BOZEMAN — In the summer of 2017, Hailey Merkes stepped onto Montana State's campus for her first volleyball training camp.
Like most freshmen navigating their first year as a student-athlete, it can be difficult transitioning from high school to college. However, Merkes' freshman year was quite different from most. Shortly after arriving on campus, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
“I’ll never forget getting the news," said Bobcats head volleyball coach Daniel Jones. "I just walked into my office, closed the door, and I just sobbed. I didn’t know what to do.”
During Merkes' first few months on campus, she noticed she was having problems breathing during practice. She initially thought it was because of being out of shape or elevation, but a hike up to the 'M' with her team quickly changed the narrative.
“I got to the top and I was like, 'Wow, that was really hard,'" said Merkes. "That was rough. That shouldn’t have been that hard. Everyone else is going up and they’re breathing hard, but it sounds like normal breathing, and I’m breathing in and it sounds like Darth Vader.”
After a chest X-ray, doctors found out she was only getting 40% oxygen to her lungs and saw that her trachea was being compressed by something.
“I kind of knew it was something pretty bad just because all the doctors were all kind of freaking out and looking at me like puzzlingly, like, 'How is she still breathing?'" added Merkes.
Merkes was immediately admitted to the ICU after completing a CT scan.
“It was a huge mass in the middle of my chest," she explained. "It went from the base of my neck to below my rib cage and they said it was the width of a dinner plate, is how they described it. It took up most of my chest and it was pressing on my lungs and bending my trachea, so that’s why I was having such trouble breathing.”
But after three months of chemotherapy and one month of radiation, she was cancer free.
Merkes wasted no time returning to the volleyball court. Fast forward to 2021, she’s now in her senior season with the Bobcats.
“I’ve found myself several times in the last semester when we’ve been going through this hard time with COVID and just seeing Hailey excel on the volleyball court, I just find myself standing at the end line watching her play and just getting misty-eyed just with a sense of awe and a sense of pride of what she’s been able to achieve already," Jones said.
While those four months were filled with many low points as she battled Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Merkes is thankful for her new lease on life.
“For me having cancer -- I probably should have died, is what all the doctors tell me -- it really puts everything into perspective of, like, I really want to start living," said Merkes. "I want to live every day because you don’t know when it can be taken from you. I don’t think I’d change anything.”