09/20/11 — Overcoming obstacles -- with her best friend by her side

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Overcoming obstacles -- with her best friend by her side

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 20, 2011 1:46 PM

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Crystal Mitchell, right, smiles while her best friend, Kristie Johnson, looks out a window at Faith Christian Academy. Ms. Mitchell, 17, diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at one month old, was cast as Snow White in Missoula Children's Theatre production over the summer but was unable to perform because she was hospitalized.

Kristie Johnson may have started out trying to cheer up a sick girl she heard about at school, but has wound up being an answer to a prayer for Crystal Mitchell.

Crystal, 17, is now home-schooled but previously attended Faith Christian Academy. She was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby.

"She was sick from Day One. They sent her to Duke, did all kinds of tests," but were unable to do the CF test until she was about a month old, her mother, Remona said.

Life for the family -- which also includes an adult daughter and stepdaughter as well as son Jesse, 11 -- has in many ways revolved around caring for Crystal.

Being in and out of hospitals is a way of life. Crystal was again admitted last week for an infection after they "cleaned out" her lungs, and hospitalization typically last two weeks.

Crystal has two different forms of CF, affecting both the respiratory system and digestive system. And she recently learned she is a borderline diabetic.

"It's a struggle, especially if you really want to go somewhere," she said. "You have to make sure all the treatments have been done. You have to wake up even earlier."

Treatments are usually administered in the morning, afternoon and night and include a nebulizer and a big machine that helps clear her airways.

But she still manages to enjoy things most girls her age do -- video games, watching TV, youth activities at church, she said.

"And you forgot one thing, me," said her younger brother, Jesse.

"He keeps me lots of company at home," Crystal said.

Missing so much school to deal with her disease has made creating a life as a teenager difficult, Crystal says.

Ladies from the church began to bring girls her age by to visit. Among them were Sherry Johnson's daughters, Alicia, now 18 and a college student, and Kristie, now a 10th-grader at the school.

"A few years ago, one of Kristie's teachers asked the class to pray for Crystal Mitchell," Mrs. Johnson recalls. "Kristie immediately began to bug me to take her to meet Crystal. Since Alicia had met and connected with her a couple years earlier, I took both of them to visit Crystal in her home. Kristie and Crystal instantly bonded and have been inseparable -- emotionally, that is -- ever since."

What caused them to be such fast friends?

"She's crazy," Kristie said.

"She's crazy," Crystal countered. "I have always wanted a crazy person for a friend."

"Both of them were having a problem at the time they got together," chimed in Mrs. Mitchell. "It was just a prayer answered."

"When I first met Crystal, I was hoping I could be an encourager," Kristie said. "I realize now how much she has helped me grow as a person."

One common interest the girls shared was performing. Kristie had already been the lead in "Anne of Green Gables" and they were both cast in the "Tortoise and the Hare" this past spring. So when Missoula Children's Theater announced auditions for "Snow White" at Seymour Johnson AFB in August, they decided to try out.

Unfortunately, one week before auditions, Crystal was back in Duke hospital.

"We told the doctors, it's such an encouragement for her to do these things. Could she be out and come back?" Mrs. Johnson said.

Crystal was released on a Sunday, in time for the Monday audition. Seventy-five people turned out.

The way Missoula usually works, Kristie explained, is to narrow down the roles so that the last ones standing are the leads.

"They always save the best for the last," she said.

In this case, Alicia and Crystal were the last two remaining on the stage.

"So when they announced Alicia would be the stepmother, then said, 'This is the girl we can't do the show without,'" Crystal said, she knew the role was hers. "Just getting the part, honestly, when all those girls started showing up, I didn't think I would have much of a chance."

Rehearsals for the one-weekend show went well. Until late that Wednesday night, when Crystal began coughing up blood and wound up back at Duke.

"I did absolutely everything I was supposed to do," Crystal shrugged.

"We were supposed to meet them at the base gate to get on," Mrs. Johnson said. "We were just devastated. This was the day before the dress rehearsal, Thursday morning.

"The directors said they wouldn't give the part to anyone else, if they had to they would play the part themselves. We tried to get the doctors to give her a break. They said, no way, it was too bad."

The cast paid tribute to their fellow performer, giving a shout-out during the curtain call.

"At the end, the director said, 'Say, we love Snow White' and we said, 'We love Crystal Mitchell!'" said Kristie.

The entire cast signed a poster for Crystal and put together a collage of pictures that was delivered to her in the hospital.

"One thing that really stood out to me was when we went to the hospital to give her the poster and stuff, we asked if she could do it over and knew she'd have to miss out on the performance, she said it was still worth it to go in and get the part," Alicia said.

The connection between the families will continue, as Mrs. Johnson and Kristie plan to take Crystal to Disney World in November.

"It'll be Kristie's sweet 16 -- 11/11/11," said Mrs. Johnson.

"All I want is to be able to take Crystal to Disney World," said Kristie. Disney has agreed to donate the tickets, she added, and she is helping pay for the trip through birthday money and funds generated from selling things on eBay.

It's a wonderful gesture, Mrs. Mitchell said, admitting she's a bit worried at the thought of her daughter traveling so far.

"She's the most," she began, her voice catching slightly as the emotions surface, "bravest little girl I have ever seen."