Teen battling cancer found solace in water. Her mom, her doctor later would swim to honor her.
Grace Bunke, 14, leaped into Lake Lanier under blue skies and cotton-white clouds. She seemed to glide across the shimmering water, making a 1-mile swim look so easy. But every stroke in the water propelling Grace forward during the swim last year was a grueling challenge, and testament to the teenager’s extraordinary strength and determination.
Just a few years earlier, Grace, a girl with pale blue eyes, a warm smile and an infectious laugh, started swimming competitively at age 12 — after undergoing treatment for a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. She swam faster over the years, even after relapsing, even after the cancer had spread into her lungs and spine. She completed the Lake Lanier swim, a 2017 Swim Across America charity event that raises money for cancer research, in 27 minutes — a solid time for any strong swimmer.
Three months after the swim, Grace of east Cobb was hospitalized at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. One evening in her hospital room, with the movie "Wonder Woman" on the TV in the background, Grace asked her mom, Vicki Bunke, to help create a fundraising page for this year's Swim Across America event. This next event was still seven months away.
Connected to IVs for fluids and pain management, Grace turned down the volume of the TV.
Mom, promise you will swim the 1-mile in my place. … You may not see me, but I will be there.
Grace died on March 25, just one day shy of her 15th birthday. Bunke knew she needed to honor her promise. But it wouldn't be easy. Bunke had never swum a single lap. She didn't even like getting in the water. But she would train, and swim for Grace. She would be joined by Grace's oncologist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Dr. Karen Wasilewski-Masker, who also didn't consider herself a swimmer. They always knew that swimming held a deeper meaning for Grace, with the water offering a place of solace. They would soon find swimming would bring them comfort, too, and help them connect to Grace.
Going all in
Nervous about swimming a long distance, Bunke tried to figure out a way to swim without putting her face all the way in the water. She wore a diving mask to her first swim practice in June. She quickly ditched the diving mask for nose plugs.
Bunke shared her experience on her fundraising page:
Well guess what? … It is impossible to swim without getting all in.
And by going all in, I learned something valuable. Ninety-nine percent is hard, but 100 percent is easy. God doesn’t send us to safe places to do easy things. No. Sometimes we find ourselves in uncertain places where we have to do difficult things that require us to go all in. But what makes it ok is that we never have to go to those places or do those things alone.
From 5:15 to 6:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Bunke, 49, and Wasilewski-Masker, 45, trained at Swim Atlanta in east Cobb, the same pool where Grace trained. They started on a summer morning before dawn and completed about 10 laps. Little by little, they added more laps, swimming mostly freestyle with breaststroke breaks along the way.
They were coached by Grace’s coach, Pat Eddy.
Wasilewski-Masker cared for Grace for several months throughout her initial cancer treatment. In late 2016, after Grace’s first relapse, Wasilewski-Masker became the medical director for Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and turned over Grace’s care to another oncologist, at least officially. Wasilewski-Masker remained actively involved in Grace’s care, visiting Grace often and making herself available around the clock to Grace and her family for questions or concerns regarding Grace’s symptoms or pain management.
At the end of Grace’s life, Wasilewski-Masker drove to the hospital at 3 a.m. to help the medical team ease Grace’s pain and make her comfortable.
Wasilewski-Masker said she wanted to swim to challenge herself and to honor Grace.
“Last year, Grace swam a mile in the open water of Lake Lanier despite having progressive osteosarcoma throughout her lungs and the bones in her spine,” said Wasilewski-Masker. “I realized if Grace could do that, I needed to suck it up, and do this. … I swim because it helps me honor and remember Grace, and to feel closer to Grace and all of my patients who are always with us, but we can no longer see.”
Bunke, who is a school psychologist for Cobb County Schools, and Wasilewski-Masker grinded through the first month of practices. Bunke tilted her head up to a white ceiling at Swim Atlanta to help push herself.
“I have to do this for Grace,” she thought to herself.
As the weeks progressed, Bunke and Wasilewski-Masker moved in the water with more ease, gradually building up their endurance to 44 laps. They swam together, always in lane 6.
Days before the Swim Across America event, they learned they swam in the same lane where Grace practiced.
Brave from the beginning
As a young child, Grace loved to climb trees, swim deep into the ocean, run, and play soccer. She was strong, fast and fearless.
“She was always going too fast, too far, too high,” said Bunke.
Grace was especially close to her sister Caroline, who is two years younger. They built forts, played arts and crafts, kicked a soccer ball in the backyard. Even though they each had their own bedroom, they always ended up together in one room or the other.
In May 2014, Grace, who was 11 and in a school running club, started experiencing soreness in her left knee. At first, the pain was mild, and Grace went to physical therapy over the summer to treat what appeared to be nothing more than a dislocated knee cap. But the pain intensified. In early August of the same year, Grace was admitted to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a bone biopsy that revealed the source of pain — bone cancer.
As Grace first learned about her diagnosis, treatment, and that yes, she would lose her hair, she listened intently to Wasilewski-Masker, and then decided to say something to lighten the mood. Before going to the hospital, Grace had talked her mom into letting her get highlights, but they then had to put the appointment on hold.
"Mom, aren't you glad you didn't waste all that money on highlights?" asked Grace.
At the hospital, Grace braced herself for harsh treatment for bone cancer, which involved 18 rounds of chemotherapy. She also underwent two lung surgeries and a partial leg amputation known as rotationplasty.
All the while, Grace remained focused on going to school, being active again, spending time with family and friends.
Two days after the bone biopsy, Grace returned to school. She continued attending school while getting chemotherapy. Grace chose rotationplasty because it was considered the best choice for giving her mobility — and helping her get back to playing sports. The novel surgical technique involves removing a portion of the leg with the tumor, rotating the lower part of the leg 180 degrees, then reattaching it — so the ankle functions much like a knee joint.
“She lived through treatment,” said Wasilewski-Masker. “She lived through relapses. She was honest. If she wasn’t feeling well, she would tell you. She was inquisitive and wise beyond her years. She maintained a positive attitude. And her goals were clear: She wanted to run again. She wanted to spend time with family and friends.”
After completing treatment and waiting for a running blade, Grace decided to swim at Swim Atlanta in east Cobb to build up her strength and help get ready to run again.
But swimming would prove to be much more than a sport for Grace. It would become a source of nourishment and comfort even during her most difficult days.
Grace’s mantra was hope has no finish line.
Passionate about swimming
In June 2015, Grace started swimming at Swim Atlanta in Cobb County, and her coach, Pat Eddy, immediately saw that Grace was a talented athlete.
Grace swam four days a week, including Saturday mornings beginning at 7 a.m. She mastered the freestyle and developed a strong butterfly stroke. Little by little, she built back her stamina after taxing cancer treatment. She also overcame the challenges of swimming with a partial amputation. After the rotationplasty, Grace had to learn how to coordinate her kicking with her legs, which pointed in opposite directions.
Within a couple of months, Grace decided she wanted to be a competitive swimmer, and on a mainstream level.
“I’ve been coaching since 1974, and her determination and drive is greater than I can ever remember in any swimmer in all my years of coaching,” said Eddy.
For about a year, Grace enjoyed a spell without treatment and only scans every three months. But in October 2016, Grace relapsed. She underwent a third lung surgery and joined a clinical immunotherapy trial. She decided to get a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC), or PICC line, for the immunotherapy administered in a large vein each month. She had the PICC lines inserted and removed each month, a painful procedure which can cause blood clots, so she could continue swimming between treatments.
And amazingly, Grace continued to improve even as her health deteriorated. By the end of 2015, she competed in her first swim meet and made it to the finals of a 50-yard backstroke competition, and swimming a time fast enough to qualify for the Can-Am Paralympic National Swimming Championships.
Eddy knew there were days when Grace was not feeling well, the treatments making her weak, nauseous.
“I would tell her just do the best job you can,” said Eddy.
Eddy said he wanted to do everything he could to help Grace grow as a swimmer.
“I felt like my job was to treat her like she was going to live forever,” he said.
In the fall of 2017, Grace, a freshman, secured a spot on the Walton High School swim team. At swim meets, she surprised other competitors and families in the stands when she removed her prosthetic and made her way into the water. She surprised them again when she swam in the top tier of swimmers.
Swimming took its toll on Grace. Grace often fell asleep on the way home in the car, and sometimes she’d go straight to bed when she got home, asking her mom to wake her up early in the morning so she could do her homework. She also wanted to spend as much time as possible with Caroline.
“I knew she was so tired. I would go to her room at 6 a.m. and whisper, ‘Grace, it’s time to get up,’” said Bunke.
But swimming, while taxing, also provided Grace a sense of peace. At last year’s Swim Across America event, Grace told a crowd of people gathered at the event why she swam:
Do you want to know why I swim? I swim because it helps me forget. It helps me forget my cancer keeps coming back trying to steal the air from my lungs and stop my heart from beating. I swim because in the water, it helps me be extraordinary despite the physical disability my cancer caused. I swim to fight through the pain and discomfort and emerge on the other side tougher and more resilient. … Today I swim for hope.
Grace secured a spot on the U.S. Paralympics team last December.
And at her last swim meet in January of this year, she swam a 50-yard freestyle at an impressive 30.01 seconds. At the time, her family had already filled out the paperwork for hospice. She had qualified for a state swim meet at Georgia Tech a month later, and she clung to the hope she could swim in the competition but felt her body shutting down. She turned her focus to creating her fundraising page for Swim Across America. She had a new goal: to be the No. 1 fundraiser in the country. And she knew her mom would be swimming in her place.
Led by Grace’s love
With her heart racing, Bunke plunged into Lake Lanier on a late September morning. It was sunny, the blue sky punctuated with puffy clouds. With Wasilewski-Masker by her side, Bunke looked up to the sky, and thought about Grace.
Bunke and Wasilewski-Masker didn’t rush the swim, alternating between freestyle and breaststrokes.
Grace’s sister, Caroline, also decided to swim. She and a group of friends swam in identical red-white-and-blue starred swimsuits (the same designed suit Grace wore in last year’s swim). One of Grace’s nurse practitioners swam. Coach Pat swam. Dozens of others swam for Grace. The shoreline was dotted with people of all ages wearing red and blue T-shirts with the hashtag #AmazingGrace.
As Bunke and Wasilewski-Masker inched their way toward a green buoy that marked a turnaround point, Bunke noticed a motorboat following alongside of them. Hanging from its canopy was a red umbrella with the words Amazing Grace written in white. One of Grace’s favorite quotes was “Prayer is asking for rain. Faith is bringing the umbrella.”
“Just follow the red umbrella,” said Bunke. “Grace is leading the way.”
Bunke felt Grace’s presence.
The Lake Lanier event was one of 18 swims across the country. Grace was the No. 1 fundraiser for Swim Across America, raising $119,222.
Bunke emerged from the water, feeling Grace’s love, which she would carry with her forever.
ABOUT THE STORY
In January 2016, Helena Oliviero wrote a feature story about Grace Bunke and her friendship with Bailey Moody. Both girls had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma after experiencing excruciating pain in their knees. (Bailey had a cancerous tumor in her right leg; Grace in her left leg.) They both shared a passion for sports, and were also shining examples of courage and triumph. They didn’t allow cancer or amputations to limit their ability.
When Oliviero heard about Grace’s mother swimming in her daughter’s honor, she decided to tell the story about their relationship and about Grace’s extraordinary strength and determination to help others even during her last days.