UCF rowing’s senior coxswain Claire Frenkel can chalk up her career aspiration of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse to a pair of socks.
As a 4-year-old, Frenkel battled tonsil cancer, surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, and it was always Florida Hospital For Children’s Nurse Cathy with her decorative socks of cats or colorful stripes who put a smile on Frenkel’s face.
“I was on edge of dying the whole time, and nobody let me know. I never felt that way because I had nurses wearing funny socks or making jokes or watching the Lion King with me eight hours a day because it was my favorite movie,” Frenkel said. “I knew almost immediately when I finished my treatments that I wanted to be a nurse. I would love to be that for somebody else and give them that one ounce of hope that you can make it through this. I really want that interaction and impact.”
Frenkel, who joined the rowing team her freshman year by attending open tryouts, will receive her bachelor’s degree in Psychology on Saturday, May 5.
Graduation will cap an incredible career at UCF for the Orlando native and a milestone that doctors never thought she’d live long enough to reach.
‘We Tried to Make It Fun for Her’
Frenkel started chemotherapy on April 21, 1994 – her fourth birthday – after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her tonsils. She was Florida Hospital for Children’s first-ever pediatric cancer patient.
“At one point, I think there was a 90-percent fatality chance. They didn’t give us good odds, but being a parent I refused to believe that,” Frenkel’s mother, Maureen McArdle, said. “I believe positive thinking really goes a long way in people’s cures, and they say that you have better success with kids because they do whatever you tell them to.
“We’d tell Claire you’re going to watch movies today at the doctor’s office, and she’d be happy and say ‘OK!’ Meanwhile, her father and I were watching toxins get pumped into her body. You just have to deal with the hand you’re dealt with and move forward. We tried to make it a positive experience and do whatever we could to not have her feel pain.”
Over the next nine months, Frenkel underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy. Six of those weeks, she also received a daily dose of radiation.
She had a “pukey bucket” at her feet constantly for the car rides when she inevitably would get sick. She refused to eat because it felt like nails scratching down her throat when she tried, so doctors had to fit her with a feeding tube.
She also remembers the day she lost her hair.
Prior to her diagnosis and treatment, Frenkel’s hair ran down to the middle of her back. Her mother decided to get a haircut along with her daughter so when the inevitable day of losing her hair came, it wouldn’t be as traumatic. Three weeks after she began treatment, Frenkel’s hair came out in a clump in her hand while she and her mother read stories in bed.
“Claire looked almost shocked, so I said let’s play a game,” McArdle recalled. “I got a garbage bag and I said you jump on the bed and start to pull out your hair, and I’ll try to catch it in the bag.”
The two laughed as Frenkel hopped up and down until only a few strands remained. Meanwhile, her father buzzed off all of his hair in the shower.
“Her dad walked in with his bald head, and so it was OK,” McArdle said. “A lot of her friends gave her hats and they started wearing hats in school for her. We did hat-painting parties and tried to make it fun for her.”
During her year of treatment, Frenkel’s family did their best to make her childhood as normal and as happy as possible. She dressed up as the Lion King’s Zazu for Halloween. They took her to the pre-school her mother worked at whenever she felt well enough to attend. And they learned how to find beauty in even the most distressing moments.
McArdle’s most haunting memory of the whole experience is one also filled with much joy. Frenkel had significant weight loss, and at one point she reached about 29 pounds. One night, after Frenkel had taken her bath and her mom administered the dressing change, McArdle’s parents arrived from Chicago for a visit.
“From our bathroom, there is a long hallway and Claire ran down the hall to see my parents. She was naked and had a few strands of wispy hair. She was this gaunt kid, tubes (from her ports) swinging side to side and I thought she looked like a Holocaust victim, how frail she was,” McArdle said. “She jumped into my mom and dad’s arms and turned around and gave me a big smile because she was so happy they were there. It was a difficult and joyous moment at the same time. We had been to hell and back and I thought, ‘We’ll get through it.’”
Frenkel credits her family as the rock that got her through that time in her life. When she was in the hospital, her father was there all day, every day. Her younger sister Caitlin came to the hospital straight from school and stayed until visiting hours were over. Her mother, who worked during the day, slept at night in a chair next to her daughter’s bed.
“That was incredible,” Frenkel said. “A lot of other kids’ parents would go home for the night and just leave it in the hands of the doctor, but my parents never left my side. I have the most amazing relationship with my immediate family. We feel like we can do anything, any challenge.”
Pushing the Limit
By Frenkel’s fifth birthday, she was for all intents and purposes clear of cancer.
Although doctors continually gave her a clean bill of health, they told her she would never be able to play sports. Because her body endured so much stress and her red blood cells now possessed a lower oxygen level than most people, Frenkel was told that she’d have to live a mostly sedentary lifestyle outside of any minimal exercise to keep her heart healthy.
Always a fighter, Frenkel refused to accept that.
“It was hard for me to breathe and I get really tired really easily, but I never let it stop me. I’ve always been competitive and wanted to see how far I could push the limit,” Frenkel said. “So I started getting into sports. Gymnastics, dance, fencing, I tried volleyball but that was way too much coordination for me.”
In her freshman year at Boone High School, Frenkel told her parents she was going to join the rowing team after she spotted a flyer above her locker announcing a date for tryouts.
She fell in love with the sport, but she had no inclination of becoming a collegiate rower when she attended UCF in the fall of 2008. Not long into her first semester, a void set in. When she saw a sign for open tryouts of UCF’s rowing team, she jumped at the chance to get back into the sport.
But the demands of a competitive collegiate program took their toll on Frenkel, and she started passing out at practices.
“My body was just not handling the stress,” Frenkel said. “In January I hit the red line. I was in a boat, and I literally collapsed. I was almost dragging in the water. They took me to the emergency room and the doctors said, ‘You can’t do this.’ I said, ‘But this is my life. I don’t know any other way.’”
Refusing to quit, Frenkel went to UCF head coach Becky Cramer to ask what she could possibly do for the team. Cramer suggested she become a coxswain – the “brain” or coach of the boat.
“I looked at them and almost laughed,” Frenkel said.
Coxswains typically tip the scales near 110 pounds. Frenkel would need to lose about 30 or 40 pounds to reach that, but Cramer had no doubt that Frenkel would make a great coxswain.
“She embodied so many other traits: Her positive energy, her attitude, her determination, everything about who she was,” Cramer said. “The boat would be better with her in it.”
Frenkel has enjoyed a respectable career at UCF and helped lead her crew to a bronze-medal finish at the Conference USA Championships last season in Oak Ridge, Tenn. She is now a captain and a member of the CARE team, which promotes the well-being of UCF student-athletes through peer education.
Whatever scholarship money she receives, she gives to her parents for the financial toll her treatment cost.
“When I give them the checks they always say what are you doing? I just say please take it, it’s the least I can do. My housing is paid for, my food is paid for, I don’t need this money. I have nothing to buy,” Frenkel said. “They are just incredible, and I hope I make them proud.”
As Frenkel transitions into the next phase of her life, her rowing coach has no doubt that she will continue to make the Knights synonymous with success, determination and hard work.
“She competes in a way that makes people really be excited and want to be a part of,” she said. “As she goes on to become a nurse, I can see that same passion and excitement.”