Outdoor medicine — How hunting and fishing saved one young cancer patient

Young Anna Olinde nearly lost her battle with leukemia — until hunting and fishing gave her something for which to look forward. Now she’s on the mend, and loving every minute of her time outdoors.

The distinctive shriek of a turkey echoed across rolling hills, meant to act as a bid of courtship to nearby hens. But instead, the gobbler’s vocals worked as a beacon, notifying a nearby hunting party that it was in the area.

The tom continued its song as A.J., a hunting guide sharing a ground blind with hunter Anna Olinde and her mother, Kristen, answered back with careful precision to mimic a hen.

“Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp,” radiated from A.J’s slate call, enticing the turkey to close the distance.

Anna began inching into position for a shot — this opportunity couldn’t be squandered. She had been sitting patiently almost two days without bagging a turkey, and she wasn’t going to let this one pass her by.

The 10-year-old locked eyes on the gobbler, her finger ready to pull the trigger. As the tom inched closer, Anna — with her 20-gauge propped up so she could just barely get a good grip — flicked off the safety.

“Ready?” Anna’s guide whispered.

She affirmed with a nod.

Anna squeezed the trigger of her shotgun, which kicked against on her small shoulder. She recovered with a shriek of excitement, high-fiving her mom and looking on in awe at her prize lying just a few yards in the distance.

The Port Allen native traveled from Louisiana to Kansas to bag her first turkey two springs ago, proving herself to be not only a capable hunter but a sharpshooter, to boot.

Glancing at young Anna, whose long, brown hair accentuates a beaming smile, you’d see a budding outdoor enthusiast, just as much at home in a dress as she is in camouflage.

But underneath her youthful exterior she carries a story that’s shaped her life.

“Her emotional and mental scars will never go away,” Kristen Olinde said about her daughter Anna. “It will always be in our mind and hers.”

Anna was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009 when she was only 4 years old. The aggressive cancer forms in bone marrow, and if left untreated it can invade the blood and eventually enter organs or the lymph system, resulting in death in a matter of months.

“The moment I found out, I’ll never forget the day,” Kristen said. “I had actually picked Anna up from school, and she just was not normal. She just wasn’t herself, and her dad and I had seen some things the night before that we were really concerned about.”

Just hours after a doctor’s visit to check up on the peculiar behavior, Kristen and Anna were headed to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Father Joey and brother Caleb made the trip, as well.

Anna’s white blood cell count had skyrocketed, which notified doctors of the leukemia.

The only thing that would save her life was rapid treatment.

“I was confused and scared. I didn’t know what to do,” Anna said of learning about the severity of her situation.

Luckily for Anna, her particular cancer — although it spreads quickly — is a heavily researched illness with a specific and effective treatment.

A host of medication and chemotherapy for almost 50 days sent her into remission.

However, Anna’s fight was far from over.

For two and a half years, Anna underwent weekly chemotherapy sessions at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge to ensure she stayed in remission. She endured the nausea and other side effects from her treatment.

“I was tired and never felt like doing anything,” Anna said. “Everything tasted like metal, and I was in pain all the time.”

Six months before the end of Anna’s chemotherapy, she took a turn for the worse and almost lost her fight.

“I remember many nights (of) her laying there, crying and telling me she was just tired of fighting it,” Kristen recalled. “It took everything I had to make her continue to fight because we were so close to the end.

“But at that time we didn’t know what we were up against. We just knew she was going down hill quick.”

The chemotherapy interrupted Anna’s digestive functions in her stomach. Three surgeries to remedy the problem unintentionally created a hole in her stomach lining — the situation was bleak.

“My parents would’ve lost me, but the doctors at St. Jude, they would always find something to help,” Anna said.

Two surgeries to repair Anna’s stomach were eventually successful, enabling her to finish the treatments and continue her road to recovery.

Anna is still cancer free and has been finished chemotherapy since 2011. While she leads a normal life now, her days leading up to recovery weren’t easy ones.

Throughout her almost three-year battle, Anna was often confined to a hospital or to her home. Due to her weakened immune system, contact with large groups of people could have easily made her sick.

The Olindes resorted to taking young Anna outside of their home to brighten her spirits.

One day, a spur-of-the-moment fishing trip to a nearby pond brought a rare smile to her face.

Kristen and Joey quickly realized Anna responded positively to spending time outdoors, so they started a regimen of outings near their home whenever possible.

“While she was in the middle of treatment, as long as her (immune system) was good, we would take her out, whether we took her fishing or we were out hunting,” Kristen said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t know if that was going to be our last memories of her or be her last memories.

“We wanted to make the best of everyday. Little did we know we’d end up with a sharpshooter and a hunter out of it.”

Anna began to shape into a regular hunter over the course of her treatment, finding a perfect match when she and her mother discovered Sky High for St. Jude in 2010.

The organization raises money for children undergoing treatment for cancer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The organization’s three yearly skeet-shooting competitions to raise money and Sky High Adventures, a program to offer children with cancer the opportunity to go on hunting and fishing trips, were right up Anna’s alley.

Sky High, which was founded by Abbeville native and former Miss Acadia Brittany Hebert, offered Anna more chances to immerse herself in the outdoor culture, beginning with the skeet shoots during which she looked on in awe at shooters taking aim at clay pigeons.

In 2013, Anna received an adventures trip of her own, traveling twice to Texas to fish with world-renown angler Gary Yamamoto. On her first fishing trip with Yamamoto, Ana hauled in a 4-pound bass.

In between her trips with Sky High and while she finished up chemotherapy, Anna shot her first duck and dove, went deer hunting and found out she was a natural marksman.

Simple outings outside, which started as a ploy to get Anna’s mind off of her battle with cancer, kept her spirits high while helping her continue to fight.

Kristen said getting out of the house and being active greatly helped her mental state.

“A lot of these kids go through post-traumatic stress disorder,” she explained. “So we are blessed because we kept her active and let her be a kid, and I really think, honestly, that it helped her.”

Back in the Kansas woods, Anna posed with her trophy turkey, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. She wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for the Sky High Adventures program.

“My heart was just racing,” Anna said of the hunt. “It was really exciting because I’ve never really killed anything that big before.”

Anna traveled back home with a weekend of memories and an ice chest full of turkey — and she eventually got her tom mounted courtesy of Sky High.

Anna might not have discovered her love for hunting if not for what she’s been through. The cancer that nearly took her life led her to the point she’s at today.

And she doesn’t look back on the periods of harrowing agony with angst. Instead, she’s quick to pick out the positives dotting those years.

Perhaps the hunt in Kansas was a culmination of those years of pain, ending in an inspiring recovery. What’s for certain is the time spent outdoors helped ensure Anna’s fight for life was filled with as much joy and normalcy as possible.

“It helps me forget about all the hard times and its easier — it’s just easier to get my mind off of things,” Anna said about how the outdoors impacts her. “You forget about everything else.”

About Jonathan Olivier 38 Articles
Jonathan Olivier is a devoted journalist with a focus on the environment and outdoor recreation. His passion for hunting, backpacking and wilderness conservation has taken him from the swamps of Louisiana to the mountains of Colorado.

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