A year and a half ago, he was learning to walk again.
That didn’t stop Nate Riley from strutting across the stage at Columbus East High School to receive his diploma earlier this month.
The 18-year-old has defeated acute myeloid leukemia — a blood disease that landed him in the intensive care unit to fight for his life.
But he’s been told that before. He was diagnosed in August 2012 and then all traces of the disease disappeared. It returned in February, and now doctors say it is gone again.
Riley said he does not want to take a chance.
He is set for a bone marrow transplant in the coming weeks.
Riley’s bone marrow will be replaced with cancer-free bone marrow stem cells from the donor.
“This is just reassurance,” Riley said.
“I’ll just need to sit there and wait.”
Finding a future
As his friends pack up and go to college in the fall, Riley will be bracing for six months of reduced interaction.
No playing sand volleyball with his friends. No bowling. No cruising through Columbus in his friends’ cars. No stepping outside for a breath of fresh air.
Riley will be in two months of isolation in the hospital after the transplant, followed by four more at home.
But he said that is a price he is willing to pay for his health.
Riley’s transplant match was found through the Be the Match Registry, an organization that connects donors with those in need.
Due to confidentiality policies, however, Riley will not know the identity of his donor for at least a year.
Riley and his family are hoping to start the transfer process the week of July 7, beginning with eight days of chemotherapy.
As the drugs sterilize Riley’s system, his family will be sterilizing their home south of Columbus.
The chemotherapy drugs are designed to obliterate cancer cells, but they also wipe out healthy white blood cells essential for the immune system.
Jamie Young, Riley’s stepmother, said she will have the carpets cleaned by a professional cleaning service and she will bleach the walls.
“The whole house needs to be as clean as a hospital,” she said.
When Riley comes home, family and visitors will need to be keenly aware of their own health. He has two younger brothers, and the family already has made arrangements to send them to stay with their grandparents at the first sign of a sniffle.
It’s not going to be easy on Riley, either — even when he returns home from the hospital. For four months, he’s confined to the four walls of his bedroom.
He has a television and a few video game systems to keep him entertained. And he has a computer to take online courses at Indiana University, where he will attend when he is done with isolation.
His room is far from the dorm he would be moving into in Bloomington if it were not for the transplant, but Riley said he has no concerns about adjusting to college life later.
“His whole life is just beginning,” Young said. “And then a doctor says, ‘Sorry, it’s going to have to be put on hold.’ Everything is falling into place, but I still question a lot: Why?”
It is unfair, Riley agreed, although refusing to get hung up on his situation and feel bad for himself.
“I feel fine. I am fine,” he said. “I’m not scared. This is just a small speed bump.”
Fighting for life
The very treatment that was supposed to save Riley’s life nearly stole it from him.
During chemotherapy, a scrape can turn into an amputation and a common cold can lead to death. Riley came down with a staph infection and was hospitalized for 38 days.
On Jan. 6, 2013, Riley’s doctor told his family they should call friends and relatives to the hospital for final farewells.
“I told the doctor I just don’t accept it,” Young said, wiping away tears at the memory. “I said, ‘That’s not your decision to make.’”
The doctors said they had done all they could.
Young recalled telling her stepson, who was unconscious, “Nate, I know I told you it’s OK to take a break, but that’s over. This is all you.”
And then he started showing small signs of life. He was fighting.
Riley had to teach himself to walk again, and how to eat.
He fought himself into remission.
But more bad news came in February: The cancer was back and Riley needed more chemotherapy.
But this time, he would go to the hospital for his treatment and then go straight to school.
He was determined to graduate on time — and he did, with a little help from his friends.
Rallying for Riley
Hundreds of East students bought Olympian orange shirts with “Nasty Strong” written across them, a nod to Riley’s nickname of Nasty Nate.
“Use your imagination,” Riley said of its origins.
Even more purchased Be the Match rubber bracelets from the Key Club.
Both efforts were made by classmates to stand behind Riley — financially and emotionally.
School nurse Jenni Kinnaird also felt compelled to help Riley when she learned he needed a bone marrow transplant.
She organized a donor drive through Be the Match. More than 70 students ended up joining the Be the Match registry, offering DNA samples in hopes that they could have the marrow Riley — or a stranger elsewhere — needed.
Considering students needed to be 18 to become a donor, Kinnaird said that number is astonishing and moving.
Mark Newell, principal at Columbus East High School, was proud of how the school showed their support.
“Taking care of others is one of our Olympian Expectations, and they are certainly doing that,” he said.
Peyton Gray and Sam Watters are two of Riley’s friends who spearheaded the efforts.
Gray and Riley have been close since freshman year of high school, when they bonded over a belly flop in gym class.
The leukemia and upcoming transplant has not and will not change their friendship, Gray said. He has been helping to keep Riley occupied before the surgery.
“I’m haven’t been staying home a lot,” Riley said. “It’s like I have to live a lifetime in a month.”