CARSON CITY — Two days before her 20th birthday, everything in Alexie Schneider’s world came to a shocking halt.
It was on a September evening last year when the Carson City-Crystal High School graduate was driving on I-69 during a return trip from Flint to her apartment in Grand Rapids. She was set to begin her first day of classes for her sophomore year at Compass College of Cinematic Arts.
Alexie was steadily making the long drive across the state, and to help pass the time, she spent a portion of the drive on the phone with her boyfriend, Kevin Sytsma, communicating via a wireless bluetooth device.
But as she was driving Alexie accidentally drifted onto the rumble strip on the left shoulder of the highway. Startled by the noise and vibration, she quickly shifted away from the rumble strip.
But she overcorrected.
Within an instant, she had veered too far to the right, crossed both lanes of the highway and smashed head-on into a guard rail.
On the other end of the phone conversation, Kevin could only sit in horror as he listened to the sound of squealing tires, Alexie’s screams and the eventual impact of the car as it struck the metal rail.
After a few dazed moments, Alexie opened her eyes and managed to collect herself. She could still hear Kevin on the phone, asking desperately if she was OK.
Coming out of her shock, Alexie slowly realized that, miraculously, she had survived the crash with only scratches and minor bruises. She immediately asked Kevin to call 911.
Alexie was able to exit her vehicle with the assistance of passing motorists who had stopped to help.
It was a horrific incident, one that left Alexie’s car in ruins, but also left her eternally grateful that she wasn’t more seriously injured.
Just a few hours later, a revelation from the accident would wash over Alexie, a moment more shocking and life-altering than the crash itself.
Suddenly, she was viewing her high-speed car crash that could have taken her life through a positive lens.
“I thank God every day that I was in that car accident,” Alexie says today. “If not for that accident, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.”
Because Alexie’s accident was classified as a high-speed crash, emergency personnel on scene requested that she be taken to McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint to be evaluated for further injury.
Upon arrival, nurses and doctors took a blood sample and performed a routine CT scan to ensure that Alexie didn’t have any severe internal injuries.
While waiting for results, Alexie’s parents, John and Cindy, along with Kevin, arrived at the hospital, grateful to see Alexie smiling and upbeat
But the mood soon took a dark turn.
Alexie watched from her hospital bed as doctors and nurses talked in the hallway, occasionally glancing in her direction.
Then, one doctor entered the room and delivered life-altering news to Alexie and her family.
“We found two big tumors on your liver,” the doctor said. “We’re going to do a few more tests.”
Alexie, along with Kevin, stayed overnight in the hospital room nervously awaiting any results. It was around 6 a.m. the next morning that a doctor entered her room, turned on the lights and delivered the news.
“You have cancer,” he said. “I hope you two can get through it.”
And like that, he was gone. He had left the room, and Alexie was again in the dark, now lost in the moment. Comforted by Kevin, she erupted into tears.
Just hours beforehand she was on her way home to begin her sophomore year of college. Now, those educational aspirations seemed distant and minute compared to the difficult journey suddenly thrown before her.
But as it turns out, as Alexie will tell you, her car accident was “a blessing in disguise.”
No way of knowing
Alexie was diagnosed with stage 4 fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma.
She’s just one of three people in Michigan to be currently diagnosed with the rare form of cancer. Only an average of 200 cases are diagnosed worldwide each year.
The cancer does not show up in blood tests, making it very difficult to detect, and once the physical symptoms of the cancer are discovered it’s usually too late for any treatments to work.
Chemotherapy is largely ineffective in battling the cancer, leaving surgical removal or transplant as the best options for surviving.
The survival rate largely depends on when the cancer is discovered and how far the tumors have metastasized.
When Alexie finally met her surgeon, Dr. Hiromichi Ito, he informed her that her car accident likely saved her life.
“He told me had they not discovered the tumors when they were treating me for the accident, I would have had about eight months to live,” Alexie said.
After six hours of surgery at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Ito successfully removed 8 inches of tumors, along with Alexie’s gall bladder, 40 percent of her stomach, 40 percent of her liver and 60 percent of her pancreas.
After three weeks of recovery, Alexie returned to school where she has already earned an associate’s degree of applied science in film and media production and where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in film production.
She received chemotherapy from December through March, hoping that the cancer wouldn’t return, but after a recent checkup, doctors have discovered two lesions on her liver.
Alexie will now have to undergo a second surgery to have the lesions removed and is also beginning to prepare for the possibility of a liver transplant.
Positive through it all
Despite the recent setback, Alexie says she will continue to live her life and pursue her education will the same positive outlook she has always displayed.
“I like to look on the bright side. I’m sick of feeling sorry for myself,” she said “I don’t like to feel depressed. If I’m happy or laughing, I just feel like things are better. Cancer is not who I am, it’s just what I have.”
Cindy Schneider said she also has done her best to stay positive, following her daughter’s mentality.
“Alexie, she’s so strong. She’s very upbeat and positive about everything,” she said. “I’m the one that worries. She’s always saying, ‘Mom, it’s going to be OK.’ I guess you have to stay positive. If you sit and think about all of the negatives, you’ll never make it.”
April 12 benefit in Carson City
Although Alexie is fighting strong in her battle against cancer, the expenses that come along with the medical procedures and surgeries are overwhelming.
The Schneiders’ insurance does not cover all of Alexie’s medical bills. As a result, the Carson City community is stepping forward.
From 5 to 10 p.m. April 12 at St. Mary’s Hall in Carson City, a community benefit for Alexie will offer residents the chance to donate to assist with the family’s medical bills.
According to Tina Rudd, who is one of several community members who are helping to host the event, the possibility of a future transplant stresses the importance of the benefit.
“They can’t wait very long,” she said. “Obviously the parents have a number of medical bills that they are going to have to be paying for that insurance isn’t going to cover. It puts more of a spin on the importance of this benefit.”
Rudd said the benefit will include a dinner of pork tenderloin, potato salad, vegetables, dessert and a cash bar.
“It’s really a team effort, if it wasn’t for the Catholic church, we wouldn’t be able to pull this off,” she said.
A live auction, silent auction and 50-50 raffle will also be included. Several of Alexie’s short movies that she has produced while in college will also be shown throughout the evening.
Tickets are $10 and are available at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Donohue & Donohue DDS, Carson City Public Library, Harvey Milling and at the door.
For more information about the benefit, contact Nancy Woodcock at (989) 584-6044.
Alexie is hopeful that she will be able to attend the benefit, but said her attendance will depend on when her surgery is scheduled.
“I really would like to be there, to be able to thank everyone for their support,” she said. “It’s a little overwhelming. It feels great that I have that community that I can always count on.”