Nadalyn Imbriaco's early years have been topsy-turvy.
Before age six, she dealt with illnesses more commonly known to happen after age 60.
The experiences have left the 16-year-old Palmerton gal with the insight and maturity of a seasoned adult.
She is poised and gracious, and speaks with ease to people from all social strata.
That's because Nadalyn has learned to think like an adult and to use all resources to overcome difficulty. She's walked in the shoes of a grown-up and has triumphed over physical and mental challenges and roadblocks to her health that typically come late in life.
Radiation therapy? She's been through it.
Leukemia? She's tackled it.
She's been through a spinal tap, stem cell transplant, hormone therapy and even Graft versus Host Disease, a complication from donor cell rejection after the stem cell procedure.
And how about Shingles, that painful medical condition of older folks? Well, Nadalyn has successfully dealt with that situation, too.
It's almost as if her life has been reversed, encountering illnesses of an older adult before the age of 10.
It all started with the diagnosis of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) on May 13, 2003, says her mother, the former Deborah Martin of North Carolina.
"She had it not only in her blood, but in her spine," says Deborah, reflecting on the symptoms. "It was devastating to get the diagnosis. She had been sick a week with low-grade fever, and had bruising on her legs and all over." Nadalyn also experienced headaches and complained of a stiff neck.
AML usually affects people age 60 and up.
How does such a condition arise in a child? Physicians at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia said they just don't know.
"The doctors said 'don't beat yourself up over it,'" says father James. "You could beat yourself to death trying to figure out where it came from."
AML is a cancer of the myeloid line of blood cells, characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells. AML is the most common acute leukemia affecting adults, and its incidence increases with age.
Nadalyn encountered problems after the stem cell transplant.
She required a broviac catheter to be inserted in her chest for close to eight months and was required to take a regimen of meds. She also endured radiation treatment, which had lasting side effects as well.
"The radiation stunted her growth," says James.
Nadalyn recalls the frustration of spending so much time at medical facilities. After the stem cell procedure, she suffered from Graft versus Host Disease, a complication that can occur in which the newly transplanted donor cells attack the transplant recipient's body. Nadalyn was put on antibiotics and was unable to take food by mouth for six weeks.
But yet another unpleasant surprise awaited, and it happened in July, 2007.
"After I got out of the hospital, I got put back in for Shingles," Nadalyn recalls.
The condition of Shingles arises from the chicken pox virus, and typically happens with adults. In fact, medical professionals don't even administer a Shingles vaccination until one reaches the age of 60. Yet Nadalyn battled the ailment at 10.
"Then, three years later they put me on growth hormones that created a lump on my leg and they had to remove it," she says.
Given all of the hospitalization and recuperation, a period of one and one-half years was taken away from Nadalyn before age six. Yet she still managed to complete first grade thanks to cooperation of the Palmerton Area School District and use of a home tutor.
The district took a pro-active approach and was successful, says Deborah.
"They did an awesome job educating the kids before Nadalyn came back to school, explaining that she had lost her hair." In addition, Towamensing Elementary took up a collection to assist the family with fuel and food expenses during the struggle. Actually, the entire Palmerton-area community responded to assist the family, and for that, the Imbriacos say they're eternally grateful. They also have words of praise for valuable programs such as Dream Come True.
There were many lessons learned along the way, they say, as they traveled and dealt with situations.
For instance, the family discovered that people today need to be more compassionate and understanding when they see others who struggle with highly visible physical conditions. For instance, if your child sees another child who's lost his hair due to chemotherapy, use the experience as an opportunity to educate.
Children are inquisitive, says Deborah. They'll ask questions. And that's normal.
"But some parents will shush their child away," Deborah says, adding that it would be better to use it as an opportunity to explain to your child the circumstances of specific health conditions.
Today, Nadalyn's leukemia has been in remission almost ten years. She leads a normal life at the family's rural home in Little Gap Estates.
The uphill climb in battling ill health over the years has helped to forge strong bonds at Nadalyn's home among sisters Dian and Auriel and brothers James and Daniel.
For Nadalyn, the experience in dealing with crises and working with medical professionals have combined to give her a sense of empathy and understanding that would elude most teens.
She tends to see the strengths in others, not weaknesses.
"I don't judge," says Nadalyn. "I really focus on not doing it. You don't know their story. You don't know what they've been through," she says.
In fact, Nadalyn has cultivated a devotion to her fellow man.
She recently completed her American Red Cross lifeguard certification through the YMCA and has utilized those skills at the Palmerton Memorial Park Pool.
For Nadalyn, it was the right thing to do. Helping others is a given, part of her identity.
Dark days of leukemia tried to rob Nadalyn of part of her childhood. But she wouldn't allow it to happen, keeping pace in school and maintaining a cadre of friendships.
Still, the experience in dealing with hospitals and medical professionals has given her a sense of direction that impacts her behavior and unquestionably will lead to a bright future.
"I like helping others," she says, "and I like volunteering. My goal is to give back because others have helped me."
For many, it takes an entire lifetime to realize that our years spent on this planet are given meaning through how we help our fellow man.
But Nadalyn already knows it at age 16. And she's met the challenges of a lifetime.