By Greg Seiter
Two weeks before her 2009 Center Grove High School graduation date, Rhea Watson’s life was turned upside down. Known as Rhea Roller at that time, the high school senior was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and suddenly faced what would prove to be more than two years of treatments.
However, with persistence and a positive outlook, she overcame the disease and now works as an infusion and outpatient nurse at Riley Hospital for Children, caring for patients who face some of the same challenges she did only a few years ago. “Before I was diagnosed, I was a selfish teenager, and I didn’t realize how fragile life is,” Watson says. “I didn’t appreciate my parents and I didn’t want to spend time with my twin sister, but the whole experience really pulled me back to my family. I’m much closer to my sister now and I can’t even fathom missing family events.”
While receiving chemotherapy at Riley, Watson also took online college courses at IUPUI, but two years into her studies and cancer treatments, she changed her major from business to nursing. “I now work in the same unit where I was treated, and occasionally, I’m able to share my story with families there to hopefully help them see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
Sarah Amador met Watson when her 3-year-old son, Maddox, was going through cancer treatments at Riley. After Maddox was later named 2018 Leukemia Lymphoma Society Boy of the Year and in recognition of Watson’s efforts to help the family throughout Maddox’s battle, the Amadors nominated her for the 2019 L&L Woman of the Year award. It is essentially a contest through which winners are crowned based on the amount of money they bring in during a 10-week fundraising campaign, and even though Watson didn’t receive the 2019 honor, she still managed to raise almost $54,000. Collectively, Watson and her fellow 2019 campaigners netted $1.2 million for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.
“I’m really pleased with what I did. At one point, I had over 450 different people who had donated,” Watson says. “Those were just family and friends.” One of her primary fundraisers was a Kentucky Derby-themed event held in May at The Sycamore at Mallow Run Winery in Bargersville. Guests, who were encouraged to dress in Derby attire, were treated to food, beverages and music.
However, with the competition now behind her, Watson is ready to get back to helping people with a more hands-on approach. “Those 10 weeks were grueling, and fundraising is really outside of my comfort zone,” Watson says. “Right now, I plan to focus on building Riley’s adolescent program and on the L&L Society’s patient advocacy piece. I can serve on a board, and I definitely want to stay involved with the society. I’d just rather not do as much fundraising.”