During a May 2013 Arizona vacation, Madeleine Martineau took seriously ill and found herself in the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, 5,000-plus miles from her native France and her London home. Diagnosed with high-risk acute myeloid leukemia, the 16-year-old spent seven months undergoing chemotherapy, clinical trials and treatments. With a weakened body and auto-immune system, she escaped the sterile hospital room by spending her hours her days her weeks reading, watching TV and movies and surfing the Web.
She used the Internet to read about the faith of her mother, who years earlier had served in France as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Madeleine occasionally had attended church services with her mother as a child. Wanting to know more, she eventually discovered the mormon.org website, which introduces visitors to the church’s basic beliefs.
Clicking on the “chat” link, she conversed via texts with an online missionary, who soon asked if Madeleine would like to meet with someone in person. When she explained her medical isolation, the missionary provided her with a list of other missionaries assigned in the Phoenix area who were among the church’s first equipped with iPads and authorized to use Skype video conferencing, Facebook, emails and texts in their contacting and teaching efforts.
Seeing the name “Sister Brittany Larson,” Madeleine reached out via Facebook. Serving her final month in the Arizona Phoenix Mission, Sister Larson responded and initiated online conversations and lessons with Madeleine, then transitioned her to other missionaries before returning home to Manassas, Virginia.
Elder Harrison Wardle of Mendham, New Jersey, and Elder Tyman Weiler of Woods Cross, Utah, assumed the lion’s share of continued online lessons, conversations and encouragements. Like Sister Larson, the two never personally met with Madeleine. Her condition didn’t allow visitors, and the hospital was outside their mission boundaries in the five-mission metro Phoenix area.
Online, the three discussed principles and progressions, with Madeleine reading the Book of Mormon several times during the seven months. They spoke of a planned December bone-marrow transplant surgery (a brother would be the donor), her violin pursuits and her desire for baptism into the LDS Church, dependant on surgery and recovery. In fact, doctors wouldn’t allow Madeleine to be fully submersed in water while equipped with a central line to carry nutrients and medications into her body.
Meanwhile, Elder Wardle’s mother suggested involving a college friend’s daughter with a similar background and interests — Claire Driggs, a 17-year-old from Salt Lake City who enjoyed reading and playing the violin and was two years into chemo and treatment for high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia at Primary Children’s Hospital.
Together, the two teens and the three missionaries formed an Internet nucleus of support and spiritual strength in the coming months for Madeleine’s Christmas Day bone-marrow transplant in New York City, Claire’s final treatments in February and a much-welcomed “cancer-free” designation, Madeleine’s acceptance into the Juilliard School of Music, her own clean bill of health in April and her anticipation of an August baptism.
But in May, one year to the day after her original diagnosis, a follow-up confirmed a relapse. Plans were put on hold and searches renewed for donors for a double cord blood transplant.
Fast forward to September.
Back from their missions, Larson was attending classes at BYU-Idaho and Weiler and Wardle were at BYU in Provo. The latter two decided to form a benefit group on behalf of the two teens — called “Team Madeleine and Claire” — for the annual CureSearch Walk pediatric cancer fundraiser at Sugarhouse Park. Wardle recruited his BYU lacrosse teammates to join the effort, which draws cancer patients, survivors and families of children whose lives are affected by the invasive disease.
For the Saturday morning rally and walk, Wardle and Weiler arrived with family, friends and Wardle’s BYU lacrosse team, along with Claire and her family. Larson drove from Rexburg, Idaho, to take photos to post online for Madeleine, while Wardle and Weiler planned to Skype with her while walking on her behalf.
But Skype didn’t seem to work, so Madeleine texted she was going to try for a better connection. She then stepped out from behind tents and crowds and in front of the two flabbergasted former missionaries.
It was their first in-person meeting, with Larson soon arriving to share the same surprise.
“It didn’t seem real — it seemed like a dream,” Weiler said.
With so much time spent in online interactions, formal introductions didn’t seem necessary, Wardle added. “It was kind of like a friend who you haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. "You’ve talked to the person for so long that you already know them.”
Madeleine’s father, a pilot, had found an available seat on a private jet flying from London to Los Angeles; arrangements were made for her to arrive in Utah in time for the event. With permission from her London doctors to make the trip, she would stay through Sunday afternoon with the Driggs family.
And so, rather than walk for them, Team Madeleine and Claire got to walk with them.
Battling jet lag and the chilly Rocky Mountain air, Madeleine managed the short benefit walk in between rainbursts before needing a nap to regain her strength. She later took an enthralling drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon, enjoyed a community play Saturday night, attended “Music and the Spoken Word” Sunday morning and toured Temple Square and the Utah Capitol, the latter courtesy of Weiler’s father, a state senator.
“I’ll be sleeping for days,” she said prior to her return home, recounting her draining, event-packed weekend. Overwhelmed by the emotion of friends, support and experiences, she tearfully said goodbye before catching another private trans-Atlantic flight back home to London. That's where she will wait — for more treatments, anticipated donors, possible transplants, hoped-for recovery and something else that has been long-awaited.
“I’d still like to be baptized,” she said, “but I’m back in the same position I’ve been in before. I’m trying to be patient. I know it will happen — just not as soon as I’d like.”
In the meantime, Larson, Wardle and Weiler will be as close as the Internet for continued support and encouragement.
“Yes,” Madeleine agreed, “Skype is the next best thing to being there in person.”
Deseret News writer Scott Taylor served as president of the Arizona Phoenix Mission from 2011-2014.