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Inspired by fight for survival: Amboy grad learned from cousin's struggle

(Christopher Heimerman/cheimerman@saukvalley.com)
Reilly Roberts (right) plays saxophone during practice in Oregon for Thursday's SVM All-Star Classic at Sauk Valley Community College. The Amboy graduate's future plans include becoming a nurse at a children's hospital.

Reilly Roberts is inspired.

The Amboy graduate is moved by artists like Michael Buble and Adele. Classical stalwarts Haydn and Mozart are also regulars in her iPod rotation.

No doubt she was inspired by her fellow members of the first SVM All-Star pep band that will perform Thursday night during the annual hoops celebration at Sauk Valley Community College.

"Practice went really well. I think we're going to be pretty good," Roberts said shortly after the 13-member ensemble practiced Monday at Jefferson Elementary School in Oregon, under the direction of Oregon High School band director Andy Eckardt.

And knowing that Olivet Nazarene is the only private school in Illinois that boasts a top-five marching band? She was inspired to be part of that after being the Clippers' drum major her last 2 years in high school.

"My favorite thing about being in the band was working together as a team and putting on a great show," Roberts said.

But her inspiration for her major hits a bit closer to home. She's going to study nursing and wants to work in a children's hospital because her cousin, Sarah Schnake, won a battle with pancreatic blastoma, an extremely rare childhood cancer. She was diagnosed last February.

"Visiting her in the children's hospital really opened my eyes," Roberts said. "I'd love to work with all those kids, seeing the effect it's had on our family and thinking about their immediate families.

"She doesn't know that she's my inspiration."

Roberts, who says she is very spiritual, calls her cousin a "miracle." Schnake's belief in things like miracles and angels was cemented last fall, after 13 hours of surgery at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago.

Every 2 hours, nurses gave Schnake's family updates. Even though they told her mother, Venesa, that Sarah was doing well, she, her husband and other daughter, Hannah, were moved to pray for their daughter in the evening.

At 4 p.m., the surgery shifted to Sarah's liver. Even though no updates had arrived at 6:15, they felt compelled to quit passing the time by playing cards and pray.

"God sent us a message to pray for her to stop losing blood," Venesa recalls.

Despite the silence, she says they also felt moved to pray for the doctors to make the correct life-and-death decisions and not give up on the surgery. The third request they presented in prayer was for strength for the doctors.

"We asked for superhuman strength," Venesa said. "That's a long time to be in surgery. I just can't imagine how exhausting it was."

She reached out to her son, Kyle, who used Sarah's "Fight Club" group on Facebook to ask its members to join them in praying for Sarah.

"You wouldn't believe the response – all across the country, and there was even someone in Saudi Arabia who said they were praying for her," Venesa said.

At 7:30, the need for the first prayer was confirmed. A nurse told the family Sarah had lost a lot of blood. At 10 p.m., the family was called downstairs to meet the doctor. After a 1 1/2-hour wait, he dejectedly met with them.

"He was speaking in past tense and, at that point, we didn't know whether she was alive or dead," Venesa said.

So she asked him, and he said she was alive, but told them it was a "dogfight." She asked when, and he told her 6:15. All the prayers' requests addressed needs that arose at that very time.

"The doctor kept saying, that's exactly what was going on at that time," Venesa said. "It was miracle after miracle after miracle."

The doctors sewed up Sarah, fearing the lost blood would mean she would not make it through the night. She not only made it through the night. She recovered and graduated a few weeks ago.

"That was amazing and a huge deal for her to graduate after what she had gone through," Roberts said.

"God definitely has a plan for me," Sarah said.

Cruelly, that plan involves another battle with the cancer, which returned 6 weeks ago. She receives chemotherapy every week, but is confident she'll prevail again.

"I'm very confident, but I admit it's discouraging," Sarah said.

She's going to attend Sauk Valley Community College until the cancer is eradicated, then she'll finish her studies as a child life specialist.

"I think my fight will be able to benefit me in my job," Sarah said. "I know what those children are going through and what they're feeling."

She couldn't find the words to express how she felt that she's inspired Roberts to go into nursing. But her mother could.

"It touches my heart," Venesa said. "I knew she wanted to go into nursing, but I didn't know why. It's incredible how many people Sarah has touched, even if she doesn't know it."

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