Photo: Pictured above, Reginae (left) smiles with her sister Jaliyah (center) and her mother Echo (right).
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Reginae Marbury is a name that evokes one powerful word to mind: inspiration. As September serves as a time of reflection and raising awareness for childhood cancer, Reginae’s mother remembers a life unburdened by illness, a smile that never ceased and remarkable testimony filled with courage, joy and an unstoppable spirit.
Echo Byers is the mother of two daughters, Reginae and Jaliyah. While Jaliyah is the baby of their family, Reginae was Byers’ firstborn – a child whose confidence and character shined. Blessed with a jubilant personality and a quick-witted, cheerful sense of humor, Reginae exuded happiness and delight. An excellent student at Mitchell Elementary School near Noccalula Falls and Emma Samson Middle School, Reginae earned an induction into Beta Club and the A-B Honor Roll. She loved movies like The Grinch and spending time with friends, and crab legs and pizza were always on her favorite menu.
Inspired by her mother, Reginae flourished as an athlete, excelling at whatever sport she played. From shining in games of basketball at P.E to joining the boys playing football at Mitchell, Reginae loved each challenge and competition. But like Byers, softball proved to be her favorite sport.
During one of Reginae’s softball games in 2015, someone pointed out to Byers something strange: Reginae was limping on her left leg as she walked. While Byers considered Reginae might have gotten hit with a ball without telling her, when Byers asked Reginae she replied that nothing was wrong. One day, Byers received a phone call from Mitchell’s physical education teacher Kathy Towns, who told her that Reginae fell at school and injured her left leg – the same leg causing her to limp weeks before.
Byers and Reginae’s stepfather took Reginae to Gadsden Regional Medical Center where an X-Ray proved that Reginae’s leg was broken. Reginae then traveled to Sparks Orthopedics, where she received an MRI and a cast for her injured leg. However, the MRI unearthed something more than a simple broken leg; a tumor the size of a baseball had formed on Reginae’s injured leg, and the results warned that it was cancerous.
That same day, Byers and Reginae left for Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham.
While at Children’s, Reginae underwent extensive testing to reveal that the tumor resulted from osteosarcoma, a form of cancer produced in immature bones typically affecting individuals under the age of 25. Reginae was nine years old when diagnosed, and her journey began.
From March until August 2015, Reginae endured chemotherapy treatments at Children’s. Byers quit her job as a phlebotomist at Riverview Regional Medical Center and began caring for Reginae fulltime. Despite the challenges she faced as Reginae’s only caregiver, she commended her support system for their efforts of encouragement and their willingness to help.
“They were a big help,” said Byers. “Sisters, brother, grandmother, stepdad, nanny, neighbors, church members, strangers – they just came and gave me a break every now and then. Even after I had to quit my job, God still provided. We had a GoFundMe and carwashes and Mitchell did a drive-thru [donation]…churches and strangers on the street would give us gifts.
“New Destiny Christian Church did an outstanding job during her journey. My pastor had cancer too, so he was battling while Reginae was battling. They would always come see her and check on her. My sister Selena, my sister Lasonya, her stepdad John, church members and pastor Steve and Lady Rita came to our house and prayed over her…we had a lot of help and support. My support system was very awesome, and they are still here with me to this day.”
Byers reflected on her doctor’s description of chemotherapy as the first phase in their treatment, after which Reginae’s medical team would evaluate her condition and develop a plan moving forward. When the Stage IV cancer in Reginae’s leg metastasized into tumors on her lungs, that plan leapt into action and phase two of Reginae’s response took full effect on August 3, 2015.
Phase two of Reginae’s medical treatment involved a 12-hour extensive surgery during which doctors amputated her afflicted leg and removed 26 lesions from her lungs. While Byers recalls Reginae’s doctors attempting to save her leg, due to the critical nature of Reginae’s situation, they believed amputation was the only option.
Despite the anxiety and distress that might overcome an individual experiencing such upheaval in his or her life, Reginae’s circumstances never burdened her cheerful spirit and her endearing playful nature continued to shine. Before her operation, Reginae asked the surgeon if she could save her leg to keep afterwards. Surprised, the doctor asked what she would want to do with her leg. Reginae simply replied, “I’m going to put it in my closet!”
Reginae’s joy ceaselessly abounded as she adjusted to life with a prosthetic leg, learning how to walk and perform daily activities with her new prosthesis. Byers laughed while remembering a moment in Walmart with Reginae that perfectly encompassed her infectious sense of humor and lighthearted attitude.
“She would leave her leg [lying around] in Walmart [on purpose],” said Byers. “People would [come up to us concerned] and say, ‘M’am…your daughter lost a leg,’ but Reginae would make a joke out of it. She was never down. She was unstoppable.”
After Reginae’s surgery in August, she continued chemotherapy treatments, receiving scans every three months. Reginae’s scans were clear until July 2016, when a report exposed that the cancer had spread once again, this time manifesting in Reginae’s inferior vena cava, the vein that transports deoxygenated blood from the lower half of the body to the right atrium of the heart.
Though Byers contacted St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, when the medical staff evaluated Reginae’s paperwork and medical history, they informed Byers that Children’s in Birmingham’s approach would be equivalent to theirs. From October until December, Comfort Care Hospice attended to Reginae in her home. A little over two years from her diagnosis, Reginae passed away on December 18, 2016. She was 11 years old.
“She never gave up,” said Byers. “Not even at the end. She didn’t give up.”
Though Reginae no longer walks the earth, her undying legacy continues to affect lives in a paramount way, and her unwavering courage remains a testimony of joy, perseverance and ultimate triumph. Byers finds peace in the assurance that Reginae is healed in heaven and her guardian angel, with the understanding that God’s overwhelming comfort serves as her strength.
Reginae’s legacy continues in her younger sister Jaliyah, who Byers describes as Reginae and Jaliyah in one. Just like her sister, Jaliyah shares Reginae’s tall and thin frame and her virulent smile. At 10 years old, she too is the impressive athlete, playing a range of sports from basketball to softball to cheerleading. Jaliyah even attended Camp Smile-A-Mile at Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin, a camp Reginae attended and enjoyed during her journey where she connected with other children walking her same path. Reginae’s friends have not forgotten Jaliyah, and Byers noted that they continue to include Jaliyah and cling to their friendship. As Jaliyah grows into her own person, she shares similar character traits with Reginae as well, reminding Byers of treasured memories of her two daughters that will forever remain vibrant in her mind.
“There was a photo of [Jaliyah and Reginae] running at Noccalula Falls,” said Byers. “The picture was so pretty to me because they look so free.”
Throughout Reginae’s journey and after her death, Byers reflected on the people Reginae’s story touched. From neighbors in Gadsden to strangers statewide, the name Reginae Marbury flooded households with the encouragement to face obstacles with bravery. She uplifted others to remain dedicated to their faith, and to discover happiness in the smallest moments in life.
“She always had a smile on her face,” said Byers. “You could never tell she was hurting or sad; she always had a smile. Reginae’s personality was outstanding. Whoever would see her would just love on her and feel her energy…her energy was just a boost! I think that’s what drew people in to her, because they would think, ‘I’m going through something so small and this child lost a leg and is still smiling. She has cancer and she’s still going. I can’t be down because she’s not down.’”
Moved by her daughter’s journey, Byers is now attending classes to pursue nursing. In 2015, a group of softball teams gathered together in Southside to host a tournament called “Play for Reginae,” which featured a raffle and monetary gifts raising support for her. In October 2017, Byers and her family held a Christmas breakfast for local children at The Venue at Coosa Landing, where they fed all children who attended and raffled toys and bicycles for Christmas gifts in Reginae’s honor. Just as Reginae encouraged others, Byers encouraged families who are experiencing the same situation in their own lives.
“I went through the same thing,” said Byers. “If you need anything, let me know. I’m a listener, and if you want to talk you can talk [to me]. I know it’s hard because sometimes you don’t have time to listen to other people – you’re so busy trying to get your child and stuff situated, but I’m here. I’m a phone call away. You have to stop everything and be the best caregiver you can be, because your child needs you. The journey isn’t easy, but as long as you have God by your side, [that’s what makes the difference]. If you don’t have God in it, you’re going to fail. If you don’t have faith in this, you’re going to hit rock bottom. Stay prayed up – you have to have that hope.”