AUSTIN, Texas — A year ago, Riley Furlong captured the hearts of many when her family posted a video online urging people to become bone marrow donors.

  • Riley Furlong diagnosed with leukemia in 2016
  • Received marrow transplant in May
  • Riley has returned to class

Today, almost a year after her transplant, the 10-year-old from Austin remains high-spirited. Riley tells Spectrum News she has gotten support from her family, friends, and this past year, her school community.

RELATED STORY: Young Texan battling leukemia encourages others to join bone marrow registry

Riley's leukemia diagnosis in December 2016 has kept her away from school. Her online campaign early last year got about 1,500 people to sign up for the bone marrow registry. She found a match in March and had her transplant in May at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Riley spent most of that summer in the hospital or in the Houston area for checkups.

“You have zero immunity, so you stay very isolated,” said Riley’s mother, Alex Furlong.

Once Riley was back in Austin, the recovery after her transplant kept her home. But, in the past school year, educators at Highland Park Elementary allowed Furlong to be a part of class virtually.

“You don't realize how much you like school until you're not actually there,” Riley said.

Before spring break this year, Riley attended classes by video calls on an iPad. Her teachers had their own iPad on a stand placed in the classroom.

“I was very grateful, especially because they called on me and like, noticed me,” Riley said.

“You're by yourself and feeling that you can't be a part of your class, to have her to be able to come in and just be as much a part of our class, hopefully creates a sense of normalcy in her life. But it's also just a joy. It brings joy to everybody,” said physical education teacher Jim DeLine.

Once she received the right material from her teachers, Riley was able to do art projects in the dining room, and do physical education in her living room, too.

“What was so fantastic is that her classmates, her teammates, really owned this. If we were in small groups, we took turns making sure that she was part of that small group. If we did a large group activity, we made sure that she was positioned so that she could see the large group,” DeLine said. “We could see her on the big screen in our gym so everybody could see her, and it was just like having a big, lovely smile appear in the gymnasium.”

“I wanted to do it because I felt more involved, if I did it. Also they're great teachers, and you can never not go, because it’s so fun,” Riley said.

Other physical education teachers from across the country asked Furlong to join their classes, as well as to talk about her fight against cancer. For that work and inspiration, Riley and her teacher DeLine recently received an award from the Online Physical Education Network during a national conference of physical education teachers in Florida.

Riley’s parents said they are thankful to the educators who were willing to be adaptable and inclusive.

“It was funny to see Riley at home raising her hand. The kids would walk her around the halls,” Alex Furlong said. “Every teacher really worked hard to include her.”

Her parents also give credit to Riley. They remember how motivated she was to be ready every day for six months by 7:45 in the morning, to do her work and to still be part of class. Her parents said they have called her Smiley Riley since she was about 2 years old.  

“We probably never would have imagined that that nickname would have been as tested as it has been over the last couple of years, but you know she has been a kid who keeps her chin up and is always enthusiastic,” said father Bill Furlong. “Even in the toughest, toughest situations, she just buckled down and looks on the bright side and thinks about others.”

Since March, Riley has been back in school, talking to teachers face-to-face and working alongside friends in person. The cancer has not reappeared.

“Sometimes it hurt or sometimes I didn't feel good, but there's always something to keep me going,” Riley said.