In Search Of…Fighting with Erin

Central High School senior inspires community after life-changing diagnosis

It’s game night. The crowd has gathered. The team is ready. And everyone is determined to get a win.  But the real story for the Central High School girls basketball team is what is happening off the court this season for one girl who has captured the heart of the La Crosse community.

Central senior and stand out athlete Erin Hennessy is about as big a go-getter as they come. 

“I’m president of our schools SADD club. I’m social coordinator of French Club, in the art club. And then I’m also a member of National Honor Society.”

“She’s played softball, volleyball and basketball all through high school,” adds her dad Kevin.

“She’s a very well rounded kid,” said mom Joy Hennessy. “All through school teachers have said she’s the whole package. She does well in sports, academically, she’s musically inclined, she always has a smile on her face.”

And friends like Jenna Kramer agree. “She’s amazing. She’s always happy.” And Andrea Myhre, “She is the type of person that walks down the hall and is always smiling and saying hi whether she knows them or not.” 

Her two sisters joke she is the perfect child.  “Erin is my mini-me,” says Allyson. “But the better version. Because we have everything in common. She just seems to be better at like life.”

Erin went to state last year with the Red Raiders girls basketball team and was excited about what this season – her last season would bring. Unfortunately, she just couldn’t seem to get healthy.

Her coach Nahmie George remembers noticing “she had had a cough and been winded in practice but we all were trying to get back into shape so I didn’t really think anything of it.”

But after weeks of coughing and no relief, a trip to urgent care revealed something no one was expecting – not even her mother, a cancer nurse for 30 years.

“The doctor comes back in and started saying, ‘Erin have you noticed any sweats at night?’ And asking her other questions. And I knew where they were leading. And I just stopped breathing.”

Erin says she will never forget the look on her mother’s face. “I immediately started shaking.”

“He said there were some spots. And he let me see the chest x-ray. And I just dropped to my knees because…I knew.”

Erin had a huge mass covering most of her left lung that was later diagnosed as Hodgkins lymphoma. “It felt like someone punched me in the gut,” says Allyson.  Sister Amanda adds, “Honestly I started praying the rosary like no other. A mass in her chest doesn’t sound good.”

Joy gets emotional thinking back. “That first night both girls just climbed into bed with her and wrapped their arms around her and I don’t know if we could ask for anything better.”

But while the tears were falling all around her, Erin refused to think about the ‘what if’s’. “As soon as he told me it could be cancer I was like, ‘alright we’re going to do it. Because there has never been any doubt I can do it. People will give me sympathy and ‘you can get through it.’ And I’m like – ‘I’m going to!'”

From the start Erin set a goal.

“That first day when she was in the hospital she said she was going to suit up for senior night.  And and that point we didn’t even know what we were even fighting and I said let’s deal with that later and she said no – I can do it. But I never thought she actually would.”

Chemotherapy started almost immediately, and like with everything else the Hennessy’s do, they traveled the road together as a family.  They just never expected how big their ‘family’ would become.

 “We wanted to do something for Erin ever since we found out about it,” says Myhre. So the basketball team came up with an idea. Make t-shirts in Erin’s favorite color pink. On the back have her number 12 with a show of support. On the front one simple word that’s become the teams motto, “Ohana,” Hawaiian for family.

“And family means no one is left behind,” says Kramer.

The team wore the t-shirts during warmups and with every game the pink began to spread.

“All of a sudden we started to get some team orders from Holmen, Aquinas, GET, and then they wore them at warm ups. We spend so much time on how are we going to beat Holmen and then you realize after it’s all over that we are all the same. We are all fighting the same thing.”

“It’s amazing how many people can do things for one person,” says Erin. “I think of myself as so blessed to be able to see this happening. Cause it honestly blows my mind. If there were words to thank every single person I would spend my whole life talking. It’s indescribable.””

“With these cold winters sometimes I say, ‘why do we live here?’ I realize this year why. The people in this community have been over the top generous with Erin, our girls, her family. It’s been one of the most eye opening experiences I have ever had in my life.”

It’s senior night. The crown has gathered. The team is ready. And everyone is determined for her to get the win.

Erin is continuing her chemotherapy and so far – it is going very well. She plans to attend UW-La Crosse in the fall.

Erin’s coach and teammates organized a huge benefit for her Friday from 4 p.m. – 11 p.m. at All Star Lanes in La Crosse. They want you to think of it as a celebration with music and dancing and food. They have also received hundreds of donations for raffle prizes.

For more information, visit the “Fighting with Erin Benefit” Facebook page.

We wanted to say a special thanks to Mueller photography for sharing Erin’s senior pictures with us for this story.