Amara Kirk is only 13, but she is used to tough battles.
She’s a four-time state champion freestyle skier. Now, all the focus, discipline and dedication she’s put into her skiing has been diverted to a bigger battle: On Feb. 20, she was diagnosed with childhood leukemia.
For the past eight weeks, she’s been living with her mother, Julie Korb, a Fort Lewis College biology professor, in a rented house in Aurora that’s five minutes from Children’s Hospital Colorado, where she’s receiving treatments.
“She wants to go to the Olympics someday. Three days before her diagnosis, she was competing at Telluride, and she made podium competing against kids who were up to 18 years old,” Korb said in a telephone interview from Aurora.
Korb and Amara plan to fly back to Durango on Wednesday on a private flight arranged by the husband of Korb’s best friend in college. The private flight will limit the contact Amara has with others because her immune system is compromised by her chemotherapy treatments.
Amara’s level of neutrophils, a white blood cell that leads the body’s immune system response, was at 110 on Monday. The normal range of neutrophils is between 2,000 and 3,000, Korb said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, traveling is especially tricky for Amara.
“Anything under 500 means essentially, she has no immune system at all,” Korb said. “And so, when her numbers are below 500, she has to be within an hour of a hospital. If she gets a fever of 101, she needs to immediately be put on antibiotics because if it’s a bacterial infection, she can go septic.”
On the trip back to Durango, Amara and her mother will wear N95 masks. Her friends are working with Centennial and Durango airports so they can walk through the terminals with minimal contact with people.
“Her spirits, she’s amazing. She’s super positive. She’s never said, ‘Why me?’” Korb said.
She never cried when she was diagnosed. Korb said the first time she cried was when she discovered she had to have a COVID-19 test.
“They can’t do anesthesia if you have COVID-19 because there’s been bad interactions,” Korb said. “So literally, last weekend, was the first time that she cried, but it was because of the COVID test. Then everything else she’s been so strong.
“She’s working out every day, she’s hiking 2 to 3 miles every day. You know, and by her doing that and eating well, and exercising every day, and staying connected with her friends through FaceTime and other things, her spirits are good.”
When Amara’s hair started falling out, Korb said she took it as a sign that she was one step closer to being cancer-free.
“On her 13th birthday, she shaved her head because her hair was falling out. So she just shaved her head. And then she gave her twin brother a mullet, which is kind of funny. He was going to shave it in solidarity, but she thought a mullet actually looks more funny.”
Not only Amara’s twin, Balin, but her older brother, Jaden, 15, and her father, David Kirk, are sporting new hairstyles. Jaden and David both opted to shave their heads to show solidarity.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, friends of the Kirk-Korb family were planning a fundraiser at Purgatory Resort to raise money for Amara’s family and for childhood leukemia research.
Instead, the event has been moved online and will be conducted as the “Move for Amara, Dream It, Do It” virtual fundraiser.
Participants who would like to donate money are asked to choose a physical activity – running, biking, skateboarding, hiking – in accordance with social-distancing guidelines, select a time or a distance and have sponsors pledge a donation for each mile or minute completed.
To comply with COVID-19 restrictions, use of treadmills and stationary bikes are encouraged.
To participate, visit the Move for Amara Facebook page.
Anyone who wants to make a donation without all the exercise can go to Move for Amara GoFundMe page.
Because COVID-19 restrictions have hurt people financially, anyone having difficulty collecting pledges can post their activity on the Move for Amara Facebook page to show her their support.
Korb said only 4% of cancer research dollars go toward childhood cancers, and she would like to help boost that number.
“It’s kind of crazy because you think these are little kids, they have their whole lives ahead of them, and hardly any money goes to research childhood cancer.
“So a portion of all the funds raised are going to go toward childhood leukemia research. So that we can figure out why it happens and to make sure there’s a 100% cure rate, and if you get it, there’s no chance of relapse.”