Lake Norman & Mooresville

Community unites to support young runner

From left, Morgan Holcombe, Elizabeth Barry, and Rachel Palmroos at Levine's Children's Hospital on May 7.
From left, Morgan Holcombe, Elizabeth Barry, and Rachel Palmroos at Levine's Children's Hospital on May 7. COURTESY OF NICOLE VESPAR

Among the pleasantries that were supposed to come out of spring break this year was the time Elizabeth Barry thought she needed to recover from some hip pain that was nagging her at the start of the track and field season.

The eighth-grade long distance runner was looking forward to a strong season for the Ridge Road Middle School Ravens. Her father, Ben Barry, was anticipating her being a member of the cross country team he coaches at Mallard Creek High next fall.

On April 20, the Barry family and the communities at Ridge Road and Mallard Creek received a jolt when doctors at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital diagnosed Elizabeth, 14, with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. It is a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow and quickly moves to the blood.

Elizabeth is responding well to her chemotherapy, of which the second round was scheduled to end on June 10. The symptoms she had before she was diagnosed with AML, including the hip discomfort, fever and night sweats, are gone and a bone marrow biopsy after her first round of chemo came back negative – a major victory in her recovery.

Ben Barry says he is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support his family has received from people in his Highland Creek neighborhood, and at Ridge Road Middle and Mallard Creek High. Friends have helped the Barry’s at home with everything from mowing the lawn to providing meals, as Ben, his wife Katie, and Elizabeth’s sister Casey coordinate visits to the hospital.

While Elizabeth was finishing up the school year at Levine’s – missing Ridge Road’s, graduation, field day and social for the eighth-graders – friends and teachers were supporting her cause with hospital visits, well-wishes through greeting cards and social media, and raising money for the Barry’s by selling wrist bands.

The turmoil began in early April.

Elizabeth, an 800-meter and 1,600-meter runner for the Ravens, complained of hip pain. Her father, who also is Mallard Creek’s wrestling coach, dismissed it as a likely hip flexor.

For two years, Ridge Road track coach Isiah Williams has known Elizabeth as a smiler, a leader, a hard-worker, and a runner with great physical endurance. That’s why he thought Elizabeth’s pain was due to a muscle strain and that it was something he encouraged her to “run through.”

Elizabeth left for her spring break trip to Buffalo, N.Y., to visit her mom, Nicole, on March 28. A week-and-a-half later, she was in the hospital and her symptoms were baffling doctors.

Elizabeth was first diagnosed with HLH, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, an immune system malfunction. Ben, who caught an airplane to Buffalo once Elizabeth was admitted to the hospital, says she was examined by hematologists and oncologists who ruled out cancer twice.

On the verge of being diagnosed with ALM, Elizabeth was transported via medical flight to Charlotte on April 15 and was taken by ambulance to Levine’s where the formal diagnosis was made five days later.

For the next month, Elizabeth took her first round of what is likely to be four chemo treatments. She lost all of her long, light brown hair: devastating for a teenager who loves fashion, make-up and hanging out at the mall with best friends including Rachel Palmroos and Morgan Holcombe.

“She is usually positive about it (being ill),” said Palmroos, a Highland Creek resident. “She’s tougher than me. She can get through this because she can get through anything.”

As complimentary as Williams is of Elizabeth’s determination as an athlete, he is even more impressed with her in math class. Elizabeth takes Math I Honors, for which she will receive a high school credit.

“As a student, she is top of the line,” Williams said. “She has one of the highest averages in the class. She aced about every one of my tests. She’s a very talented math student.”

The Ridge Road students and faculty are behind Elizabeth all the way.

Among their shows of support, they’ve raised more than $5,000 by selling rubber wristbands imprinted with the slogan “Elizabeth-Strong.”

Mallard Creek High’s baseball team painted an Elizabeth-Strong ribbon logo on its field before the end of its season. North Mecklenburg’s baseball team raised money for the Barrys by donating proceeds from its concession stand during its home game with Mallard Creek.

Ben Barry said Elizabeth is progressing well. He realizes she may not be strong enough to run cross country for him in the fall. But in what matters most, he said his daughter will be strong.

Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at

Want to help?

To donate to Elizabeth’s medical expenses, go to