Amazing Kids, Amazing Stories: Anna Van Riper's Story
When Anna Van Riper took to the stage in November 2018 to sing the lead role of Mae Tuck in her high school musical, only a few knew how sick she was.
Her co-star, who played her husband in Tuck Everlasting, knew to hug her gently or she’d bruise, and he watched for signs that she was about to faint, so he could catch her.
In the audience her parents, Bryan and Cheryl, knew that their youngest daughter had been infused with platelets so she’d be able to get through a weekend of performances. At this point she had only 7,000 platelets, which help blood clot and injuries heal. A normal level is at least 150,000 per microliter of blood. She was suffering from some type of bone marrow failure, but did not yet have a diagnosis.
But Anna certainly fooled others in the audience. Anonymous critics representing the statewide “Jerry Awards” nominated her for best lead performance, an award she would receive the following June at the Overture Center in Madison.
But following her November performances, a diagnosis of aplastic anemia would upend Anna’s senior year.
The musical was the last time she’d see most of her La Crosse Aquinas High School classmates. Her white blood cells were so low she couldn’t return to school due to the risk of infection.
“I had uncontrollable nose bleeds,” she says of the week after the musical. By Thanksgiving Day she had a fever of 104 and her parents took her to the emergency room. She spent four days in the hospital in La Crosse.
She was referred to Dr. Inga Hofmann, a specialist in bone-marrow disorders at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center in Madison.
Dr. Hofmann told her that the only cure for aplastic anemia, which can be fatal, is a bone-marrow transplant.
“This is an exciting time for using stem cell transplant to treat bone marrow failure diseases such as aplastic anemia,’’ Dr. Hofmann says. “We have several national studies open to help patients with aplastic anemia and other bone marrow failure disorders.’’
Luckily, Anna’s older sister, Katie, was a perfect match. Anna checked into the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison at the end of December. She underwent chemotherapy to kill the few bone marrow cells she had remaining, then on Jan. 3 received an injection of her sisters’ stem cells.
She spent 43 days in the hospital, waiting for her sister’s cells to begin growing new bone marrow and blood cells. She befriended many of the nurses on P4 and her family says they played a key role in getting her through the experience. Dr. Rachel Cooper, a resident on the floor, learned of Anna’s musical talents and arranged for a friend, singer Laura Osnes, who starred in Cinderella on Broadway, to Facetime with her.
From the hospital, Anna and her parents moved to a Madison-area hotel for two weeks so she could stay close to the hospital and Dr. Hofmann.
While Anna says she felt better than expected following the transplant, she did not get her energy back until day 125 when her immune system “flipped” and her sister’s A-positive blood replaced her old O-positive blood.
“Before that, Anna’s old antibodies were fighting with Katie’s red cells,’’ her mom, Cheryl, explained. “I asked Dr. Hofmann which will win, and she said ‘Katie’s will win.’ I said, ‘Like usual.'’’
Anna says she and her sister have become much closer since the transplant, a benefit of a difficult year. She had to give up many of the senior-year honors that she had worked so hard for, including being invited to three master classes with professional singers.
“I had to decline them all, which was so sad. I had worked my butt off since freshman year to get invited,’’ she said. Her dad, Bryan, noted that Anna won only understudy roles in the musical freshman and sophomore years, but never quit. She won a supporting role junior year, and won a Jerry Award for that, and eventually got the lead as a senior.
“When she sets a goal, she has success because she works so hard,’’ he said.
“Anna always had a positive attitude and a will to fight through and do whatever it took to get better,” Dr. Hofmann said. “A positive mindset and a collaborative relationship between patients, families and physicians has a big impact on how well a transplant goes”
Despite doing her homework from the hospital and the hotel, she maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average her senior year and won a slew of honors, including a prestigious Kohl Initiative scholarship. By late spring she began working on auditions for college music programs.
“I was still not doing well and hadn’t been singing in months and months,’’ she said. Her vocal teacher, Ann Schoenecker of Viterbo University, came to her home while she was still too immunosuppressed to go out. Together, they worked to get Anna ready to sing “Before it’s Over” from the off-Broadway show Dogfight.
Bryan Van Riper says that none of the colleges knew that she was still recovering from a major illness – “she never played the disease card,” he said – but she was still offered spots at three university musical-theater programs. She chose Aurora University, in west suburban Chicago. Anna's dad was recently promoted to a job in the Chicago area allowing the family to move, so she will be able to live at home the first year as her immune system recovers.
“Right now I have the immune system of a newborn baby,’’ she says, adding that she won’t be able to be vaccinated for some childhood diseases until she’s about a year out from her transplant. Still, she’s signed up for a full load of 18 credits with a double major in finance and musical theater.
Her hair has begun growing back after she lost it to chemotherapy. And one of the anonymous “Jerry Award” judges who praised her performance as long-haired Mae Tuck back in November noticed her short hair beneath the wig she wore when she performed at the Jerry Awards in June.
“He said, ‘I see you’ve cut your hair short,’’’ Anna recalled. “I just smiled.”