Eugene, Ore. -- Even for a fleeting moment as the toll of the bell signifies the end of her chemo treatments, Danielle Bixby and her family are all smiles. Days later, they would celebrate this step with her other family: Oregon Ducks volleyball.
"Team Impact reached out to our athletic department," Oregon head volleyball coach Matt Ulmer explains. "So they reached out to us and said would you be interested and that was a no brainer for us to get involved. They told us about Danielle and we were really excited."
"So the day we first met, they paired me with the team and then I went to go see them," says Danielle. "And then we celebrated me being on the team by getting ice cream."
Joining the team, which happened in conjunction with nonprofit, Team Impact, came at a very welcome time, after difficult first months of treatment.
"We weren't even home for 30 minutes from Portland to here," Danielle's mother Shannon recalls. "And about 30 minutes being home she said 'I really want to die. I'm ready to see the angels.'" "And it's hard," says Krystal Lawrence, Danielle's older sister, who has two young daughters of her own. "How do you explain to your 5 and 2 year old that their auntie has cancer? It's just not something...not something anyone wants to say."
But instead of thinking of this as just a photo op, Oregon volleyball stepped into Danielle's life in a huge way.
"There was a Tuesday that she was really sick at chemo and I was texting (Oregon assistant coach) Erika (Dillard) and (senior) August (Raskie), and she could not stop throwing up." Shannon says. "I remember getting that text and she sent a picture of her passed out in her little wagon," Raskie echoes. "And it was so disheartening and so I had everybody in each individual room like 'alright make a video for Danielle and we're gonna send it to her.'"
"I know how sick she was," Shannon remembers. "It was the hardest chemo that we've gone through and all of a sudden a video would come through and the girl was like ear to ear grin."
"So the fact that we can be there and support her, by all means we need to do that," concludes Raskie. "We signed her to the team and our team especially is family."
"The girls have really put a seed of joy in her that when someone is struggling with cancer or any other illness might not have," adds Krystal.
The Ducks stomp out cancer match against Arizona State celebrated their little duck, while Danielle and her mother returned the favor.
"It was like 'Danielle, Danielle, let's make dolls for all the girls', and she was like 'yeah let's do it!'," says Shannon. "The day that I gave them the dolls. Do you remember that? They were like so happy," Danielle joyously explains. "Everybody cried with happy tears."
"She wrote individual notes to each girl on the team," explains Shannon.
All the girls still have their cards and hold them close.
"Dear August, I love your buns and that you are so nice," Raskie reads aloud. "Your hair is beautiful and amazing. Thank you for loving me. Love, Danielle."
"It just snapped us right back into it that we can be disappointed but there are so many bigger things out there and this is the big thing that we're doing right now," Ulmer mentions.
Ringing that bell was a respite for all involved, but Duck players and coaches don't see their role ending here.
"It was just an overwhelming peace to know that they love her and you can see how genuine it is," says Krystal.
"I've made a lifelong connection with this kid and that's worth fighting for in my everyday life," Raskie follows up.
"We are family. This has become a family now," finishes Shannon.
"As long as she wants to stay around Eugene, she is always a part of our team," Ulmer adds in. "Again there are relationships that are being formed that are lifelong relationships. Just like with any teammate."
Nor does Danielle.
"They're really important to me and I want to fight harder than ever!", exclaims Danielle. After all, they're her girls. And she is their 'Little Duck'.
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