The Columns

Love for Liza: Liza Heaton ’11

— by on November 5th, 2015

Liza Heaton '11

It was the wedding celebrated around the world.

News that Liza Haynie ’11 married Wyatt Heaton ’09 on Dec. 13, 2014, days after learning that she had less than a month to live, made headlines in throngs of newspapers and on websites. The “Today” show, CNN and Fox News all aired stories about the couple’s “I do’s.”

By February, the media frenzy had mostly calmed down, but Liza – who took Heaton as her last name – remained overwhelmed by the buzz her story had generated and the outpouring of support. “I’ve just never had that much attention in my life,” she said.

Although the private 26-year-old finds the spotlight a little uncomfortable, she is happy the stories raised awareness about her disease: synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that mostly strikes young people. “I’m glad that if I do end up passing away from this, I will have done that,” Liza said.

Liza and Wyatt’s love story began in 2007, during her initial weeks as a first-year student at Washington and Lee, when her friend David Yancey ’09 invited her over to watch a football game on television. (While growing up, Yancey and Liza had been neighbors in Shreveport, Louisiana, and he was part of the reason she’d chosen the school.) The group watching football included Wyatt Heaton.

“We ended up being fast friends and dated all over those next two years, on and off,” Wyatt said. He liked Liza right away. “She was confident without being brash or loud,” he said of that first meeting. “She was a very smart girl. She was fun.”

The couple split when Wyatt moved to China following graduation, and Liza spent a semester at the University of Cape Town. But they never fell out of touch. “He ended up coming to visit me in South Africa,” Liza said. “I went to China.”

By Liza’s senior year, the couple was officially dating again. Wyatt was one of the first people Liza told after she went for a routine check-up, and the nurse practitioner sent Liza for an ultrasound to check out a tiny lump in her abdomen.

Liza, thinking she might have an ovarian cyst, went on a planned spring break trip to the Bahamas. When she got back, she accepted a job offer at Legg Mason Capital Management, in Baltimore, led by Bill Miller ’72.

That day, she Skyped with Wyatt, who was getting ready for a big hiking trip that would take him off the grid. “I was like, ‘I accepted the job. I’m going to have to move to Baltimore, but we can make it work. Have fun on your trip. I’ll talk to you in a week.’ “

Later the same day, Liza learned she had synovial sarcoma. It was a week before she could reach Wyatt to give him the news, a conversation made even more difficult because Wyatt’s mother had died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma a few years earlier. “He knew how bad it could really get,” Liza said.

By the time Liza was able to return to W&L, only a few weeks remained of school. “Liza, of course, being Liza, didn’t let it faze her at all,” explained her close friend Emily Allender ’11. “She didn’t want anybody dwelling on her cancer. It was so like her to go with the flow and have fun and focus on the present.”

“I was happy I got to do graduation,” Liza said. “I got to go and have fun and not think about it for a while.”

Wyatt, who’d planned to begin law school and to study for a master’s degree in taxation at Georgia State University that fall, left China months early so he could be with Liza as she had chemotherapy. “He really took care of me and did everything,” Liza said. “It made us a lot closer.”

After postponing her job for five months for that part of her treatment, Liza moved to Maryland. “She was always very enthusiastic and positive,” Miller recalled of his employee. “It was very easy to treat her like anybody else because she was like anybody else. She just happened to be going through a tough period.”

A rough patch was exactly how Liza saw her illness. “I didn’t think I was going to die or anything,” she explained. “I thought, ‘I’ll just do this for this year and this’ll be over.’ “

In October of 2013, Liza joined Wyatt in Atlanta, where she worked as an analyst. They had a lot of friends in the city, including many W&L alumni. It was a happy time.

The following summer, though, Liza began having stomach pain. Over Thanksgiving last year, she got the news. Her cancer was back. Oncologists at John Hopkins’ cancer center gave Liza the grim news that a gastrointestinal blockage meant they couldn’t treat her. “They said I was going to die pretty quickly,” Liza said.

Wyatt quickly proposed. “Once Liza got sick, and we didn’t know how much time we had left, we both knew we wanted to be with each other,” Wyatt said. “To me, it was the most important thing, no matter what the future was going to hold, that we be together. Together forever, just linked like that.”

“I was very sad but very happy at the same time,” Liza said of the proposal. “We were like, ‘Let’s just make this week really happy.’ “

Liza put the word out to her friends about her prognosis. She told them she wanted everybody to come to Shreveport for a fish fry, a last chance to be together. “We were all in complete shock,” Allender said. “We dropped everything to be there.”

What Liza didn’t tell her friends was that she and Wyatt were actually throwing their wedding that night. That left the couple a lot of planning to do in 48 hours. Bill Miller offered the couple the use of his plane so they could get back to Shreveport without dealing with the hassle at the airport. Liza’s aunt volunteered her lake house for the ceremony. That left Liza with the not-so-small detail of finding a wedding dress.

Whitney Dickson Davis ’07 also grew up near Liza’s Shreveport home. Liza had studied her 2012 wedding pictures on Facebook and had marveled over her dress. “It was beautiful, like a formal dress, but also fun,” Liza said. Davis didn’t hesitate when Liza called to see if she would loan out her gown for the special occasion. “She was so gracious,” Liza said.

Allender, who joined about 50 W&L alumni at Shreveport that December Saturday, said she and her friends never suspected they were there for anything other than a fish fry until they saw Liza’s father show up at the lake party in a suit. Next, they spotted a photographer. “All our wheels were turning,” Allender said. “Then it hit: ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to get married.’ “

Before the ceremony, Liza told the pastor she didn’t know how long she would be able to stand. “We’re going to have to make this a really quick ceremony,” she said. But Liza managed to stand. And dance. For hours. Liza described that night as the best of her life.

The next night turned out to be pretty great, too. That’s when the blockage, which had been preventing doctors from treating Liza’s cancer, miraculously passed. Doctors quickly arranged for her to take a chemotherapy pill. She’s also hoping to be accepted soon into a clinical trial.

Liza’s sister, Ann Marie Haynie ’13, wasn’t that shocked by this good news. “The second we got back to Shreveport and started planning that wedding, she just perked up,” Haynie said of Liza. “You could see that something was changing and she was doing much better.”

Liza continues to be optimistic about her health. A CT scan performed in February showed her tumors are shrinking. “They’re not gone, but at least I’m making progress.”

Haynie, along with several of Liza’s friends, launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for research into the rare cancer. “The outlook Liza has had this whole time is, she doesn’t want somebody else’s best friend or daughter or sister to have to go through synovial sarcoma,” Allender said.

The group set a modest initial goal of $5,000 for the campaign but quickly passed that number. As Liza’s 26th birthday neared on Jan. 7, Allender decided she wanted to see the fund, which by then had about $470,000, top $500,000 by Liza’s special day. Allender started a social media campaign, asking friends to donate $26 to the fund.

Her plan worked. At the end of February, the fund had raised over $560,000 and is listed as one of the most successful campaigns on the site. Donations came from all over, but Liza thinks a sizable portion of the money stemmed from folks with W&L connections. “Now that it has hit close to $600,000, it feels like we can make a dent in the research that needs to be done,” Haynie said.

“It’s remarkable,” Wyatt added, “but when you think of the W&L community, it’s not surprising.”

– by Beth JoJack