Indian Creek Middle School teacher Melissa Rookard sits with her husband Marlon and their daughters Madison, right, and Myla. Rookard has had to juggle fighting cancer, teaching her students and spending time with her family this school year.
COVINGTON -- It's been a rough school year for Melissa Rookard, a teacher at Indian Creek Middle School, but those around her know she's a true fighter.
Rookard, who has taught language arts at ICMS for five years, was diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer in May 2011. Since then, she has received chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but she's still fighting hard.
Last spring, she noticed some discomfort and planned to get checked out after the school year ended.
"I hate to miss work," she said was her excuse. "I'm only out (of work) if I'm really sick or if my daughters (Madison and Myla) are."
However, last May she woke out of her sleep vomiting and was admitted to the emergency room. After an ultrasound determined she had some lesions -- which she didn't think could be cancer at the time -- doctors eventually discovered she had a rare cancer that had also spread to her liver.
"Everything I read online was not promising, but I plan to live and keep it moving," she said.
After chemotherapy from June to August 2011 had her hospitalized at one point and brought on an allergic reaction to part of the treatment another time, an MRI in December showed that tumors had shrunk. Unfortunately, in March, another MRI showed they grew and had spread into her lungs.
Now she is continuing radiation and chemotherapy treatments at the Emory Winship Cancer Institute.
She said her ICMS students are old enough to be aware that she has cancer, but most of them are quiet about it.
"I'm really open to sharing with the students about my health, and I try to remind them that life can be much worse than what they think it is," she said. "I try to remind them to love your parents even when they get on your nerves."
She completed her goal of completing this school year, working when she could.
"I chose to return (after original treatments) because I was extremely concerned about the support they were receiving in the classroom in order to prepare them for the state (Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests)," she said.
She hasn't been able to stay after school to help like she normally has but she didn't feel like it affected her teaching style.
"I don't know if I'm working harder than I normally would," she said. "I truly believe God put me on this earth to be a giver and help young people. ... God keeps me going, knowing I'm making a difference in the classroom and just doing what I love to do -- teach."
Rookard is cochair of the eighth-grade exceptional education department and a language arts co-teacher at ICMS with Michael Smith-Foot, Bobby Sims and Maxine Williams.
Coworkers Maxine Williams and Janice Butts said they know that she is exhausted, but she always works hard when she's at school and always checks on her students and fellow colleagues when she has to be away.
"Her desire for teaching has not been diminished," they said.
Coworker Bobbi Smith, an eighth-grade math teacher at ICMS, said she is thankful for such a wonderful friend and coworker.
"Mrs. Rookard has been such a fighter," Smith said. "She has shown tremendous courage and strength."
She said that she is even an inspiration to her own life.
"(She) is simply a walking testimony to what a teacher should be," Smith said. "She makes every effort to be at school, no matter how she feels, and she makes a positive difference in these students' lives."
Fellow teachers have held fundraisers, like a hat day, and a special luncheon for Rookard. They also held a walk-a-thon and community yard sale in honor of her.
Additionally, Rookard said they have dropped off dinner, water, ice cream, items for her daughters' lunches and school supplies for them, juices, gift cards and just sent her words of encouragement.
"My coworkers are angels," Rookard said. "I appreciate the unconditional love."
She said their support has been a blessing.
"They give me the strength, along with God, to continue to fight," she said. "(God) has a funny way of just sending people my way to encourage me, hug me and give me little notes to say you are just amazing, and I need it. I have to be strong and fight because I have two beautiful little girls and an amazing husband who need me, and I need to be there for my ICMS family and students."