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2 years after life-saving bone marrow transplant, Laila Anderson begins new journey on the ice

"Like if you wanna do something, you have to push. And I feel like if you don’t have to push for it, then you don’t really want it"

ST. LOUIS — Four years ago, no one could’ve predicted that then-8-year-old St. Louis Blues superfan Laila Anderson would be signing up to play hockey in 2021.

“I go to school. I’m celebrating Christmas with my family. I have a dog. I’m playing hockey. I’m your average 12-year-old," Laila told 5 On Your Side. "I just happen to go get blood work once every three months.”

After months of testing, Laila was told she had Isolated Central Nervous System (HLH), a rare, and sometimes fatal, autoimmune disease in 2018. She was officially diagnosed from results in her body that make too many immune cells.

She was isolated for more than four months while undergoing treatment, until she received the news that she was cleared to attend a St. Louis Blues game in 2019.

Laila continued battling for her life, while her favorite hockey team continued fighting for its first ever Stanley Cup title. 

In May 2019, Laila was in need of a bone marrow transplant miracle. She was connected with a donor through Be The Match, and she got it. And it all happened one month before the Blues got a fairytale ending of their own, being crowned Stanley Cup champions for the first time in franchise history.

It’s a story of hope that will live on forever. But deep down, Laila craved the chance to lace up some skates of her own. 

“I grew up at a really young age with my dad being in an adult league,” she said. “So I, at 5 years old, would watch my dad play hockey. And I now I’m like, 'Dang. Hockey’s in my blood.' And I’ve always known I’ve wanted to play hockey.”

But lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup with her beloved Blues was the closest she would get to playing hockey. Until she received the news in 2020 that she had been hoping to hear for four years.

“It was right around the All-Star Game when the Blues and Centene announced the girls’ Learn to Play program,” Laila’s father, Scott Anderson, said.

“And we’re just sitting, like I’m getting ready for school, and my dad’s like, 'Laila, I just got an e-mail from Centene. There’s a girls’ Learn to Play in December. Do you want to do it?’ And I interrupted him as fast as I could. I said, ‘Yes. Sign me up. Please,’” she recalled.

“And the doctors gave us the okay of doing physical activities,” Scott Anderson said. “Her body’s changed from the medicines and the chemos and things like that, and they gave her the OK to do it. And then the pandemic hit, so we couldn’t do it in March. So then it was October, we sign up for late November. So I’m super excited that she wants to play.”

Laila joined 80 girls in signing up for the first-ever St. Louis Blues “Learn To Play” program at Centene Community Ice Center.

The Blues are one of the NHL organizations that is partnering with Bauer Equipment to host the program. Bauer provides free equipment to all girls who pay a small fee to sign up for each session. The program is broken down into three different sessions.

Former United States Olympians and notable former female hockey players serve as guest trainers in certain sessions. The goal is to expand girls’ hockey across the St. Louis area.

Laila is playing a sport for the first time since her diagnosis, but more than anything, she has the chance to be a kid again.

“Like if you look at it for a milestone, it’s a big one,” Laila said. “And it’s somewhere when we look, we’re like, ‘We’ve made it. We’ve wanted to do this for a while, and it just goes to show I’m healthy, I’m happy and I’m doing what I love.”

“I think, well I cried when Colton lifted the Cup with her,” Scott Anderson said. “And then I cried when she said she wanted to play hockey.” 

It’s the strength Laila gained from battling for her life that now motivates her to compete on the ice. She’s fulfilling a dream to play the sport she loves and be one of the girls to participate in the expansion of youth hockey in St. Louis.

“Going through the journey I’ve gone through, I had to grow up faster than I’ve ever wanted to, and it taught me life lessons along the way,” Laila said. “And part of that is I think I’ve gone through a lot that I may not have to go through again later in my life experience. Whether it be getting another brain biopsy or as simple as having three IVs at one point. But it really goes to show that hockey can be hard, but it’s something that I wanna do. Like if you wanna do something, you have to push, and I feel like if you don’t have to push for it, then you don’t really want it.”

And this is something she really wants.

“My dad has been a really good role model with growing up watching him,” Laila said. “And I have to say I want to be a role model for my kids one day. I want to be in an adult league and have my daughter or son grow up watching me play hockey and follow this through the Anderson generation.”

She begins a new journey on the ice, with an endless passion for the team that’s inspired her from the beginning.

“I think when I go to Blues games, I’m still going to be that spunky, quirky Laila, but I will have another perspective,” she said. “I will know how it is to be on the ice, and I think that’ll make me cheer 10 times louder if that is even possible.” 

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