MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A few years ago, a local high school runner started slowing down. She couldn't possibly imagine why, but now, that change is shaping the rest of her life.
Emma Paulson is the big sister in a family with running talent, but in the fall of her sophomore year at Brookfield Academy, she inexplicably started slowing down.
"I didn't know if I was just not working hard enough or what was going on, but then my cross country season ended kind of on a bad note. I think we had 10 girls on our team, and seven of them qualified for sectionals and I wasn't one of them, which was very disappointing and especially -- my younger sister qualified and the sectional race was on my birthday and that was a very rough day," Paulson said.
That rough day in October 2011 was nothing compared to one in January of 2012.
"I was diagnosed with very high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is a very common childhood cancer. They told me that my treatment plan was going to be two-and-a-half years," Paulson said.
Coaches and teammates now gave way to doctors and nurses. Paulson leaned on family and friends and unexpectedly, strangers.
"There was a man who came in who kind of brought his own Build-A-Bear machine to the hospital, and that was one of the first few days, and I came out and I made my own Build-A-Bear and even at 16 I really loved it," Paulson said.
In the fall of 2014, Paulson finished her treatment. She is in remission. However, her connection with cancer continues. Through a Facebook page, she runs "Patients Helping Patients" -- collecting gift cards, Pillow Pets, blankets and more for cancer patients. She also frequently visits Children's Hospital.
"There's a lot of kids -- especially the younger ones, who have the exact same diagnosis that I had, and they can't understand what's going on, and when they cry, their parents don't know why they are crying and I think the parents being able to talk to me and say 'he just took this medicine. This is what he's feeling. Did you ever have this?' I can say 'yes' or 'no' or why it was and I think that's helped them a lot," Paulson said.
There will be more help down the road too. Paulson, who had no interest in being a nurse before getting sick is now attending Concordia University with the intention of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse. She plans to work at Children's Hospital.
She is also returning to running.
"One of the chemos I got made it so I wasn't even really able to walk, so that was really hard. Coming from a runner to not even being able to walk, to walking with leg braces, and now I've gotten kicked out of physical therapy, so that's a good thing. My walking has gotten back to normal and I'm trying to work on running. I work out a lot -- trying to get my strength up. I've been running. I think I ran like, two miles is my top on a treadmill. It's kind of hard for me to run on the ground surface, but hopefully someday soon," Paulson said.
Concordia University, along with Honor Flight founder Joe Dean have worked to establish a scholarship in Paulson's honor at the school. Paulson says she's eager to pass her clinical exams and start working alongside some of the same doctors and nurses who treated her. She also continues to deliver gifts to children at the hospital.