much as I could which I think has helped in my recovery process.”  
In February, Zack was given the wonderful report of being in remission.  He will continue to visit the clinic in Johnson City every three months for check ups.  He will also visit Memphis once a year for the next 10 years for tests and scans.
Today, Zack is a senior at Johnson County High School and preparing for graduation.  He also enjoys playing baseball and working for Mountain City Pharmacy.  He plans to attend Northeast State Technical Community College in the fall where he will pursue a Pre-Med degree.  “I want to do something in the medical field.  I want to help others that are facing illnesses,” Wills explained.  “I hope that my personal experience will help me relate to others and help me be compassionate toward others.”

Zack’s strength and faith are values that have spoken to many in the community and he shares advice to others that may be facing a similar situation:  “First, lean on God.  He will help you through any situation if you will trust him and have faith that he is with you on your journey.  Second, have a positive attitude and laugh as much as possible.  Even though it is scary to have a serious illness, I have found that you feel so much better when you are positive and value the good things that are happening in your life.”  

Zack serves as an inspiration to all of us as an example of strong character and faith-based optimism.
Johnson County is fortunate to have young men of such resolve and determination as a part of our future.