Macie Elliott lives life on her terms
November 2, 2023
A photo taken out of focus is forever destined to remain out of focus. It may tell a story, but is more likely to end up filed under trash than in the newspaper. Fortunately, that doesn't have to hold true for the subject. Our understanding of people comes in sharper and clearer when they feel safe enough or brave enough to share the hidden details of their lives.
How lucky we are when that happens.
In 2019, Macie Elliott, a Wahkiakum High School senior, forced a Fisherman turnover during the fourth quarter of the district title game between the Mules girls basketball team and Ilwaco. It was a turning point in what had been an unusually frustrating and physical game, and the teams were running neck and neck.
While the Mules tended toward finesse, the Fishermen were out for blood that day.
I managed to catch the look on Elliott's face with my camera at the moment she forced the turnover, staring down at her opponent with the Mule bench behind her, rising from their seats in defiance.
The photo was slightly out of focus, but the look on Elliott's face was clear.
Bring it, her eyes and stance said. A smile played on her lips.
Whatever the Fishermen had, she had more.
There was still time on the clock, but in those seconds the game ended for Ilwaco. The fire that had fueled them for three and a half quarters suddenly went out.
The Mules would pull ahead and stay ahead to win, 64-51.
I caught up with Elliott last week, and learned something that surprised me: she'd quietly been suffering with ulcerative colitis that year, and in the years since.
Elliott was understandably reluctant to talk about some of the symptoms of the condition which can include cramping, rectal bleeding, weight loss, fatigue, diarrhea, and more, but she had endured years of constant stomach pain, joint pain, and vision problems.
"My wrists were super sore," she said. "Your immune system is attacking itself, so you get super sick all the time. It's hard to stay healthy. A lot of stomach pain, though. My mouth would salivate, like that feeling when you are about to throw up, and it would almost knock me down."
"Then it would go away and I would be fine," she continued. "If I ate something or smelled food, it would come back again. It started to get worse. It would hurt longer or I would get it more often. Eventually it was so bad I was getting it all the time, all day."
The symptoms began during her junior year at the State 2B Basketball tournament in Spokane. She and one of her best friends, Ellie Leitz, were fighting off some illness they'd both contracted.
"Ellie and I were both sick, but we didn't know with what," Elliott said. "We were both the type to tough it out."
Elliott noticed some new things were happening with her body and mentioned it to Ellie, but was hesitant to mention it to her mom, Amee Crawford.
She went to Coach Rob Garrett first, but he just told her what she already knew. She had to tell her mom.
With one more game to play in Spokane, Elliott called Crawford. Her mom was emphatic. Elliott should go see a doctor immediately.
No, I'm not, Elliott told her, even threatening to lock her door. There was no way she was going to miss out on any part of the state tournament.
"I have one more game to play," she said. "Love you so much mom, but I am finishing this game tomorrow."
After they got home, Elliott faced a barrage of tests.
"Lots of scopes," she said. "It was not fun at all."
She was ultimately diagnosed with pancolitis, a form of ulcertaive colitis that affects the whole colon, or large intestine.
"It is like a bunch of bloody ulcers throughout your colon," Elliott said. "It just hurts to eat anything. It hurt my stomach to smell food or drink water. It was crazy."
The condition was incurable, she learned, but there were several medications that could potentially put it into remission.
Thus began Elliott's next chapter.
A series of treatments would follow. One by one, they failed. Infusions, shots, pills. She would feel better for a while, but the symptoms always returned. During her freshman year at Eastern Oregon University, she self-administered a weekly shot, which seemed to be effective.
"I was feeling healthy and strong, and then all the sudden it just stopped working," Elliott said.
More treatments followed, but they too failed.
"That's got to come out," her doctor said after the last failure and another scope.
Her best option, she was told, was to have her entire colon removed.
"They knew that my cells were changing and were worried about cancer," Elliott said.
Elliott, who was playing basketball for EOU at the time, called her coach.
When? asked the coach.
"Now," Elliott replied.
She would soon realize her version of 'now' didn't have the same immediacy it did for the doctor. Thinking there would be time to process the coming "life-changing surgery," Elliott was prepped for the procedure the following day.
"I was all alone because of covid," Elliott said. "My mom worked at that hospital and they wouldn't let her up there."
She was grateful for FaceTime. Her mom just said, "You gotta do what you gotta do. You don't to deal want colon cancer. You are in constant pain. This is the right thing."
It was to be the first in a series of surgeries.
Elliott's entire colon was removed during that initial procedure. She spent a lot of time alone in the hospital because of the pandemic, getting used to being "tied together differently," she said, and coming to terms with the necessity of an ostomy bag.
"It's a big adjustment," Elliott said. "I walked with a walker. My face was sunk in. I'd lost probably 30 pounds already. I was scary skinny. Tiny."
After she was released from the hospital, Elliott started experiencing high fevers. She slept a lot and took Tylenol as the doctor advised. Despite her best efforts, she struggled to eat or drink.
Her prognosis took a turn for the worse. Unable to urinate and feeling very ill, Elliott had no choice but return to the isolation of the hospital.
More procedures followed. Tubes were inserted in her stomach to drain what turned out to be a liter of infection. Those days were some of her worst.
After another surgery, the infection started to break up and she began to heal, but it had taken a toll on her, and the surgeon decided to delay the next surgery until she was healthy again.
In December of 2022, Elliott had her second procedure. She was able to return home for Christmas, her favorite holiday, but she was in pain.
"They make what is called a J-Pouch," Elliott said.
Essentially, a colon is created from the intestines that are already there.
"They are using what God made," Elliott said. "They cut it and staple it, which is probably why I was so sore."
On April 1 of this year, she had her final procedure. The J-Pouch was reattached in a way that made the ostomy bag unnecessary, and normal bodily functions resumed.
"I actually walked out of the hospital with my mom," Elliott said, proudly.
"If we could have danced we probably would have. It felt pretty good to get out of there on my own two feet. I feel so good and strong and healthy," she added, "Back to myself. No more pain, none of that. It's nice."
Through all of that, Elliott earned a degree in accounting at EOU, and has returned to get a masters in business.
A redshirt for the basketball team her freshman year, she weathered a season affected by covid and a medical redshirt for the colon surgeries. So with one good season in bank and the covid year forgiven for the athletes, Elliott can continue to play for the EOU Mounties this year and the next.
Practice started in early September. It's six days on the court each week, with four days in the gym, lifting.
"I've never felt better," Elliott said.
Her mom showed up to watch the team's game against EOU alumni.
"She is my biggest supporter," Elliott said. "She knows what I've been through. It was nice to get out there and show her what I've got."
"I'm so thankful for so much more," Elliott said. "I'm so thankful to not have stomach pain, for what technology is able to do. I'm appreciating the little things."
"My mom would ask if I regretted my surgery after getting my colon out," she added." I think she felt guilty that she talked me into it.
"I already felt so much better," she said. "This was just one year of my life. I have my entire life to live pain free. It's just a bump in the road."
Elliott visits support groups on Facebook now and again.
"I'm a little shy when it comes to that type of thing, but these people have been through it all, so they know what it's like," she said. "Some are down in the dumps. It's hard. I've posted a couple times."
"Don't quit on your dreams, I tell them, Get back out there. It can be a long journey but it's totally worth it to get back out there."
Elliott herself is coming in clearer than that out of focus photo from 2019. But much like that girl in the photo, she remains undaunted. Happy.
Whatever life has for Macie Elliott, she has more.