Molly’s Angels

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Uncommon Duty, Uncommon Faith

When 10-year-old Molly Martinsen returned home from surgery for a brainstem tumor last July, her tree-lined street in a quiet North Waco neighborhood was overflowing with smiling faces of people carrying signs, holding cards and shouting their heartfelt greetings. Hundreds of family members, friends, schoolmates and teammates came out to show their support, welcome her home, and do what friends do when one of their own is facing a difficult time. They brought meals, mowed the lawn, shuttled kids, folded laundry, provided gas cards, prayed, hugged, cried, encouraged and showed great faith in what they believed to be God’s plan.

“All the support has been overwhelming,” said Jennifer Martinsen, Molly’s mom. “People have truly used the gifts the Lord gave them to help our family, and we are grateful.”

They were grateful, but not surprised that their friends would be such faithful servants. Since moving here from San Antonio in 2008, the Martinsens have settled in and made good friends.

Dan Martinsen, Molly’s dad, is director of library services and educational technology at McLennan Community College. Her 13-year-old brother, Ben, is in 8th grade at Vanguard College Preparatory School. Her mother, Jennifer — better known as Jen — worked part time at MCC before Molly became ill. She was their wellness coordinator and adjunct faculty for contemporary health and wellness/lifestyle courses.

What they weren’t prepared for, though, was how the paid professionals in their lives — the folks responsible for Molly’s recovery, education and athletic development —would also wrap their arms around the family. Doctors, therapists, teachers and coaches alike have provided their professional services, but to an extent the Martinsens could not have imagined. Besides attending to Molly’s physical and educational needs, they have given love, courage, hope, strength, and the security that comes in knowing they are doing everything in their power to heal Molly in every way.

“The Lord has brought each of these people into our lives to help heal Molly from every direction,” Martinsen said. “It has truly been a blessing to watch people’s love for my daughter and our family through this very difficult time.” Some of Waco’s finest professionals — Molly’s team members — would no doubt go the distance for any patient, student or player who needed them. As it turns out, most of them say they are the ones who have benefitted from knowing Molly. Here are their stories.

Dr. Karen Kemper:

Call any time

“It’s never easy to tell a parent bad news,” said Dr. Karen Kemper, pediatrician. “And because Molly is old enough to understand, it made it especially difficult.”

The Martinsens credit Kemper’s experience and gut instinct to order the MRI that first showed Molly was in trouble.

“She knew something was really wrong, and she didn’t want to wait to find out,” Martinsen said. “And it made all the difference. Ours was an early diagnosis, thanks to Dr. Kemper.”

After that, Martinsen said Kemper stuck with the family every step of the way, and that she was always available.

“She gave me her cellphone number and told me to call her any time,” Martinsen said. “There aren’t many doctors who would give out their cellphone number. I would text her from Cook’s to keep her updated on everything. She wanted to know what was going on.”

Molly was referred immediately to Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, where her surgery took place. She travels there twice a month for treatment. But all other medical needs were and are fulfilled right here in Waco.

“After the initial diagnosis, my role has been coordinating Molly’s day-to-day medical care, from doctors to therapists to services. I make sure she gets the care she needs,” Kemper said. She added that families like the Martinsens make her grateful for her job.

“Thank God, situations like Molly’s are a rare occurrence,” Kemper said. “But it’s being part of the lives of people like Molly and her family that make me very grateful I get to do what I do.”

Angie Carter:

Freedom of speech

When Molly first came home after surgery, one of her most immediate recovery issues was learning to swallow and speak again. The surgery caused trauma to nerves and caused facial and vocal cord paralysis as well as palatal and tongue paralysis, and Molly had trouble articulating her words. She also had to be nourished through a feeding tube. Enter Angie Carter, CCC-SLP, speech pathologist for Waco Ear, Nose & Throat, with more than 30 years of experience.

“Initially, I wanted to see Molly daily to begin helping her to learn a swallowing technique that would allow her to begin eating and drinking again,” Carter said. “My job was to connect with Molly, to get her to trust me and the techniques, and then to encourage her to work intensively on them.”

Carter said Molly was quick to learn and started the first day beginning to use the techniques to swallow shaved ice and then some soft foods. As she began to eat more regular foods, and her intake was sufficient to nourish her completely, her feeding tube was removed.

“Angie found out that Molly is an athlete, so she relates to Molly on these terms,” Martinsen said. “She tells her how this is like training for any sport. She motivates Molly to look at all this therapy as a competition to do better than the time before because she has learned Molly is a competitor and can push herself.”

Just like a great coach, Carter has helped Molly to succeed and learn from failures, but she continues to push Molly to do her very best.

“She is Molly’s no. 1 fan,” Martinsen added.

As the therapy continues, Carter said she’s proud of Molly’s accomplishments.

“She is able to communicate with her family, friends, teachers and most everyone now,” Carter said. “It is clear to me that with Molly you get a lot to work with — a lot of spirit and spunk that can serve anyone well when facing a battle of any kind.”

Kathi Childers:

Let’s get physical

Molly’s next challenge was strengthening her body and trying to return to the volleyball court. That’s where physical therapist, Kathi Childers, came into the picture.

“Molly was very weak on her right side and had to hold someone’s hand to walk safely,” Childers said. “As Molly’s physical therapist, my first challenge was to get Molly walking independently.”

She did that and more. Molly was able to play volleyball for her school on the Waco Baptist Academy (WBA) team.

“She worked and continues to work hard on strengthening her whole body, improving her coordination and speed of movement, and on improving her balance,” Childers said.

In physical therapy, determination is the name of the game.

“Molly has many endearing qualities, but from watching Molly play volleyball the last few years, I saw such determination for a young girl,” Childers said. “I just love it! She is a fighter and a winner, and she will win this battle.”

She added that the way Molly has faced unbelievable challenges over the last six months and her (and her family’s) ability to remain positive has been inspiring.  

“Her attitude and determination remind me not to get too focused on things that just aren’t that important,” Childers said. “Both Jennifer and Molly make me want to work on being more positive every day.”

Carolyn Barrett:

A beautiful sight

“My day is always brightened when [Molly] is scheduled. It gives me such an emotional lift to see her progress.” That’s the effect Molly has on her occupational therapist, Carolyn Barrett, of Brazos Children’s Center.

Since the onset of her illness, Molly has incurred double vision, and it needed to be corrected for many reasons.

“This double vision causes nausea, limits balance, limits personal safety, and limits quality of any written work — handwriting and reading — which is already challenged by decreased use of her dominant right hand,” Barrett said.

Barrett’s role is encouraging Molly as she progresses in leaps and bounds. No matter how she feels, Molly always says, “I’ll try,” Barrett reports.

“She has such a positive outlook and such a can-do attitude,” Barrett said. “Her mother is always there, encouraging and supporting her. There will be no stopping Miss Molly!”

Missy McReynolds, Jeannine McMeans and Bridget Heins:

Love of learning

This fall, as the start of school approached, Molly’s school community made sure she was able to return to school and continue her academic career at a pace that would work for her. With bi-monthly trips to Cook for chemo treatments that leave her exhausted and weak, full-day school was not the way to start the year. So she goes half-day and gets tutoring and rest in the afternoon.

Missy McReynolds, language, reading and spelling teacher at WBA, has watched Molly overcome challenges and press on.

“She has had to learn to write left-handed because she has little use of her right hand,” McReynolds said. “Over the last couple of months, her handwriting has become very good. Her speech has drastically improved as well. Molly has always been a very good student, and her setbacks these last few months have not changed her ability to learn and do well in school.”

McReynolds said Molly is an outstanding student who is honest about her feelings and never gives up, and her classmates have rallied around her.

“Molly’s classmates see and feel her strength in all of this, which only comes through Christ,” McReynolds said. “And they desire to be with her.”

She gives credit to Martinsen for showing Molly the way.

“Like Molly, Jen simply will never quit,” McReynolds said. “Jen has been real, honest and steadfast.

Because she cannot stay at school every day, Jeannine McMeans, a former WBA Middle School teacher, tutors Molly in science and history so that she will not fall behind in her core subjects.

“The challenges we were faced with were trying to figure out how to cover the subject content with as little writing and fill-in-the blank work as possible,” McMeans said. “Not only was this not going to hold Molly’s attention, but it was difficult for her to write due to the temporary paralysis of her right hand.” 

McMeans and the Martinsens have had to organize Molly’s study time around her treatments and therapy, which take precedence over the tutoring. So McMeans said she makes the most of their time together. 

“When we are together, my challenge as her tutor is to capture her imagination and teach the subjects in a way that will give their greatest impact in only two or three hours a week,” McMeans said. “I have found that getting out of the textbook and doing as much hands-on work as possible serves her the best.”

Science and history can be taxing, even for a go-getter like Molly.

“I have learned to be sensitive to her body-language,” McMeans said, “knowing when to stop because of fatigue setting in. The positive outcome is that she likes science and history!” 

Science and history are subjects that lend themselves to speaking about one’s faith.

“When Molly and I were talking about the natural laws that we can observe in our world, this led to a sweet conversation about how the God of the universe — who created these natural laws — is the only one who can ever break in and go against what he has set in place,” McMeans said. 

McMeans said her conversation exhibited great hope and faith that miracles do happen, and they happen because of God’s personal involvement.

“It is within his authority to break in and rearrange her cells, take away any cancer and restore her body completely,” McMeans said.

Watching Molly persevere has been a humbling experience for Bridget Heins, Molly’s math, science and history teacher last year.

“This class takes care of her, whether it’s taking notes for a lesson she has missed or protecting her from a stray ball in PE,” she said. “They have displayed a compassion that is not normal for 5th graders, and it is all out of love for Molly. I have been brought to tears on many occasions while witnessing her bravery and their selfless acts.”

Kelly and Corbett Faulkenbery:

Other people’s needs

Faith plays a big role in the Martinsen’s life.

“I can’t comprehend how anyone goes through this without faith,” Martinsen said.

First United Methodist Church of Waco is their church home, and Kelly and Corbett Faulkenbery teach the “56 Unplugged” Sunday school class that Molly attends.

“We try to encourage the kids to unplug from the world and plug into God,” Kelly Faulkenbery said. “We refer to ourselves as Molly’s prayer warriors and cheerleaders.”

Though they were not hired to work with Molly, like her doctors, therapists and teachers, the Faulkenberys knew their role as spiritual leaders would be an important one, and they planned to go the extra mile for Molly. They were present at Cook for Molly’s surgery, praying with the family and offering their support.

But, as usual, it was Molly who went the extra mile, despite her speech difficulties and anything else that might have stood in her way.

“Molly was able to do things that others would not,” Faulkenbery said. “She would read Scripture out loud. She shared with the kids. She kept up with her journal. I believe she has made our class stronger.”

Where it might have been easy for Molly to feel sorry for herself or be angry that she could not do all the things she wanted to do,
Molly showed her classmates how to rely on faith and know Jesus is there for you, Faulkenbery said.

“Molly is a fighter,” she added. “She has courage to walk through it — to stand tall and smile.”

And, incredibly, to think of others during her own struggle.

Molly shared with the class her collection of quarters for the other kids at Cook and Ronald McDonald House.

“She has also mentioned other peoples’ needs through all of her struggles,” Faulkenbery said. “She gives freely to our ‘Cup of Milk’ ministry. None of these things has anyone told her to do.”

Van Davis and Holly Page:

Strength in numbers

While her coaches and her sport have been wonderful metaphors for Molly’s recovery, competing in the real deal is what Molly wants most of all. And coaches Van Davis and Holly Page are determined to get her there. Even with Molly’s limited abilities and restricted activity, Davis and Page have found ways to get her back in the game.

Van Davis is the assistant director of campus recreation in fitness at Baylor University and director and coach of the Heart of Texas Volleyball Institute. She has dedicated herself to helping Molly regain her physical strength, in addition to her on-going physical therapy.

“Because Molly loves volleyball so much, I want to be able to provide her with opportunities to participate in this sport,” Davis said.

Even though Molly can’t participate on the select team right now, Davis and Molly practice once a week for two hours on Thursday nights. Davis also organized Volley For Molly — a website and tournament — to raise funds for a foundation she created for Molly.

“I see myself as an encourager for the family,” Davis said. “Jen and I speak often about what Molly is going through. Molly and
I do our Sunday lunches at Fuddruckers. We talk about
all kinds of things, like her current struggles, her school, her friends.”

Davis said that one of Molly’s favorite verses is also hers: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)  

Watching Molly go through this battle with her strong faith,” Davis said, “I’m even more affirmed that I, too, can do all things through Him!”

Also on Molly’s team is Holly Page, athletic director and PE teacher for WBA. When she returned to school, Molly rejoined the PE/athletic program and even played during the fall volleyball league.

“My role has been to protect Molly while also challenging her physically during her recovery,” Page said. “Molly has had to recover her balance, strength, hand-eye coordination and depth perception. She began to do activities left-handed as her right side recovered.”

Page said she adapted many games and activities in class to accommodate Molly and to challenge her while still allowing her to compete and succeed. This year, all of the WBA athletic teams are sporting “Team Molly” T-shirts in place of their usual jerseys.

“The students have given Molly tremendous support, grace and compassion in this process, and they have walked alongside of her as her advocates and protectors, too,” Page said. “I’ve seen Molly overcome her fears, and I’ve seen her grace as she faces her physical disabilities.”

Inspired by Molly’s journey, Page, who is also an artist, has created a comic strip called “Molly The Brave Heart.” The colorful, six-frame comic strips are fun and light-hearted, even though some of them touch on difficult issues, like getting an MRI. Page has drawn more than 14 strips so far, and Molly never knows when a new comic will appear. They usually correspond with a particular issue, feeling or success that Molly is experiencing.

Molly the Brave Heart
Powering through it

If you want to know the meaning of determination, meet Molly Martinsen on a volleyball court. When she was 9, she made a 12-and-under traveling team — Heart of Texas Volleyball — and became the setter on the team at only 10.

“On the volleyball court, Molly is a fighter,” said her coach, Van Davis. “She is so focused and will do whatever it takes to accomplish her goals. I know in my heart that God brought all of us together, not for volleyball, but through volleyball, he was preparing us to help Molly fight the biggest battle of her young life.”

After surgery to remove a brainstem tumor last July, Molly was sidelined from playing select volleyball. But that hasn’t crushed her team spirit. She was able to play a modified game on her school team at Waco Baptist Academy this fall. And you can bet she’s got a game plan: to play select volleyball again in one year.

“I like a challenge,” Molly said. “And I like pressure. I like to be the last server on game point when our team is down. I never give up.”

And she’s using that kind of positive thinking to beat her illness, too.

“I’m staying positive in my mind and in my heart,” Molly said. “I work on the things I can control, like my therapy and getting better. And I have hope.”

This makes good sense, said her pediatrician, Dr. Karen Kemper.

“It’s proven that you can change the course of any outcome by having a positive outlook on life and your situation,” Kemper said.

Molly’s mom, Jennifer Martinsen, agrees.

“We just can’t afford to be negative,” Martinsen said.

For now, Molly can’t jump, ride a bike or play full-contact sports — anything that could cause trauma to an already sensitive part of her brain — and she affectionately calls her mom her own personal “hovercraft.”

“She’s always right there, watching me, protecting me from anything that could hurt me,” Molly said, “even though she really doesn’t need to do that.”

Molly is so strong and independent that her PE teacher, Holly Page, was inspired to create a comic book character called “Molly The Brave Heart.”

“I love her through my artwork,” Page said. “‘Molly The Brave Heart’ is a light-hearted encouragement to her.”

All hand-drawn, Molly’s amazing adventures include everything from learning to swallow again to facing her fears to seeing herself as the beautiful person she is. And they often involve a volleyball.

“This has been such a gift,” Martinsen said. “And each comic has come at just the right moment. The character really does reflect Molly’s personality and positive outlook. She loves it.”

But Molly said having her own comic strip doesn’t make her feel like a rock star. In fact, she’d rather shift the focus off herself and put it on people who need it more. For her 10th birthday, she asked friends to bring toys for the kids she met who are still at Cook Children’s hospital, too sick to go home. Then she delivered the games, dress-up clothes, hats, puzzles and Legos on her next visit. Her actions have inspired some of her Waco friends to think of the needs of others.

“I pray every day for my friends in the hospital,” Molly said. “I ask my friends at school to pray for them.”

Her inspiration and her courage set her apart.

“Molly’s courage is what really sticks with me,” Kemper said. “She models it from her mom. This family experienced a very brief period of sadness, but then turned around and attacked the situation with great courage.”

Her mom knows firsthand that miracles happen every day. When Martinsen was 22 years old and in graduate school at Baylor, she was diagnosed with leukemia.  

“I had just finished playing volleyball for Baylor the previous year and had graduated and got an assistantship to attend graduate school,” Martinsen said.  
Leukemia was in 97 percent of her bone marrow, she said, and she was given 10 days to live.

“I will tell you I saw a miracle in my life, and I am here today and have two beautiful children that I was told I would never have,” Martinsen said. “It is 100 times worse to see your child go down a similar road. However, I pray every day that the one thing I can show Molly is that Mom is here, and she survived with wonderful doctors and therapists and the hand of God on my life that will also be on hers. I just pray I can help her to be strong and courageous, knowing I have walked a similar road, and will be with her every step of the way.”  

Wherever her journey leads, Molly will be Molly.

“She is completely honest and without guile,” Page said. “You always know what she is thinking. She has no pretense about her. She is passionate about what she loves and enjoys and that is seen in her life by how fiercely she goes after what she loves. She is an overachiever and an overcomer because of her passion and determination.”

Molly said you have to power through it.

“I don’t really get scared because I know I am loved and this happened for a reason,” Molly said. “I prepare for the worst, but I also prepare for the best.”