ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A few weeks before 19-year-old Makenna Studer was diagnosed with COVID-19, she could tell something wasn’t right. But as her roommates fell ill with the novel coronavirus, it seemed like that could be what was making her feel like she wasn’t herself.
It was, and it wasn’t.
After being hospitalized for the coronavirus, Studer was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Studer, a sophomore at Mankato State University with dreams of one day becoming a nurse and working in labor and delivery, spent two weeks in Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys’ COVID unit before she was transferred Friday afternoon to Mayo Clinic Hospital-Methodist Campus to begin treatment for the leukemia.
Weeks before Studer’s diagnosis, she told her mother, Pamela Swenson, that she felt something wasn’t right.
“I told her, ‘I just don’t feel like myself. I just feel like something is off,’ ” she said last week on a phone call from her hospital room.
Swenson recalled the conversation. She said Studer went to give plasma and was declined because her hemoglobin was too low. She told her daughter to increase her iron and watch what she was eating. Studer went back a second time, and it was even lower, Swenson said.
"And then right about that time, she just kind of said to me, 'Mom, I don't know, I don't feel right,' and she was always tired and she could sleep for days," Swenson said. “Right around that time, though, is when her first roommate came down with COVID ... Our thought process sort of shifted to that.”
But Studer tested negative for the virus, and as her roommates started to get better, she started to feel worse and worse. She couldn’t get out of bed. She was throwing up. She fainted.
“I was not human for a week,” she said.
To the clinic
Her roommate and best friend, Renee Lisovskis, ended up taking Studer to the clinic in Mankato on Friday, Sept. 25.
Studer received fluids, and doctors were able to bring her temperature down. They let her go home and told her to come back if anything changed. The next morning, it had. Studer said she woke up and could feel phlegm in her lungs every time she breathed, which was difficult for her. Lisovskis took her back to the clinic, where doctors ran some tests and also took some of her blood.
“They came back and they basically said, ‘I know this isn’t what you expected, I know this isn’t why you were here, but when we were looking at your blood, there were some abnormalities in your white blood cell count, and we have a good feeling that you have leukemia,’ ” Studer explained.
The diagnosis, she said, was a slap in the face.
“That was not even a thought in my mind,” she said. “It is hard to explain. I felt like something wasn’t right. But once we all got sick, it was not really a thought in my mind. I forgot about it, or 'Oh, it’s just COVID.' It wasn’t really on my mind anymore.”
The doctor at the clinic offered to call her parents for her.
Hours later, when Studer called, Lisovskis said she thought it was her friend saying she was ready to be picked up. Instead, Studer told her the news.
“It was really scary,” Lisovskis said. “Honestly, I was very confused. I was like, 'You went in for COVID, that can’t be.’ ”
Lisovskis gathered stuff for a bag for Studer and dropped it off at the hospital in Rochester. The bag would be the first of many things friends and family dropped off for Studer during her stay on the COVID floor.
Outpouring of support
In the two weeks since Studer’s diagnosis, the 19-year-old Rochester native has received an outpouring of support. Lisovskis and other friends arranged a visit. Unable to actually enter her room, the group of friends figured out what Studer could see out her window and then set up camp there.
Friends from high school and college visited Studer by holding signs and talking to her on their cellphones.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you can’t have friends and family here with you, just being able to see them helps a lot,” she said.
A group of her teachers from Lincoln Elementary School even stopped by to wave and hold signs.
“I have no words for just how having that support for her helps me as a parent,” Swenson said. “I’m not alone; her friends are amazing.”
Makenna’s father, Scott Studer, of Rochester, said he has received phone calls and text messages by the hundreds since his daughter’s diagnosis.
“By the time I leave work, by the time I go to bed, the phone doesn’t stop ringing,” he said.
Makenna Studer’s friends started a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs of her treatment, which will include chemotherapy, something called a “smart drug,” then likely a bone-marrow transplant. In less than two weeks, the fundraising page has raised more than $10,000.
“We are in awe of people’s support and what they’ve done, the prayers, the text messages, and just making sure we are taken care of,” Swenson said from her home in Utica. “Every day we’ve come home here, there has been something waiting for us outside. It means the world to know that people are concerned and worried, and so willing to help in any way that they can.”
Studer said at first, finding out she had leukemia was very difficult and she was “a mess for quite a few days.”
“But as it went on, I just kind of learned that there is nothing you can do about it. You just kind of have to accept it and realize that it is no longer in your hands and you just kind of have to put a smile on your face and be as positive as you can through it all,” she said. “With the support of my friends coming and everyone sending me things ... all the prayers, support and the thoughts of everybody, it has been amazing, and it has helped so much.”
How to help
The GoFundMe page can be found at www.gofundme.com/f/makenna-studer039s-journey.
About 70% of patients who need a bone-marrow transplant do not have a fully matched donor in their family and thus rely on a transplant from a stranger. Those interested in becoming a bone-marrow donor can find more information at bethematch.org.