All Saints Academy eighth-grader relies on prayer and community to get her through health fight

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MIDDLETOWN — Hannah Wertens is already on her way to being a star. The 13-year-old budding actress and singer has appeared in an Alex and Ani commercial and recently debuted an original song, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” on Coast 93.3. It’s a song about getting through tough times, a very personal topic for Hannah, who wrote it the day she returned home from a round of chemotherapy in August.

“It’s about encouraging positive energy. Positive thinking towards the future,” she told Rhode Island Catholic during an interview last week.

Hannah, an eighth-grader at All Saints Academy, Middletown, is currently battling her third round of leukemia. She was first diagnosed at the age of two and then again before her sixth birthday, and underwent a bone marrow transplant last fall. Hannah lives in Portsmouth with her mom, Debbe Kirchner, and has attended All Saints Academy since Kindergarten, where she enjoys performing in school plays. She’s also an avid musician who plays the drums and is learning to play the ukulele and piano. Last year, she got to see her musical idol, Selena Gomez, perform at Mohegan Sun.

“I’m her number one fan. I had, like, 65 posters,” said Hannah.

Kirchner remembers the day, only a week after the concert, that Hannah was diagnosed for the third time. It was field day at All Saints Academy, and Kirchner was working as a teacher’s aide at the school at the time.

“They pulled her out of the relay race here. It’s embedded in my head,” she said.

Hannah’s third bout with cancer was not a relapse. She had contracted acute myelogenous leukemia, a different type of leukemia than she had previously, which is a rare occurrence in children. Hannah spent the summer receiving chemotherapy at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and preparing to return to All Saints Academy in the fall, but only attended a few days of school before finding out she would receive a bone marrow transplant at Boston Children’s Hospital. The transplant began a months-long process of recovery during which Hannah must stay in isolation while she rebuilds her immune system.

“They describe transplant as day zero. The chemo I had before transplant wiped out all my immunity. I just had day 100,” she explained.

Hannah hopes to return to school in time to participate in the eighth grade class trip to New York and attend Portsmouth Abbey in the fall, but for now, she does her schoolwork at home. All Saints Academy teacher Ann Villareal visits Hannah four times a week to keep her up to date on the curriculum, which both teacher and student say they are flying through.

“It’s different, but it’s pretty cool. You definitely get a lot more done,” said Hannah.

Much more difficult is the social aspect of middle school. For her own health, Hannah is not able to receive visitors inside her home, though she keeps in touch through text message and sometimes meets friends outside in the yard. Villareal tries to include other students in the lessons via FaceTime as often as possible, but the long hours at home can be difficult for a student with Hannah’s outgoing personality.

“It’s hard,” said Kirchner. “People have lives. It’s like life goes on, except you’re kind of stuck where you are.”

Hannah hopes others will understand that it’s not just physical pain she goes through, but emotional pain as well. When she has nightmares or trouble sleeping at night, she prays and listens to God while he talks back. A parishioner at St. Barnabas Church, Portsmouth, she’s always felt that she had a close connection with God.

“I’ve always talked to God, ever since I was two,” she said. “He calms me down. I can tell kind of what he’s saying.”

Hannah isn’t the only one who’s been praying since her most recent diagnosis. Last year, a friend had the idea to create #HeySuperstar, a social media movement that’s brought prayers from around the world. Hannah asks supporters to take a picture of themselves and say a prayer for her just before posting it with their location. She keeps track of the posts, and so far has received prayers from every continent, including Antarctica.

“It feels really good and amazing,” she said.

At All Saints Academy, too, the school has come together to offer prayers for their absentee student and make sure she feels a part of the community. On a recent Thursday, the school held its annual History Night at the Museum following the theme “Take a Stand,” with middle school students focusing their projects on childhood cancer and cancer research.

The evening began with a prayer service for Hannah during which students dimmed the lights and wore light-up flower pendants they had hand-sewn in her favorite colors, pink and purple. After the service, students displayed their projects, including a presentation on changes in cancer treatment and a video about how charitable foundations impact the wellbeing of cancer patients, featuring a cameo by Hannah discussing the tuition support she receives from the Izzy Foundation. One project, an IV pole attached to a movable robot, was inspired directly by a visit to Hannah’s hospital room, where students and teachers noticed how difficult it was for her to wheel the IV pole around.

“We were brainstorming ideas on how to make this more easy for the patient,” said Bella Guertin, a seventh-grader.

The evening closed with a skit and a video appearance by Hannah, who Skyped in to say hello to her classmates and their families. According to Villareal, having Hannah at the school has been a learning experience for the other students, who embraced the idea of theming their projects around the challenges she faces.

“I think we can all say that Hannah has really inspired us,” she said. “She truly believes that she will win this fight against childhood cancer, so we truly believe that she will win this fight against childhood cancer.”

Back at home, Hannah is counting the days until she can return to school with her friends. Grateful for the prayers and support, she plans to keep on the lookout for photos tagged #HeySuperstar and also belongs to an online prayer group. According to Kirchner, you can never have too many prayers.

“We like to storm heaven,” she said.