When she was just 5 years old, Emily Pickett’s parents took her to Disney World, a nice little treat before her own world — and the way she saw it — changed forever.
Doctors had just discovered that Pickett had Retinoblastoma, a rapidly developing cancer that forms in the cells of the retina, the light-detecting tissue of the eye.
Over dinner in Orlando, Pickett’s parents, Melissa and John, told Emily that her left eye would have to be removed.
“She said she wanted to keep her eye, and we told her that we really didn’t have a choice,” Melissa Pickett said. “At the time, she didn’t cry. I’m not sure she realized how her life would change.”
Retinoblastoma is a rare form of cancer that occurs in one out of roughly 15,000 live births and is usually detected before the child turns 1. If not, it is often fatal because the tumor has by then likely spread to the brain.
In Emily Pickett’s case, however, the tumor had not spread.
Now, Pickett not has only survived — she has flourished. She’s a 16-year-old junior at Coral Glades High and a starting setter on the school’s varsity volleyball team.
“She’s one of the best kids I’ve ever coached,” said Connor Dooley, the Coral Glades coach. “She’s very involved with a lot of school organizations, and she’s a very committed player — a leader on and off the court.”
Pickett has a 3.8 grade-point average and wants to study business administration in college.
Not very tall at 5-5, she was used as a libero last year on the junior varsity. But when Dooley was hired after last season, she told him she wanted to be a setter.
“I told him that volleyball is my life, and that he could push me as hard as he wanted to — even if I threw up,” Pickett said.
“I know I’m not at the level yet of a college player. But cancer has made me a stronger person. Even if it gets tough, I’m going to push 100 percent.”
Dooley said he was “absolutely willing” to push Pickett “because she approached me in a good way.”
But despite her admirable courage and maturity, it has not always been easy for Pickett. In grade school, some children teased her about her glass eye, and even today kids will ask her awkward questions.
But Pickett has handled it all astonishingly well, joking often about her condition.
“She said that she wants to wear an eye patch and bedazzle it for warm-ups,” Dooley said. “She has a great sense of humor.”
Pickett admits that she can’t go even one day without making an eye joke.
Last year, while in a car with since-graduated volleyball teammate Daniella Gual, Pickett spotted a parking spot before her buddy.
“I said to her: ‘Really? I have one eye, and I saw that before you did?’ ” said Pickett, who is also allowed to drive.
Occasionally, Pickett will bump into something on her left.
“Sorry,” she’ll say, “one-eye problem.”
Pickett, who draws one-eyed smiley faces in notes to friends, has a simple answer when asked about her sunny disposition.
“If I have to live with this the rest of my life,” she said, “it sucks, but why not joke about it?”
There is little question that Pickett’s condition affects her on the court. There have been times when she has been hit in the face with a ball because her depth perception is lacking.
Still, Dooley said Pickett’s court vision exceeds that of most players.
“The only time it affects her is when a ball comes over her left shoulder,” the coach said. “She has to rotate her body a little further so she can get a full view of the ball. It doesn’t affect her sets, just the way she moves to get to the ball.”
Pickett said there have been times that she has unintentionally let a ball drop because of her vision issues, but she added that her teammates have been fully supportive.
She also said that she would consider any college that offers her a volleyball scholarship. If no such deal arrives, she plans on attending Florida State, her parents’ favorite school.
“I love making my parents proud of me,” said Pickett, who has an October trip planned to FSU and will watch a football and volleyball game while in Tallahassee.
John Pickett, Emily’s dad, said being proud of his daughter and only child is a given.
“We were very young when we were married,” he said. “I was 18 and Melissa was 19, and when Emily got sick, it was devastating.
“But Emily has been amazing. She has such a great personality. When she had her Sweet 16 party, 60 kids were there who all love her to death.
“We just know Emily is going to go on to do big things.”