By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: July 13, 2009
They never thought Tabitha Ellis would live this long. Not the doctors. Not even her parents. She was born with cancer on her vocal chords and later diagnosed with a life-threatening heart disease that compromised her immune system.
Ellis, now 18, has defied the odds, becoming a multi-sport athlete in high school and then a singer/actor attending a drama academy in New York City.
Her childhood was a series of hospital visits and medical treatments. She was forced to tote around a heart-monitoring machine that was about the size of a lunch pail and wired to her chest.
“When she stopped breathing, the machine would warn us,” said Ellis’ mother, Irene, of Swanzey. “We would either have to do CPR or shake her. Sometimes a little shake would spring her into breathing again.”
But just a gentle shake. And even then it was risky. Her bones were so brittle and her joints were so weak that her limbs would sometimes pop out of place while she was horsing around with her older brother, T.J.
“We couldn’t play like most brothers and sisters play,” he said.
T.J. Ellis, now 25, said he had to wait five weeks after his younger sister was born before he could even be in the same room with her.
“I could only see her through glass at the hospital,” he said. “At that age I didn’t know why I couldn’t go in there.”
When she was 2 years old, Tabitha Ellis underwent surgery to repair a hole in her heart. She now has an artificial heart valve.
In the years after the surgery, Tabitha Ellis’ heart and body grew stronger. She shed the cumbersome heart-monitoring machine along with her introverted characteristics, spending less time alone in her room and more time with friends.
It was as if someone had flipped a switch inside her, said her father, Todd.
“Finally, she didn’t have to spend time in doctors’ offices or worry about the monitor going off,” he said. “It was really amazing. She completely changed when the surgery happened.”
Compared to the other students, though, Tabitha Ellis was still weak when she entered her freshman year at Monadnock Regional High School. She was the new kid in school, having just moved from Washington, D.C., and she weighed less than 75 pounds.
“She still wanted to be like everybody else,” Irene Ellis said. “She didn’t want to be singled out. She never wanted that.”
As Tabitha Ellis’ heart became even stronger and the doctors weaned her off some of her medications, her body began to fill out. Soon she no longer had to play the role of the frail girl watching from the sidelines.
“When I was little the hospital was my second home and I couldn’t do a lot,” she said. “I always wanted to make up for it.”
So she did. She joined the high school’s track and field program, running the mile for two years. She became the only girl on the boys’ lacrosse team, playing for two years. “I fit in well,” she said. She joined the school’s swim team, competing for all four years. She was also a varsity cheerleader for more than three years.
“When people ask me for advice, I say ‘You only live once, so just go after your dreams wholeheartedly,’ ” she said. “I’ve had setbacks. Everyone does. It’s a part of life. You just have to move on. That’s what I did. If I couldn’t do something one year, I’d look forward to doing it the next year.”
After graduating high school last year, Tabitha Ellis chased her dreams to the Big Apple, where she’s studying musical theater at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
Despite the cancer on her vocal chords — the nodules were surgically removed two years ago — she has enjoyed singing for most of her life.
Her grandmother, a country singer, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and her mother is also known to belt out a song.
“I have some little singing roots,” Tabitha Ellis said. “I like all kinds of music, depending on what type of mood I’m in.”
She contracted the acting bug in her late teens when she left cheerleading to play the role of Liesl in her high school’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
“I’d always wanted to try acting since I was a freshman. I knew that if I didn’t do it before I left high school I would regret it,” she said. “It turned out to be a life-changing experience.”
She now spends nearly 40 hours a week reading scripts, memorizing lines, dancing and singing at the dramatic academy in Manhattan. She lives in an old hotel building-turned dormitory and imagines a life on Broadway or starring in big-screen films.
“Whatever comes first,” she said.
When Tabitha Ellis finishes her two-year conservatory — she’s three weeks into her first semester — she will have to move on to the Los Angeles campus and study for another two years if she wants to obtain a degree. She’s uncertain about the path she wants to take.
“I’d really like to go straight on into the business,” she said, “but I understand that having a degree is also important.”
Whatever direction Tabitha Ellis’ life takes, her family will be watching. They’ve witnessed her transformation. They know she can traverse the roughest of roads. Now they sit back and wait to see what she’ll do next.
“When she was a young girl she could tell you what her plans were to die, what she wanted done with her body,” Irene Ellis said. “It’s just so amazing, what she’s done already.”